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).