Positive Exercise for Plus-Size Women

Jun 01, 2008

Inspire the World to Fitness®

IDEA member Debra Mazda motivates clients to strengthen their bodies—and sense of self—through her ShapelyGirl Fitness classes.

Twenty-five years ago Debra Mazda, MEd, of Mazda Motivations LLC, visited a health club and experienced firsthand the feeling of not belonging. At age 21, she weighed over 300 pounds. Depressed and battling high blood pressure, she decided to reinvent her life. “I was the only seriously fat person in the gym,” she remembers. Undaunted, she sweated her way through aerobics classes and didn’t worry about whether anyone was laughing at her. By improving her eating habits and continuing to exercise, she lost 140 pounds, which she has kept off for more than 25 years.

Motivated to share her passion for fitness with others, Mazda started working for fitness guru Richard Simmons as the training supervisor at Simmons’ Anatomy Asylum health clubs in Denver. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in human movement and a master’s degree in sports psychology. Mazda is a group exercise instructor, a personal trainer and a teacher trainer.

Thinking that the fitness industry was not doing enough to cater to larger women, Mazda created ShapelyGirl Fitness [formerly known as CurvyGirl Workout] for women size 12 and over. The workout is now in five locations throughout the Philadelphia area, and Mazda hopes to train other larger women to expand the program.

Building Community

Mazda started the ShapelyGirl Fitness classes as a fun, energizing program to encourage women of all sizes to move, breathe and feel great. Above all, she strives to create a safe space for people to be who they are, at the weight they are, and to feel accepted. “Most women believe they have to lose weight before they can take a fitness class,” she says. “They often feel too intimidated to walk into a health club. They put off thinking about exercising—in fact many women I know really put their entire lives on hold—until the ‘someday’ when they reach that magical number on the scale that is supposed to let them know that it’s time to start living. I’m encouraging women to start moving—now.”

The workout component of the different classes—such as cardio, step fusion and cardio/yoga—runs about 45 minutes. Then 15–30 minutes are devoted to circle time. “This is what truly has packed the classes,” she says. “Every week we discuss a nutrition, motivation, fitness or health topic. It is a time for my girls to celebrate who they are as larger women. From circle time, I created an online community for them to stay connected all the time. This is a place where they can get support from each other and ideas on how to make positive changes.”

To further the feeling of community and provide a new challenge, Mazda put together a team to do the 10-mile Blue Cross Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. “We train 4–5 times a week,” she says. “My goal is to keep people motivated and injury-free. They are working harder than they thought they could, but I knew they could do it! They are feeling stronger and confident that they can accomplish more. Some of these women have wanted to do the run but never had the guts to do it alone. The teamwork is getting them going.”

Changing Bodies, Changing Lives

Mazda is thrilled to see the progress her students are making through her classes and, for some of them, her personal training sessions. “Not only are my classes packed with plus-size women who are getting fit and stronger, but they are always telling me how much better they feel and look,” she says. “I have seen women with low self-esteem and negative body image come in, and, within weeks of [their commitment to] the program, they are telling me and the other members how the program is changing their lives.”

Student Linnetta Simmons says that Mazda’s class has helped her stay committed to exercise and healthy eating. “I have been exercising for years and have lost and gained weight,” she says. “Debra understands this weight battle more than most trainers who ... simply do not know what it is to be obese and to struggle with weight or the self-hate that accompanies it. Her approach comes from a place of knowing, and this keeps me going, because I think that maybe I can be an encouragement to someone, as she has been to me. I am now challenging myself to walk 10 miles in a race.”

Mazda loves helping her clients. “My vision and passion take up a lot of my time, but this is not work; it is my life,” she says. “I could not imagine doing anything else. Every day I see how women are changing their lives by taking small steps to begin the journey. Every day is a chance to support the women who take my classes and send me e-mail from all over. I walked in their shoes, and I know how many miles it takes to walk the road to success. I want to see them succeed.”

What advice does she have for other fitness pros who would like to work with obese students? “The biggest issue is that you really care about them,” she says. “They need a teacher who will not judge them. They need you to make them feel like a part of the community.”

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