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.”

SIDEBAR: Inspire the World to Fitness®

IDEA’s campaign unites our members with those of other
organizations in a joint effort to reach out to nonexercisers. Our commitment
is to provide you with information and sources so you can act locally.

SIDEBAR: Tell Us What
You Are Doing

Are your clients obese, disabled or just starting to
exercise after years of sedentary living? We want to hear how you are
motivating, challenging and retaining clients on a long-term basis. In 200
words or less, detail the specifics of your program and client(s), along with
your name and contact information. If your success story is compelling and
unique, we may use it in a future issue or on the Inspire the World to Fitness® section of the website.

E-mail: [email protected]

Mail: Sandy Todd Webster

10455 Pacific Center Court

San Diego, CA 92121-4339

Fax: (858) 535-8234

April Durrett is a contributing editor of IDEA Fitness Journal.