Exercising as a Fat Person Isn’t Easy – And Not For the Reason You Think

 

Right before my 34th birthday, I made a decision that might seem mundane to most, but wasn’t for me: I signed up to my local gym. There were a few reasons for this. I was sick of having constant back pain, courtesy of my desk job and anxiety-driven muscle tension. I also noticed I’d lost physical endurance during lockdown, after too much sitting – one of modern life’s great poisons. So I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of honouring a monthly subscription, and maybe even enjoying it.

I don’t regret the decision. In fact, now I can’t imagine life without my bi-weekly sessions. They allow me to keep up my cardio, do core exercises that soothe my back and get the elusive gift of a good night’s sleep. What, you might ask, made the whole thing so difficult for me in the first place? Simple: I’m fat.

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Fat people often have a conflicted relationship with physical activity. Deep-seated memories of gym class have left us humiliated and with a conviction that our bodies are ugly and not to be seen in public. Doctors, loved ones and the media bombard us with the message that we’ll die of a heart attack in five years if we don’t lose weight now. And yet, research linking body weight to health conditions like heart disease is increasingly debated and criticised for anti-fat bias.

What we do know is that exercising is key to living a longer, healthier life for people of all sizes – independently of whether it leads to weight loss or not. But the truth is, when you try to follow this advice, you’re often faced with deeply discouraging societal messages that can end up stopping you in your tracks.

For me, the first step into my fitness journey began with overcoming a series of demeaning beliefs I’d internalised about working out as a fat person. Thoughts like, “I’m too fat to do sports” or “I’ll look stupid if I run out of breath or get sweaty”. But of course, these mental blocks weren’t born out of thin air – they’re the result of a barrage of fatphobic comments that are still really common in society.

Earlier this year, I came across a tweet by American-Canadian conservative personality Steve Crowder shaming a fat woman – who was impressively balancing on her head in the video – for drinking Gatorade during her yoga session. Apparently, the sports drink is “unhealthy” or so he said to his two million followers. Yet somehow, I’d never heard him or anyone else call out a skinny fitness influencer for consuming it.

As it happens, the woman in the picture was Jessamyn Stanley, an American yoga teacher, author and self-proclaimed “Beyoncé of yoga”. After discovering Bikram yoga in 2011, Jessamyn began practising regularly in 2013. In a 2015 interview with The Cut, she explains how she found her place in this world despite not having one of the “typical yoga bodies” (thin, white, able) and the fact that most yoga studios aren’t accessible to people outside of that norm.

And truly, your mind must be warped by fatphobia to tweet that Jessamyn Stanley is “unhealthy” when she’s skilled enough to hold herself in Sirsasana – a pose requiring enormous flexibility and muscle control. In Sirsasana, your entire body weight rests on your head and forearms, and it’s very easy to get your cervical vertebrae injured if you don’t know what you’re doing. Obviously, that tweet had nothing to do with Gatorade.

Jessamyn Stanley’s story reminds me that if I can’t maintain a half-shoulder stand pose, it’s not because my pelvis is too heavy and impossible to hold up, it’s because I need to keep exercising regularly. Our shared body type and weight aren’t obstacles to strengthening muscles and balance. My abs may be hiding, but they really are there!

But far too many people still can’t fathom you can be both fat and athletic. And those people really need to stop giving us their unsolicited opinions on our lifestyle (supposed or real) and stop publicly humiliating us as if we were still in school.

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Trainer Ève – a friend of mine who’s asked to use an alias to speak more freely, like others in this piece – has learned to always ask people in her classes why they signed up for a gym membership. “You can’t just assume it’s to lose weight,” she says.

When I visited her gym, I noticed it has no mirrors, an increasingly popular setup that can put customers who are unhappy with their bodies, or their athletic abilities, more at ease. Obviously, I didn’t ask everyone there about their thoughts on it, but the fact that I saw a variety of ages and body types there led me to think it’s probably appreciated.

Not being Tthe only fat person in the room always makes me feel better, and so does not being the oldest – but that’s a different story. I did have to modify a few yoga or barre poses to fit my belly and be able to breathe correctly. But everything was more or less accessible to me, from the gym’s entryway turnstiles to the showers.

When I was a pool regular, I felt a little bit more comfortable, probably because the atmosphere was less intimate overall. Once in the water, my body felt as light as a thin person’s. By contrast, when I signed up for the gym, I worried I’d be unwelcome, that I’d run into trainers telling me to lose my nasty extra weight, that other club members would give me bad looks. Luckily, none of that ever happened.

Looking at my body, I know that I’m on the smaller side of the plus-size spectrum. I wear a size 48 (UK 20), sometimes a bit bigger depending on the brand, particularly in sports brands – ironic, right? I know where to buy what I need without having to search too long or pay too much extra. But that’s not true for everyone.

“No activewear fits my size 64-66 [UK 36-38],” says Marion, an Instagram acquaintance who often shares her workout routines as a very fat person. “My outfits cost a lot thanks to the plus-size surcharge, or wear out very quickly because they’re not made for sports, and honestly, they were never really well-made or comfortable either.”

The plus-size surcharge is the practice of charging up to 30 percent more for plus-size lines. Clothing brands justify these extra cost as additional material expenses and the need to pattern garments differently to fit curvy bodies. Some brands were even found to charge only female customers more, keeping the price of male plus size clothing the same. Critics say these production costs are minimal and can be easily absorbed.

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The lack of inclusive and fairly-priced sizes in mainstream brands is certainly an accountability issue that’s slowly being addressed by some big names in the industry. But even when brands want to take a step in the right direction, our culture is so fatphobic it’s impossible to stay out of controversy.

Back in 2019, when Nike introduced a line of plus-size mannequins in its London flagship store, Telegraph journalist Tanya Gold wrote an opinion piece filled with contempt for the fat women the clothes were designed for. But how could you possibly start exercising without the appropriate clothing – as if the mere servicing of a customer base in need of your product represents a moral failing?

Marion says movement is “an integral part” of her life balance. But fronting the extra money and time it takes to get comfortable workout clothes presents a real challenge for her – especially since she lives on a low income. That’s not uncommon, either: Multiple studies have shown fat people earn less and have a harder time finding work than thin people, and that women are even more affected.

These days, Marion regularly practises yoga and swims. She enjoys walking outdoors, dancing and she’s part of a French governmental programme called “health basketball”, a modified version of the sport with no jumping or contact, with different levels of difficulties based on individual mobility. The programme can be prescribed by GPs to treat chronic conditions, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

“Knowing I’ll enjoy the activity is a huge motivator for me to do it regularly,” Marion says. That’s true for everyone, of course – you need to be consistent to obtain the health benefits of exercise, and staying motivated is always the hardest part. But for fat people, countless obstacles can make that motivation even more elusive.

For instance, there aren’t many clubs suitable for fat people. “I’m lucky I found a great health basketball club, but I have to go 80 km each week to get there,” Marion says. Even at that gym, though, she’s run into a host of issues when she tried exercising on her own.

“Honestly, the list is just too long,” Marion continues. “Bodybuilding machines can’t fit my belly and my legs; my arms bump against the treadmill railings; the turnstiles at the entry hurt me; the pool ladders are too narrow and not supportive of my weight. I can’t always sit down to put my shoes on or take them off; the changing rooms are too cramped; there are some walking paths I can’t take; I still haven’t found an affordable bike that can support my weight; and no sports salesperson has ever known how to advise me.”

Fighting for inclusivity in sports is the main motivator for Paris-based yoga instructor Alice Clerc. Since 2021, she’s been teaching at Yogras (a pun mixing “yoga” and the French word for fat), an online yoga class launched by fat-rights NGO, Gras Politique (Political Fat). “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I began training, and something I specifically studied for later on,” she says.

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Clerc remembers a discussion she had with one of her former teachers about the importance of adapting yoga classes to fat bodies. Her teacher said she had modified her courses in the past, using prenatal yoga as a base. “The problem is, being fat is very different from being pregnant!” Clerc says. “When you’re pregnant, you’re worried about putting weight on your belly, whereas a larger person just wants to work out in a more accessible way.”

Clerc generally prepares about 20 classes per week, adapting her flows to all kinds of mobility requirements. “For Yogras, I think about all options – for example, people who can’t support themselves on their wrists, or at least can’t stay on them for too long,” she says.

“I always ask at the beginning of a class if anyone has limitations, and I’ve gotten in the habit of figuring out modifications,” she continues. “It’s about establishing a safe space to do yoga – you have to remind yourself that the class can be hard for some people, but in no way does that equal failure.” In other words, her approach is the polar opposite of the degrading gym classes of our childhoods.

Clerc says she’s frustrated at the pace of change in the yoga world, but she’s inspired by the work of fellow teachers and yoga schools, too. It all comes down to centring the pleasure of the practice, rather than focusing on weight goals or bending over backwards to fit into a class that’s not right for your body. Here’s to hoping that this approach to yoga – or exercise in general – will soon become mainstream.

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