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“FitZonePLUS exists because many people of ALL shapes, sizes & abilities find typical yoga & fitness studios intimidating & non inclusive.”
The Vancouver Sun, Super-Sized Fitness, by Erin Ellis
- appeared in the Vancouver Sun, February, 2013 

Exercise classes for large people are designed to help clients feel safe, at ease 

Lisa Papez of Body Positivity Yoga performs a peaceful warrior yoga movement. From yoga stretches to military-style workouts, exercise programs aimed strictly at overweight clients are edging their way into the fitness sector.

Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, Vancouver Sun

From yoga stretches to military-style workouts, exercise programs aimed strictly at overweight clients are edging their way into the fitness sector.
Louise Green's Body Exchange was an early entry onto the field in 2008 when there was nothing quite like it in Canada and just a few programs scattered throughout the U.S.

That's changing, with studios like FitZonePLUS in Toronto which says it only hires Personal Trainers who have struggled with their weight, and more centres like it south of the border.

"The number of people who are getting bigger is rising all the time," says Green, adding that her clients have been anywhere from 20 to 200 pounds overweight.

"Being overweight is a very complex issue and that sometimes takes a long time to combat and we want women to be comfortable while they do that."

Green started off leading boot camps with interval training in North Vancouver, Burnaby and Vancouver, steadily building a client base. After an unsuccessful pitch during the 2011 season of CBC TV's Dragon's Den, she found a business partner and is now marketing her system to fitness instructors throughout B.C., Alberta and Ontario. She's sold her original three locations and three new ones, in Langley, Surrey and Maple Ridge.

A typical session includes a warm-up, a fitness circuit of bicep and tri-cep curls, quickstep ladder drills, stair step-ups, lunges and the like, followed by stomach exercises, all conducted in parks or community centres rather than a dedicated studio. Two sessions a week cost between $135 and $165 per month, depending on how many months the client signs up for.

She calls it a "health and lifestyle program" for women that includes information on topics such as emotional eating. Its instructors don't assume that everyone who shows up is driven by weight loss although that's the goal of about 80 per cent of clients. They might also be motivated to improve their mobility, lower their blood pressure or just feel better about themselves.

Self-acceptance is a pivotal aim of Body Exchange since typical gyms and exercise classes make most jiggly people ill at ease or embarrassed, says Green.
"It's like you still have the fear of the playground, still being the largest, the slowest, the biggest.
"If you want to be a smaller person, we'll help you get there. But don't hide on the couch in the meantime."

Lisa Papez of Coquitlam couldn't agree more. She's a yoga instructor for large people under the banner of Body Positivity Yoga which she launched last year. She teaches private classes now and hopes to offer regular group classes. "There's a great need for it. When I was looking for a yoga studio to practice in, I found that they market to a very specific look. … Most people of size don't think that yoga is something they can consider doing." But no matter what your size or shape, there will be health benefits from moving, stretching and breathing deeply, whether it's being able to climb stairs more easily or gaining strength, she says. And yes, she's well aware of the critics who slam plus-size exercise classes and gyms for accepting obesity as a fact rather than mounting a full attack on it as a health risk. The reality is extreme tactics like crash diets have been proven ineffective in the long term so there's no point in making that the basis of a program. "People of size punish themselves all the time. If you take the focus off something that's doomed to fail from the start, that's a healthy choice."

Tammy Humeny is a registered clinical counsellor based in Metro Vancouver who specializes in clients who use food to cope with life. Changing the relationship they have with their bodies is a primary goal, she says. Once someone stops hating her own body, she's more likely to give herself good, nurturing food, rather than sugar, grease and fast food. "My work with people is really about having them love and accept themselves and having a different relationship with food … to find out what foods feel good for their body and what foods energize their body and typically those are foods that are healthy." As for separate workout programs for overweight people, it can't hurt, she says. "It's hard enough to lose weight and when you face ridicule and judgment, it makes it even harder to enter some of these places … It feels like you're on display and that's the last thing you want to be thinking about is 'What will people think of me?' or 'How does my body look?'

For North Shore Body Exchange regular Shelly Freitag, now a new mother, the classes offer a good workout and she doesn't have to obsess about how her clothes fit. "I don't feel intimidated here and I got that feeling in other classes. "Once I get down to my goal weight, I'm not going anywhere. They're stuck with me."

So what does happen to clients who slim down? Are they quietly shown the door? Green has taken a bit of heat in the past for saying that thin people need not apply because that would make Body Exchange just like every other fitness program. But North Shore Body Exchange owner Caroline Liggett says while plus-sized women are her target market, she's not going to turn anyone away if it suits their needs. 
"I'm not going to kick them out."


"Just do your best," a phrase delivered with a frightened smile, is often what an obese* person can expect to hear at a regular exercise class. But instructors specializing in plus-size groups say they adjust their programs so clients get the most benefit possible without causing injury. Someone carrying 100 or more extra pounds will have trouble getting up and down from the floor or getting a full range of motion. Exercises for them could be modified to start in a seated position. Joints also take a beating from carrying too much weight so variations on each exercise are usually suggested for beginner, moderate and advanced levels.

Heavyweight yoga practitioners are shown ways to make poses work for them by spreading their legs in a forward fold, for instance, so that a big stomach doesn't stop them from bending. Or not being afraid to move excess flesh out of the way to get a deeper twist. 

*Obesity is defined as having a body mass index, or BMI, over 30. By that standard, a person who is 5-foot 8-inches (173 cm) and weighs more than 200 pounds (90 kg) is obese.


Louise Green is organizing a one-day symposium in Vancouver on March 2 to "empower, educate and inspire" the plus-size community. For more information go to platformforplussize.com

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 Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG Staff , Vancouver Sun

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