Fitness programs put positive spin on being plus-size

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Jennifer Dobie has always been active in sports and says she’s never lacked self-confidence. But when she wanted to boost her physical activity about a year ago, the notion of going to the gym was something that made the Burnaby resident apprehensive. Being plus-size, she worried that she’d be judged in a sea of spandex and spin machines.

“I’m a pretty easygoing person,” Dobie says in a phone interview. “But I was worried about acceptance. My fear was having somebody superfit say, ‘Really? You’re having problems doing this?’ Plus, going by myself to the gym just doesn’t work. Nobody’s waiting for me at the gym, so nobody knows if I don’t show up.”

Despite not feeling particularly well suited to the typical gym setting, the avid soccer player still wanted to get in better shape. So when Dobie learned about Body Exchange, a local fitness company that caters exclusively to plus-size women, she was eager to try one of its boot-camp classes.

“Within the first week, I was thinking, ‘Why didn’t I do this sooner?’ ” Dobie recalls. “It’s still a boot camp, so you’re still working your butt off. But I walked in and could relate to everyone. You don’t feel so alone. It was the best, most positive decision I ever made.”

North Vancouver resident Louise Green started Body Exchange in 2008. A “proud plus-size athlete” who has completed several half-marathons and other running races, she knows all too well the kind of anxiety Brodie was describing when it comes to larger women wanting to access fitness programs.

“I had gone to many boot camps and different fitness programs as a participant, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m pretty fit, and I am always the last one,’ ” Green recalls in an interview over tea in North Vancouver. “I remember thinking, ‘What are people doing who are really large? Where are they going? What services are available to them?’ I looked around and there was nothing that was exclusive to them and their particular needs, which I struggled with myself. I know there are issues around food and issues around esteem—being the slowest and the biggest.

“There are programs out there that say, ‘We include all fitness levels,’ but if you’ve been to boot camps, you know it’s not for all fitness levels,” she adds. “I don’t think the fitness industry understands what ‘I’ve been lying on my couch for 10 years and I’m 250 pounds’ means to women, not only physically but also psychologically and emotionally.”

Body Exchange, which has seven locations in Metro Vancouver and which Green hopes to take across Canada, offers early evening boot-camp classes that at first glance look like any other workout: a warm-up, cardiovascular training and muscle-strengthening, then stretching. There’s also a nutritional program, help with goal-setting, fitness-testing, and lifestyle tips. Plus, there are adventures like snowshoeing and hiking. But what really distinguishes it from others, Green says, is a sense of belonging.

“Participants get community,” Green says. “They get understood and they feel safe. That’s what it comes down to. It’s about not being judged. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how secure people feel, they don’t want to be judged. [In standard programs] there’s always a fear around, ‘I’m going to be the last or the biggest’—a fear of failure. One of our mantras is ‘fearless fitness’. That’s what it’s about.”

At a time when obesity rates are climbing, Green says she’s still amazed that there aren’t more fitness programs geared specifically to people struggling with their weight.

“There’s seniors’ fitness, women’s fitness, teens’ fitness; this is no different,” she says. “Sure, they can go to a rec centre or they can go to any program, but often you’ll find people there who are already fit,” she says. “Seeing really fit people talk about fitness is intimidating. It’s the language: ‘Okay, guys, bikini season’s coming!’ That’s what you hear at other programs.”

Then there’s the fact that people who are large are rarely represented in ads or TV shows in a positive light.

“You don’t see overweight people exercising in the media,” Green says. “When you look at advertising [for fitness clubs], none of it is dedicated to welcoming you to come here or saying there’s a representation of you. If you go to stock photography, you’ll find some big, fat woman with a doughnut hanging over a treadmill: that’s what they have for plus-size fitness. It’s a mockery. We need to see more and have more positive images. Size, as they say, is the last form of oppression and discrimination. It’s acceptable still to make fun of fat people and make jokes.”

To overcome all that negativity, Green is producing an upcoming daylong symposium called Platform for Plus-Size. The keynote speaker is Jennifer Livingston, the news anchor from La Crosse, Wisconsin, whose response to a viewer’s critical comment about her size went viral. Other guests include Ali Zentner, an obesity specialist and author of The Weight-Loss Prescription: A Doctor’s Plan for Permanent Weight Reduction and Better Health for Life, and Christina Bianchini, a member of the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association who will address emotional eating. The forum is aimed at helping overweight people make lasting health changes.

“There’s very little out there addressing the full picture,” Green says. “If you’re not looking at your emotional being and that’s an issue for you, then no diet plan is going to work. If you’re not looking after your physical being, no diet is going to work. This is designed to speak directly to our audience about the challenges they face…by addressing the full picture of fitness, nutrition, the emotional, the psychological, and so on.

“When people find something that works, there can be some serious transformations,” she adds. “We’ve seen people change not just their physical appearance but the way they feel—they’re stronger and more confident. They become a whole different person.”

Platform for Plus-Size takes place March 2 at the Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street).

Comments (9) Add New Comment
Monica
What I don't understand is that you are being trained by someone who doesn't have the answers. Louise obviously can lose and gain weight but she has not conquered losing the weight and keeping it off. Therefore, mentally she isn't there. It's not about how many bootcamps or marathons you can do, it's about tackling the mental issues so that you don't overeat in the first place.
This is coming from someone who not only is a trainer but a former plus sized individual. I played the rollercoaster game up and down with the weight until about 4 years ago. To hell if I was going to settle and just be overweight and surround myself with my workout chubby buddies. When you lose some weight and more, you feel resentment from those who are still on the rollercoaster. So I stopped training with them.
I see Louise not as inspirational, but as someone who has given up. You are in control of your mind. No one else.
How has she conquered mental and psychological issues? The full picture herself? It is not healthy to gain and lose weight repeatedly or stay overweight. Period.
I don't allow myself to gain anything over 5 pounds, it weighs 50 on my psyche. It's not worth the self loathing and shame.....
When I see Louise lose the weight for good and keep it off, I will send clients her way. Until then, I see it as every other gimmick out there.
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CM
This sounds like a personal attack, Monica. Do you know Louise? Consider her your competition? Have you not heard of "fit fatties"? I hate to use that term but there are people out there who are very fit but who are still big and nothing will change that. At least Louise seems a lot more positive than you appear to be.
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Mel
It's funny to hear these words come from a trainer who is suppose to inspire others. Because you are thin does not me you are fixed and because your carry weight does not mean you are broken! Maybe what motivates some people is to be around others who don't make them feel like crap. BTW, I do not have an issue with weight now but I have in the past and if this program was around when I need motivation, I would have been the first in line. I would never train with a trainer who saw me as a failure because of my weight.
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Sarah
"I don't allow myself to gain anything over 5 pounds, it weighs 50 on my psyche. It's not worth the self loathing and shame..."

Wow - that line in itself tells me that it is Monica that needs to tackle the mental issues. Self-loathing and shame over 5 pounds???

Being fit does not mean being skinny. Those two words do not equate. There are lots of healthy plus-size individuals and a lot of unhealthy size 4 women. And there are MANY reasons a woman may have a few extra pounds from hormones to metabolism to bone structure.

Shame on you Monica for basically stating that all plus-size women overeat and kudos to Louise and others like her for encouraging all women - no matter their size - to get out and be active.
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Caroline
I am saddened by Monica’s response to this article. As the new owner of the Body Exchange North Shore, I have worked and trained alongside Louise. She is a woman who is empathetic, caring, motivating, inspirational and intelligent. In my eyes, she IS a success because she is continually working on her ‘journey’, which is what change is all about. Love, acceptance and encouragement are strong motivators for change. Achieving change moving in a direction you wish to be is being a success. I firmly believe it does not mean arriving at an ideal size or weight that is dictated by society.

Our hope at the Body Exchange is that our clients feel encouraged while they achieve their personal best – just for today! We can address our issues surrounding weight or fitness only when we feel safe and secure, not when we are bombarded with negative, shameful comments or images that make us feel like we will never measure up.

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Jodene #1 Fan!!
Awesome article and I am always inspired when I see women creating a business that empowers and inspires other women and creates a community of support. Cheers to Louise for creating a space for plus-size women that really represents how we feel, how we look and how we inspire at any size.

On the downside I am disturbed by comments made by Monica. I am disturbed you are a trainer that is blinded by the notion that plus sized people are failures and our only goal is to become skinny or perhaps to become you, how grand you must be. I don't sit around all day thinking how I have failed and how feel any sense of shame or self loathing. I am too damn busy living a life must would envy!!! Body Exchange has given me a sense of confidence that no other fitness program has done before. I am out there running (although this seemed to unimpressive to you, superwoman), boxing, snowshoeing and living a fuller, amazing life where I am a role model.
If 5lbs give you such shame then I am convinced you have not overcome your demons and perhaps that would explain your brutal analysis of Louise, someone you have never met.

The fact that you have been overweight previously does not give you a free "fat card" to believe you are somehow superior to those that carry extra weight, nor does being a trainer. I am the fittest I have ever been and my goal is and never will be to become skinny, but I would never look at someone who is thin as the enemy. I don't walk around on the "rollercoaster" as you call it and am happy the way I am. I am healthy, active and feel good enough about myself, I really don't need to attack others for their body type because they don't look like me.

You could learn a lot from Louise and the community she has created, we are supportive and cheer loud when each one of us accomplishes a goal, we believe women can be sucessful, inspiring and role models at any size! I can't wait to see goals Louise sets her mind to next!!
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Mrs. G
I have never heard of such a wonderful, uplifting and positive gym. It would be so inspiring to have one in Nanaimo. Good work Louise, and Monica.....I was taught if you don't have anything nice to say ~ don't say anything at all...... Therefore I have no response to your comment.
Anyone is who is any kind of a proper human being KNOWS it's what's on the inside that counts!!!
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Camden
I wholeheartedly agree with Monica. I have been a trainer for 34 years and have seen it all but what Louise is advocating is simply to stay overweight! How can she honestly lead these women and inspire them to tackle emotional and psychological issues when clearly she cant do it herself. Anyone can run a marathon with proper training and I think its great that she has made those physical accomplishments...but she actually make a comment that other programs focus on "bikini season" is absurd!! Didnt she talk about feeling good in your own skinin this article? Women dont come to you to lose weight and get fit! They come to you because they know that you will ultimately inspire them to stay fat. And furthermore, there is not one medical study in existence that says any excess fat on your body is healthy. You can run a million marathons but the bottom line is being fat..even an excess of 15 pounds of visceral fat is unhealthy. I would like to see some before and after pictures of some of thewomen who have drastically changed their bodies on your program. Do they exist?
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Janie
Five years ago I weighed 220, then over several months I became fit and a healthy weight/bodyfat; I'm 4 years at goal. I did this at a 'normal' gym. I question the 'overweight only' aspect because of why the participants go there - because they think that fit people at regular gyms are looking/thinking in a derogatory manner at them. I'm not saying it never happens, but in my experience that's not usually true - it's projection. When I was overweight I used to look at the super fit girl in spin class and think she thought I shouldn't be there. Now I'm one of those fit girls, and neither I nor any of the others in class would dream of thinking that -including that hardcore girl I was afraid of, she's actually really nice.
I lost weight in large part because I stopped thinking I was a bad/ugly/weak person. And when I stopped thinking that, I stopped thinking others thought that. To me, the sign that these women are truly mentally ready to lose weight and get healthy will be when they leave the group where everyone looks just like them, and enter a regular gym mostly unafraid, because they realize they are just as worthy to be in there as everyone else, that there is nothing bad about them. Just like all overweight people aren't lazy and weak, all fit people aren't judgmental bullies trying to make overweight people feel bad. Most people in the gym are just concentrating on working out themselves, in my experience.
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