Gym owners, wake up! You’re all fighting for a piece of the same market — slim, fit people. It’s time to embrace the nearly 70 percent of people in the United States who are overweight or obese. They want to exercise, too — just not for the reasons you may think.
For this article, we spoke with Louise Green, founder of the Big Fit Girl campaign. Green is a personal trainer, spokesperson, and author who has created an online community supporting, encouraging, and training individuals in larger bodies.From a founding bootcamp for plus-sized women to creating a weight-neutral fitness movement that includes an ACE certification for Size Inclusivity Fitness and the Big Fit Girl Fitness App, Green has flown past the adage of “less calories, more exercise,” to promoting a philosophy of movement for mental and physical health, not weight loss.
How are gym owners shutting out the very people who need them the most?
Larger people feel excluded way before they open your door. Photos and slogans equating thinness with fitness fill our marketing material, social media posts, and advertising campaigns. The gym industry naturally equates fitness with being lean and our marketing reflects that bias.
“But when you are in a larger body and the whole ethos is not to look like you… there’s a feeling I don’t really belong here in this sized body,” she explains. Once a big person does gather the courage to walk into a gym, staffers automatically assume they want to lose weight, which is often not a primary goal.
Why it is wrong to assume all large people want to lose weight?
Because it’s a bit insulting and not our business. “Most people who are heavier have tried weight loss and dieting,” she explains. The long-term success rate for weight loss is only 5 percent. “It’s not a model that works. So to send someone back into that model of failure is not in their best interest,” she says. Unfortunately dieting for weight loss is so embedded in the industry most trainers never ask heavier individuals their fitness goals, often automatically proposing a plan targeting weight loss.
“We don’t know why they are in a larger body,” she explains. It could be genetics, metabolic, psychological, or a combination. However, as fitness professionals, she believes, we should stick with what we know: exercise, not weight loss. By assuming all larger people want to fit into the industry expectations of a leaner, smaller body, they are setting clients up for failure and possibly overstepping their scope of practice. Green contends weight loss for heavier people is sometimes complicated by existing medical issues and often requires dietary guidance. Most personal trainers or gym staff member don’t have the tools to safely address either issue.
Why do larger people want to exercise in a gym?
For the same reasons standard-sized people do: a better quality of life, increased mental health, a stronger body. Answering those “whys” helps larger people stick exercise routine. “We all know moving our bodies at any level is healthier. Let’s move towards the best, most sustainable outcomes,” she says.
How gyms can successfully invite larger people into their centers
1. Diversify marketing material and social media to include larger people of all ages, races, sizes.
Welcome everyone before they step into your gym with marketing material that includes people who look like them.
2. Train staff in size inclusivity.
Teach staff to use weight-neutral language to understand members’ goals from a health perspective. Don’t assume gym members are new to fitness, are unhealthy, or that their goal is weight loss.
3. Ensure staff knows how to train people in larger bodies.
Provide education on creating workouts for individuals carrying excess weight, including exercise modifications, equipment weight limits, and the physiological differences in cardio and muscular response. This one step may also reduce your liability risk.
4. Conduct a gym audit.
Is your gym ready for someone who weighs 300 pounds? Offer chairs without arms, space machines correctly, invest in equipment that serves higher-weight individuals. Green’s ACE certification includes a checklist for gyms preparing to train heavier people.
Why bringing gym culture into line with what larger people need is important.
Green spent her early career as a talent agent for voice and television. She lived in a world where thin was never thin enough. It was not until she hired a running coach, who happened to have a larger body, that she ever experienced fitness from a purely athletic perspective. There was no talk of weight loss; just goals, speed, appropriate foods, and hard work. “She treated me like an athlete. That changed everything for me.” Today Green exercises every day, for her psychological health and for physical strength. By creating the Big Fit Girl program — and, hopefully, changing industry mindsets — she looks forward to a future where heavy people can enjoy all the benefits of exercise, from better health outcomes to increased happiness, without the stigma of watching numbers. It’s there. We just need to open the door.
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