Do talk about the body’s function, strength and flexibility.
Don’t focus on the body’s appearance.
Do choose action-oriented goals in class. Applaud effort, attendance and improvements. Especially appreciate participants when they customize moves to meet their individual needs.
Don’t make it a goal to “get lean” or “look muscular.”
Do use positive, realistic words when speaking about bodies of all sizes, particularly large ones: “substantial legs,” “large belly,” “softness.” Use body weight as a fitness tool, not a liability.
Don’t ignore the existence of large people or parts of their bodies.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 64% of Americans are considered overweight or obese. Do your classes reflect this? If not, you’re missing an opportunity to help. Depending on your attitude, language and choreography, you will either include or exclude plus-size people. If you want to reach out, you must understand what they need to feel comfortable. With some awareness and information, you can have bigger classes!
Many people harbor a prejudice against obese people and don’t even realize it. Some fitness professionals subtly convey this unfairness when they teach, thinking it will motivate participants. If you think you can tell a person’s fitness level by his body size, then you are prejudging him. In fact, if a person is exercising regularly and eating a nutritious diet, then she is as fit as she can be at any given size. You have no way of knowing her lifestyle habits by looking at her.
Take Kate as an example. She was a chubby baby, a chunky kid and a plus-size teen. She lost and gained weight repeatedly, becoming larger each time, until at age 50 she was larger than ever. Several months ago, Kate found out she had high cholesterol and blood pressure and decided to focus on wellness and lifestyle changes. She ate healthfully and exercised daily. After 6 months of hard work, her efforts were paying off. Even though she had lost only 2 pounds, her cholesterol and blood pressure had returned to normal. “Thank goodness I was doing this for my health,” Kate said. “If I had been doing this to lose weight, I would have shot myself in the head!”
Next, Kate decided to add a group fitness class to her workout routine. At 5´4˝ and 280 pounds, she was the fattest person in class. No one knew from looking at her that she was highly active and a flaming success at restoring her health. As the instructor taught class, she commented that an exercise “will help you lose weight.” She said that another move “will help prevent those wiggly underarms.” By the end of the hour, Kate felt like a failure. She was the heaviest person there and had terminally wiggly underarms. She felt like the worst nightmare of everyone in the room. She never returned.
If you make body size or shape the goal of your class, you will alienate people. Size-negative talk holds plus-size participants up as examples of “the problem” and makes them feel like pariahs. The best thing you can do for your class is to reduce (and gradually eliminate) body loathing in your own life. Motivate your classes and yourself by appreciating and commenting on the human body’s functions and abilities (independent of size or shape).
Your attitudes about fatness and fitness didn’t develop in a vacuum. Our culture makes it easy to cultivate a disdain for obesity. The media, the medical profession and, yes, the fitness industry promote body loathing as a motivation for healthy living. It’s as if the world were saying, “If you get disgusted enough with yourself, then you will change.” Unfortunately, this leads only to a downward spiral of negative feelings and poor self-esteem.
Denise has always been a lean woman. If you looked at her, you would never know that she is very sensitive about the size and shape of her abdominal area. Two years ago she had abdominal surgery that caused a round lump of scar tissue, giving her a “belly” where a flat abdomen used to be. She knew that this was her new natural shape and she was lucky to be alive. She still hated it. She was beginning to hate her body in general.
During class, Denise’s instructor cued participants to do crunches “to flatten the belly.” Since Denise knew she would never have a “flat belly,” she felt like a failure. The instructor damaged her body image by implying that all bellies should be flat.
Resist the urge to say things like, “This will help flatten your belly.” Instead, say, “This exercise will strengthen your wonderful abdominal wall. It doesn’t matter how much or how little softness is over your muscles. You have a wall of muscles in your abdomen. Now, let’s work them!” Everyone can be successful with this positive, all-inclusive language.
Go beyond avoiding negative comments. Actively accept and appreciate diverse body types. Comment that participants with “more substantial legs” are doing more weight training as they lift their legs. Those with lighter legs might have to lift a bit higher to get the same resistance. When you acknowledge that there are different body types in your class, you make everyone feel welcome.
When stretching, show ways to position the legs, and demonstrate how participants can make room for their bellies. By explaining this information in a matter-of-fact way, you reinforce the fact that people with large bellies have a right to be in your class. This is not what people expect. Your language clearly shows that people of different sizes and shapes are welcome. This is an amazing experience for both large and small exercisers alike. Acknowledging human variety builds an atmosphere of respect that encourages each person to work at her own personal best, whatever her size.
Choreography and Unique Considerations
Imagine holding a cantaloupe out in front of you with both hands. Now imagine swinging that cantaloupe far to the right and left. You could swing at a pretty fast pace with this light weight and it would not put too much strain on your joints. Nor would it be too difficult to change direction with this little cantaloupe.
Now imagine holding a watermelon out in front of you. Visualize swinging that from side to side! You would have to move a bit more slowly to keep control. It would take much more strength, and you’d feel extra pull on your joints and muscles. You would have to be very careful when you changed direction. Remember this concept when you choreograph, select music for and cue a class that includes plus-size participants.
Large bodies do not move in the same way small bodies do. The moment of inertia is different, and so is momentum. It requires more strength to get a large body moving and takes more time to change direction. Large participants need slower music to protect joints and keep control as they shift from side to side. I recommend selections with a beat of 120–30 beats per minute. At this pace, both small and large bodies have time for fuller extensions and safer moves.
Watch and learn from plus-size fitness videos and DVDs. Incorporate their ideas into your own workouts. Talk to plus-size fitness professionals in your area; attend their classes and get more information. You can also learn a lot from the plus-size participants in your own classes by talking openly with them. Ask them how they feel and what they need. They will tell you.
You can make a difference by being open and respecting people of all sizes. Speak well of the human body’s beauty and strength. Choose music and moves that are safe for both large and small sizes. Remember that judging a person’s fitness level by her appearance is like judging how hard someone works by the balance in her checkbook. In both cases, the number at the bottom line is not a measurement of the person.
Bliss, K. 2002. Don’t Weight: Eat Healthy and Get Moving Now! West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing.
Lyons, P., & Burgard, D. 2000. Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.