A Health Club Specifically for Plus Size Women: Good Idea/Bad Idea?

I’ll freely admit I would be super interested in a fitness environment that didn’t treat me like a freaking disease.

Jun 22, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

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Yay, running! (Image via the Body Exchange)

Women-only health clubs have been around for a long time, their purpose to provide a space away from the grunting intimidation factor a surplus of dudes can sometimes contribute to a gym environment, not to mention the fact that some women dislike having their workout interrupted by some broguy trying to get their number.

So it’s hardly a surprise that someone has thought to create a gym specifically for plus-size women; indeed, it’s kind of bizarre that it hasn’t happened more often. Vancouver’s Body Exchange is a “fit camp and adventure company” established by Louise Green in 2008. 

Our Mission is to remove limited thinking and living due to weight by using fitness and adventure as the vehicle to better living. We are a new approach to health and wellness one that is contrary to the sometimes extreme measures and disappointments of the weight loss industry.

I’ll admit, when I first heard about this I was dubious. I thought it was all well and good to assume that sticking a bunch of plus-size ladies together would cut down on judgement and body negativity, but honestly, the size of the woman does not dictate her ability to be kind or sensitive. Plus-size women are often no better at keeping their judge-y observsations to themselves, and it’s absurd to assume that a shared girth is enough to make women automatically be supportive of one another.

That said, a specifically plus-size health club makes a lot of sense from a practical standpoint: Bigger people sometimes need to do certain exercises and activities in certain ways. Yoga in particular needs large-body adjustments, as a giant rack or a ponderous ass can influence one’s ability to do some poses in the traditional form. There’s nothing wrong with needing to adapt one’s workout routine, but often in the usual gym space, there’s not a whole lot of understanding on this (hence, I suppose, the recent rash of personal trainers getting fat to see what it’s like).

So I was on the fence about it, until I started reading more. And now I’m pretty convinced. Body Exchange seems committed to fostering a supportive community that allows everyone to go at their own pace without feeling badly about themselves, and that enables participants to set their own goals without judgement.

“Many of our clients have not had successful fitness pasts so I can see the anxiety before we get started and I can see the relief and happiness after we finish,” Green says.

“People are often too fearful to become active. There wasn’t a model that offered camaraderie.

“I used to walk into fitness classes where nobody would even say ‘Hi.’ This has got to be fun or it’s not going to work.”

Green also explicitly stresses overall fitness over weight loss, and although the club does offer nutritional counseling, it’s not a space where shedding pounds is the primary goal.

I’ve been a member of many health clubs in my life, and while there were indeed differences between them, certain aspects of the social climate always stayed the same. For one, there is an overwhelming assumption that my primary goal in being there is to lose weight, and not to be fit and strong at whatever size my body happens to be. MULTIPLE TIMES I’ve had strangers ask how much weight I’ve lost “so far” -- so much presumption there -- to which I would cheerfully respond, “Zero pounds!” Because it was true. Although I always feel awesome and mighty when I’m working out on a regular basis, I never seem to lose weight by it. Which is fine, as that’s not a goal I’m after anyway.

Worse yet were the well-meaning patronizers, who would see me determinedly cranking away on the elliptical and bark helpful encouragements like, “KEEP IT UP!” or “GOOD FOR YOU!” Like I’m a toddler using the potty for the first time. Please. Get the fuck out of my space.

It’s tough to focus on improving your fitness and overall well-being when your gym companions keep vocally reminding you of how horribly out of shape they think you are. I would never offer uninvited commentary on someone else’s fitness or workout routine, and yet frequently I would have strangers instruct me that I needed to adjust the machine to encourage fat burning when my intention was specifically to improve my cardiovascular fitness. Of course, they never asked.

In every health club I’ve ever attended, by the time a year or so has passed, these little comments and interventions have resulted in my canceling my membership. Then time goes by, I miss the gym, and I find a new place to go. And the cycle begins anew. 

Thus, I’ll freely admit I would be super interested in a health club that didn’t treat me like a freaking disease. It sounds heavenly.

The chief criticism of Body Exchange’s size-specific model, and of course there is criticism, is that the business is discriminatory against non-plus-sized people.  

I find this to be a specious argument, and not one that really has any merit -- if Body Exchange is a space designed to meet the different needs (both physical and social) of fatter bodies, why would smaller people, who don’t require such adjustments, feel slighted by it? Are yoga classes designed to meet the needs of elderly people discriminating against the young? Are advanced Zumba classes discriminating against Zumba beginners? 

This strikes me as rather like complaining that wheelchair users get to use a ramp when able-bodied people have to climb stairs. We’re talking about a reasonable accomodation to get people with physical disabilities into the building; it’s not a special treat the able-bodied are being cruelly denied. 

Tony Leyland, a senior lecturer in Simon Fraser University’s department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology, is adamant that people not downplay the social value of creating safe places for mothballed bodies to get moving. That safety must be physiological as much as psychological, he says.

He adds the caution that “fitness programs have to address getting a decent amount of volume in without hurting joints because of body weight.”

As for weight loss, Leyland says some bodies are naturally resistant to being lean. Even slightly pudgy people can be terrific athletes, he says.

“Fitness trumps a lot of things,” he says. “The evidence is clear that people are really going to benefit from getting fit whether they lose weight or not.”

I suspect it’s easy to kneejerkily complain about discrimination when you’ve never been made to feel completely unsupported and freakish in a standard health club environment, or when you’ve never had to explain to a trainer that you literally cannot perform an action as demonstrated only to have that trainer encourage you to “push yourself” harder. And frankly, given the amount of motivation it takes for many plus-size women to commit to a public workout routine in the first place, if a size-exclusive environment gets more people into healthful and enjoyable activity, and feeling strong and good about themselves, I believe that’s a positive outcome worth any minor annoyance on the part of those who might feel slighted by it. 

Hey, if Body Exchange had an outpost in Boston, I’d join in a second. And maybe I’d actually keep that membership longer than a year, for once.