Plus-size fitness classes offer long-term health benefits, say experts

Obese or overweight people are finding increasing options for fitness classes catering to their needs, and experts say the specialty classes may encourage them to stay fit and healthy in the longterm.

Helping people identify as exercisers and athletes likely to keep them at the gym

Louise Green (far right) offers specialty classes for plus-size people. (Louise Green)

Obese or overweight people are finding increasing options for fitness classes catering to their needs, and experts say the specialty classes may encourage them to stay fit and healthy in the longterm.

Vancouver's Marta Musa was looking to take up yoga to vary her exercise regime when she came across a class specifically designed for large bodies at an east-side studio.

"I just wanted to find a venue that was going to be comfortable to start the practice in," she said. "I wanted an instructor who would be able to recommend adjustments for my body."

Marta Musa recently signed up for a full-bodied yoga class in Vancouver. (Marta Musa)

She'd tried yoga before, but says as the only plus-size woman in the class, she found it difficult to ask for adjustments.

"As a woman with a larger body and larger breasts, I'm more likely to suffocate than anything," she said, laughing.

When she tried the full-bodied yoga class at Ocean and Crow Yoga, she say she was inspired by what she saw the other participants could accomplish.

"It kind of gave you the ability to look around and say, 'OK, it's not because someone is petite that they can do this thing,'" she said. "You're capable of it no matter what body you're in."

Challenging stereotypes

Specialty classes for large-bodied people have been slowly but gradually popping up across the country.

In Toronto, Fitzone Plus offers a "non-judgmental, supportive" environment for people of "all ages, shapes and sizes."

And Calgary is the latest location of The Body Exchange, a fitness studio that advertises itself as "Canada's only fitness and adventure company exclusive to a plus-size clientele."

The company is run by Louise Green, a plus-size athlete and author of Limitless: body love and athleticism at plus size, soon to be published by Greystone Books.

Louise Green is an athlete, author and fitness trainer based in Vancouver. (Louise Green)

Green says she was inspired to create her business because of her own journey into fitness as a full-bodied woman. As she trained as a runner and triathlete, she noticed a dearth of athletic inspiration for people her size.

"There's no commercials; there's no fitness magazines; there's no advertising that shows plus-size women being active," she said. "When you cannot see yourself represented anywhere in society you feel excluded."

That's why Green says she's very careful about the language she uses with her clients.

"Plus-size people are accustomed to hearing words such as epidemic, crisis, lazy, unhealthy ... associated with their body types," she said. "I shift it into athletes, limitless, healthy, active."

Green says she's been amazed at what her clients have been able to accomplish when they're in a supportive environment that focuses on their potential and ability.

Long-term benefits

That shift in language and perception may be the ticket to keeping people of all sizes exercising in the long-term, says Mary Jung, an assistant professor at UBC Okanagan's Health and Exercise Psychology Lab.

Jung says that although weight loss and vanity may be what drives many people to the gym in the first place, that's not what will keep them there.

UBC assistant professor Jonathan Little says he tells his clients to look at their blood sugar levels instead of the scale as a motivating factor to keep on exercising. (UBC)

"What keeps people continuing to exercise is feeling confident and owning their identity as an exerciser," she said.

The shift is especially important given that most people won't see results in terms of weight loss simply from exercising, she says.

Jonathan Little, also an assistant professor at the UBC lab, agrees.

He says scientific consensus in the health field has established exercise on its own is not an effective weight-loss strategy, especially when high-calorie foods abound — although, he says, there's stronger evidence that exercise can help maintain body weight.  

Instead, what he tells his clients, many of whom have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, is to look at their blood sugar levels instead of the scale as a motivating factor.

"Every bout of exercise you do, for about the next 24 to 48 hours, your metabolism has improved," he says.

"If it's a motivating strategy to say, 'Hey, don't worry about the weight-loss aspect, you're going to gain benefits from exercise regardless,' then certainly I would support that."