Still to this day, I have a folder under my bed filled with Seventeen and Cosmopolitan workout tear-outs. These workouts felt like a bible to me growing up (as did the entire magazine—I was from a small town that thought eyeshadow only came in brown and the most fashionable thing you could wear is a floral dress from Hollister circa 2011). Everything I knew about fitness came from there, and I’d sit in my room every day and contemplate which workout I’d do. But I never lost weight, I never got lean Carrie Underwood legs, and I definitely never got the abs I was promised.
I’ve been plus-size for years (and before that I was at the tail end of straight-size), but I’ve also always been at least somewhat active. No, I didn’t play three sports in high school, and I never stepped foot in a gym until I was in college, but I’ve never been totally “out of shape.” I move my body to an extent, and I pretty much get 10,000 steps in every day. But there are many exercises I can’t do, and I’ve blamed my body and my seemingly innate lack of physical fitness forever, which led me to stress over workouts so much that I basically stopped doing them.
I’ve been plus-size for years (and before that I was at the tail end of straight-size), but I’ve also always been at least somewhat active.
It wasn’t until I was watching a YouTube video recently in which a plus-size woman described that she had a hard time doing planks because her wrists weren’t strong enough to hold up how heavy her weight was that everything began to click. Being plus-size doesn’t make me inherently unfit—it just means that my body physically isn’t equipped to do the same exercises as someone half my size. Just because my body is heavier doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; it just means I might have to do exercises differently. And there’s nothing wrong with finding a better way to exercise my body; in actuality, it’s particularly fit of me, if I do say so myself.
I’d never heard anyone in my plus-size circles talking about this, so I assumed this was either common-knowledge that had never dawned on me or I was the only one who experienced it. Turns out, it was neither; it’s just rarely talked about. Tulin Emre, who goes by Coach Tulin on her blog and Instagram, is the founder of Fit Has No Size, a movement dedicated to showing plus-size women the power of fitness and modifications. She’s been a powerhouse in the plus-size community for influencing change in the culture of fitness. She explained that because there’s such a “shame” around our body types, we think that our goal is to be able to do the exercise just like the fitness instructor or the person in the how-to video. However, “fitness is always about creating challenges,” so shouldn’t we look at modifications as “skill acquisition”?
Just because my body is heavier doesn’t mean that it’s wrong; it just means I might have to do exercises differently.
“Fitness doesn’t reach this level of pinnacle success, and it’s easy cruising; you’re always growing and building, but it’s foundational,” Coach Tulin said. Basically, it’s not that you learn how to do a five-minute plank and you’re good to go. Instead, you’re constantly pushing and changing workouts to better suit your fitness goals. Once I learned this, my entire relationship with working out changed, and I stopped thinking of the workout itself as a goal but rather the tool to reach my own fitness goals (not body goals!). Here’s what I’ve learned:
Modification is a skill
Being plus-size simply means my body is bigger, so sometimes certain movements don’t work because my stomach or larger thighs get in the way. This doesn’t mean that I’m a complete failure at fitness, it just means that I have to modify the movement to work for me. This seemed like a cop-out at first, but I’ve grown to understand this just means that I’m taking my fitness into my own hands (literally). Julie Newbry, NASM Certified CPT, CES, FNS, explained that just because the fitness industry caters to smaller bodies doesn’t mean that having to modify an exercise for your own is wrong. “So many programs are designed for people in smaller bodies and don’t take into account that plus-size participants may find the size of their stomach, legs, or other body part doesn’t allow them to do a specific move,” Newbry said. “This can leave people in larger bodies feeling like they don’t belong or there is something wrong with their body. The truth is there is nothing wrong with their body; the exercise is wrong for their body, and we work together to find a modification or an alternate move that works for them.”
Coach Tulin also explained similar sentiments, stating that it’s OK to feel physically fit and healthy but still have to do modifications for an exercise. Doing a modification doesn’t make the exercise inherently easier if it means that you can perform it with the correct form. “I don’t suck because I modify, I’m actually building skills, and there’s intention behind this,” Coach Tulin said. Newbry agreed. “See modifying a move or doing an alternative move as a way of standing up for yourself,” Newbry said. “You are honoring your body and what it needs, and that is something to be proud of.”
She also explained the importance of looking at a modification as a variation of the exercise, such as all the different types of squats. “There’s a purpose to every degree … People think if they don’t have a deep squat, they aren’t squatting well enough, but a “deep squat” has a different purpose than a “90-degree squat” or a “box squat” when you use a chair,” Coach Tulin said. Can’t go very low to the ground? There’s still power in that movement. Just because you’re changing the movement doesn’t make it “easier”; it makes it a better fit for your body.
Just because you’re changing the movement doesn’t make it “easier”; it makes it a better fit for your body.
Work toward fitness goals rather than “body” goals
As expressed previously, I never got those gosh darn Carrie Underwood legs I was promised in the Back-to-School edition of Seventeen. For as long as I can remember, I’ve approached exercise with a goal for my body. I want leaner legs, a rounder butt, muscular arms a la Michelle Obama, a tiny waist. Regardless of where I was in my journey, I was always working out to make my body look better. Exercise Physiologist Kathleen Terracina, EP-C, encouraged taking weight and body size out of the equation when it comes to adopting a fitness routine. “Set goals that have nothing to do with body size and go after them (run a 5K, bench press XX pounds, dance through a whole playlist, touch your toes, hold a plank for X time, walk up X flights of stairs to work),” Terracina said. “Remember the benefits of movement that hold true even if your body size never changes: stress reduction, improvement in: BP, cholesterol, cardiovascular fitness, sleep, flexibility/mobility, strength, reduction in falls risk—the list goes on. There are so many other exciting, more beneficial things to focus on with exercise instead of body size.”
Instead of paying attention to how my body was changing through exercise, I began measuring my fitness through attainable goals (namely, do one pull-up .. I’m keeping it ultra-attainable).
Watch how other people work out
“A lot of us who are plus-size, we can’t see the muscle move [when we’re working out]. We don’t have a visual,” Coach Tulin said. The weight on my body makes it so that I can’t see how my triceps work when I’m doing tricep dips or the way my inner thighs flex during abductions, which sometimes leads to me doing the form of an exercise incorrectly or not understanding the best way to modify something for myself. Coach Tulin recommended looking at other bodies to see how the muscles move; then, we can communicate to our minds what our bodies should do.
In the same vein, I’ve found it extremely important to watch other plus-size women work out. It’s a reminder that all bodies can be fit and strong, but it especially helps me to see more ways I can modify or change a movement to work the best for me. Terracina had the same idea, explaining that representation can be a powerful tool to learning how to approach fitness for all body types. “Though your local gym may be behind the times and only have instructors and trainers with smaller bodies, the Internet can be a great place to find people who look like you moving their bodies.” I’ve started following @bethyred, @diannebondyyogaofficial, @iamtulin, @bodypositivefitness_, @paradisefitnesswithcarly, and more for inspiration and guidance in my own workout journey.
Stop comparing yourself
This is much easier said than done, of course, but it’s crucial in the age of Apple Watch “X calories burned” screenshots clogging your social media feeds (y’all, can we please with that?). I’ve noticed that as a plus-size person, it doesn’t take much for a workout to be “hard” for me; my body is pretty heavy, so I have to exert a lot of force to do what a smaller body might find extremely easy, like a long walk. Walking five miles in the morning for me is exerting a similar amount of force as someone much smaller doing a HIIT workout for 30 minutes. Although yours “looks” harder, physically, we’re both getting in a hard workout.
Once I stopped comparing what everyone else was doing and started approaching fitness by what works for me, it was like a lightbulb went off. It’s OK that I don’t like hour-long intense cardio classes, but I also won’t put myself down for doing a workout I love (hello hip hop dance) that might seem “easy” to someone else. Every body is different, and Terracina said the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we’re fed that thinness is the ideal often clouds that. “If every person ate exactly the same foods and did exactly the same workouts, their bodies would still be different,” Terracina said. “For some, movement and nourishment yield a body that is considered plus size. For others, movement and nourishment yield a body that is considered thin (and a spectrum in between).” Everyone has different fitness goals, likes, and complications, and it’s none of my business to be concerned about what anyone else is doing.
Once I stopped comparing what everyone else was doing and started approaching fitness by what works for me, it was like a lightbulb went off.
It’s not your fault that equipment doesn’t work for you
Working out at home has been a great reminder that exercise can truly be as simple as your body. But this doesn’t mean the fitness industry is off the hook, as many products, equipment, and tools are made without plus-size people in mind. From seats on spin bikes being too small to flimsy discs that break in half when you step down on it (this has actually happened to me), this can make accessing this equipment difficult and uncomfortable for those with bigger bodies. Not to mention, we already see a lack of plus-size trainers and associates in gyms. Terracina explained this all goes back to the lie that fitness is about getting smaller and the focus on a thin body as the ideal, but the burden shouldn’t fall on you. “This is on the fitness industry to catch up and have equipment that suits everybody and employ leaders with a range of body diversity.”
Instead of worrying about how the equipment might not fit you or your body, put it on the leaders of the industry by demanding that they cater to you too. Perhaps this is more about my activism than how I work out, but I know I’ll feel more confident the next time I step into a gym knowing that if the spin bike doesn’t suit me, it’s not my fault.
I’ve adopted Health at Every Size (HAES)
Once I found the HAES movement, my life changed. I was sick of going to every doctor’s appointment and being told that every ailment, pain, or issue I was experiencing was because of my weight. It’s frustrating to be asked, “Have you tried losing weight?” after telling a doctor any and all symptoms. Once, I told a doctor I was having an allergic reaction, and they had the audacity to suggest it was because of my weight. (Fun fact: it was cats, not my large thighs, but whatever.) HAES is the idea that you can be fit and healthy even as an overweight person and that health is more holistic than a number on a scale. It’s a philosophy now practiced by many physicians, trainers, and more, including Newbry and Terracina.
“I don’t weigh my clients or take their measurements,” Newbry said. “I’ve seen so much shame accompany those tactics, and I want women to know the power of their body and experience all the benefits of exercise without having to focus on weight changes that may or may not happen.”
I want women to know the power of their body and experience all the benefits of exercise without having to focus on weight changes that may or may not happen.
Let go of shame
Experiencing pain or soreness during or after a workout? You’re not alone, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Painful joints or heavy breathing are a natural part of exercise and can happen to anyone at any fitness level. “Remember all size bodies experience health issues such as knee pain, joint pain, and injuries, so let go of any shame you might be carrying around if you are dealing with those issues,” Newbry said. If you need to rest or take a break, do it. Your right to exercise is not contingent upon the way your body responds; remember that.
Newbry also added that if past exercise trauma is valid and to consider reaching out to a loved one or therapist to discuss this as you begin your exercise journey. “If you’ve had deeply shaming experiences in your past with exercise, please have compassion for yourself and reach out for help if needed … Just know that you belong and have the right to move your body however you feel drawn to.”