A new study out of Arizona State University indicates that, to quote the researchers: 'fat can be fit'.
What's more, the authors argue that when it comes to mitigating the health harms of obesity, focusing on fitness - as opposed to weight loss - is the smarter, more sustainable strategy.
Here, one writer explores the science of being super fit while in a bigger body - and shares how it can feel
Sunday mornings – coffee brewing and radio playing in the background – I plan the week ahead. This usually involves shuffling coloured blocks around on my calendar app until the next seven days look like something I’m happy with.
Of all of the comings and goings in my diary, there are a few entries that are unmovable: workouts. I made the decision long ago to plan my work and social life around exercise, rather than the other way around. If this makes me sound like a fitness junkie, that’s exactly what I am. In an average [pre-COVID 19] week, I’ll go to at least three cardio and strength classes (spin, kickboxing, HIIT); one yoga session (always yin); do one run (distance dependent on current training demands); and, hopefully, one swim. I also cycle as my main mode of transport in London, where I live.
I lead a very active lifestyle; I love moving my body regularly and equally love the noticeable benefits this brings in terms of my strength, my fitness and my peace of mind. And yet, if social media, gym adverts, the capital’s average group exercise class and messages from general popular culture are to be believed, I don’t exist. Yes, I work out – but I’m also a size 16 to 18. I’m defined as ‘fat’ by most, no matter how fast I can run or how heavy I can lift.
Growing up, I was always heavier than my peers and I only really saw people who looked like me in gym marketing that was centred around punishment; messaging that taught me exercise was penance for having a socially unacceptable body. At school, I considered sport a hobby that people did if they had a particular knack or really loved it, rather than exercise that came with myriad benefits. I chose other hobbies – ones that didn’t involve running around in short shorts or require a muscular physique. The result was a feeling that fitness just wasn’t a world in which I belonged; it wasn’t designed for people like me.
Happily, that changed five years ago when, at the age of 27, I caught the fitness bug. Yes, I’ll admit, I first embraced exercise with a desire to change the shape and size of my body; to make it more acceptable, more likely to be validated by others. I’d always enjoyed swimming and began going twice a week. To start with, I felt self- conscious in my swimming costume, but that gradually passed. I started a Couch to 5k plan, too, as the idea of building up my fitness by exercising alone – without the judgemental looks of others – was appealing.
Like anything, it was tough at the start, but I soon noticed a huge difference in my mood before and after a run — I was suffering badly with the symptoms of undiagnosed OCD at the time, and exercise granted me a short reprieve from the mental torment. Once I’d built up enough confidence, I started cycling 20km every day to and from work, which meant I was exercising more consistently than I ever had before.
Since learning to love exercise, my weight has fluctuated, boomeranging across a range of four clothing sizes. Other things have changed, too – my work, relationships, where I live – but my workout routine has been the constant. Though sometimes I’ll do more and sometimes I’ll do less, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a week without some form of high-cardio activity – unless I’ve been injured. Sometimes, it’s been more of a struggle, usually when I’ve stepped away from exercising alone and into a group setting, be that at a gym, a studio or space that should be engineered to guide, motivate and empower.
Particularly when I’ve been on the heavier side, I’ve had trainers underestimate me, misunderstand my goals and fat-shame me in front of a whole class, telling me I need to work harder if I’m going to lose weight. I’ve been handed lighter weights and given less ambitious targets than slimmer women standing next to me and been offered wide-eyed high fives from trainers who’ve been surprised to see me accelerate on a treadmill just as quickly as anyone wearing size eight leggings might.
In the beginning, of course, this hurt and there were times when I wanted to walk straight back out, but, as my confidence and fitness improved, I started to use it as fuel to push myself harder; to prove everyone wrong. My self-esteem is robust enough that I can use this fuel to keep pushing myself forward without resenting other women.
Even now, I’m not immune to feeling anxious when I enter a new fitness space for the first time; I can become hyper-aware of my body and how much room it takes up. It’s as if I need to do a bit of extra work to build up to feeling confident working out in an environment that’s not created with me in mind. On a bad day, this self-consciousness can slip into anxiety. I’ve noticed a tendency to push myself harder when training alongside thinner people to prove that I’m as fit as – or fitter than – them. It’s hard to say whether I’m projecting my own body insecurities, or whether it’s a response to judgemental looks in classes or changing rooms; in all honesty, it’s probably a combination of the two.
Sadly, I’m not alone in feeling this. Suzy Cox is a 41-year-old from London who works in sales. ‘I’m a size 16 to 18 and, a year ago, I’d never been to a spin class – the thought of any form of organised group exercise made me shudder. I was worried that I’d feel out of place and wasn’t fit enough,’ she tells me. ‘I nearly didn’t go into the first class because I was terrified of all the people in leggings and crop tops, but I’m glad I did – now I spin three times a week. I love the way that, whatever’s going on in my life, it clears my head and makes me feel like I can take on anything.’
The feeling that organised fitness is off the table because you don’t fit in could result in scores of women missing out on exercise – and achieving fitness goals – well within their grasp. ‘Gyms in general can be such intimidating body-focused spaces, full of mirrors and people taking sweaty selfies,’ says Hannah Lewin, a PT and spin coach in London. ‘This can be really stressful for people starting out. It’s likely to hold you back in terms of your workout and make you less likely to perform as well – limiting the mind-body benefits for the exerciser. All in all, not a good starting place.’
Nike stuck its neck out last summer when it featured plus-sized female mannequins in its London store, but it faced a backlash. It suggests to me that both inclusivity and society’s understanding of an individual’s health and wellbeing beyond aesthetics have a long way to go. For me, seeing those mannequins was the first time I’d ever really felt represented in the world of fitness, despite spending so much time in it. It reiterated the need to make women like me feel welcome in workout spaces more effectively than any previous efforts to do so.
Representation is key; is there anyone above a size 10 manning the front desk? Across marketing material? Teaching the classes? I’ve only seen this once – at fitness studio Flykick in North London, where the focus in all the marketing material is on strength, and the coaching team is size diverse, which made me feel part of a community: welcome, comfortable and celebrated.
It matters in the fit kit boutiques housed in gyms and studios. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve rifled through rails of leggings, ready to drop cash on a shiny new pair, only to discover they stop at size 14. If your size isn’t catered for, the underlying message is that you don’t belong, or at least won’t belong until you slim down. It’s the same with the physical set-up in some classes.
As I’m sure is the case for many women, floor-to-ceiling mirrors mean I’ve become distracted mid-workout by my own reflection, self- conscious about my body while sweating buckets sprinting on a treadmill. But what the average gym-goer might not have reflected on is the layout of an everyday spin class. Because bikes are crammed so close to each other that people can barely move between them, I’ve been left apologising (cringing on hearing myself ) while trying to squeeze through. The takeaway? This place isn’t made for me. There are few ways to kick off a workout that are more disempowering.
And that’s a pretty poor outcome. Fitness should be fun, not some punishing chore, whatever your size. And surely it’s especially important that working out is fun for people for whom weight management is a struggle, and those who haven’t yet found their ‘thing’ with fitness and developed a sustainable routine.
Dr Josh Wolrich – an NHS surgeon who campaigns to end weight stigma –explains, the benefits of exercise, whatever your size, are broad.
‘Regular exercise can have a positive impact on weight distribution, which can carry great benefits in terms of your metabolic health, thereby lowering your risk of developing lifestyle diseases such as type 2 diabetes,’ he says. ‘Weight-bearing exercise can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis, and cardio workouts can improve your heart health.’
And, despite decades of association between thinness and wellness, the two aren't always correlated. 'A person who’s considered thin may be unhealthy,' Dr Wolrich adds - 'depending on their exposure to other risk factors, such as alcohol intake, lack of exercise or poor diet.'
And, yes, while obesity can lead to poor health outcomes – especially if an obese individual isn’t regularly exercising – the assumption that bodies larger than society’s ideal are automatically seriously unhealthy is outdated and misleading.
A new review of studies from the University of Arizona hammers home this point. The authors analysed recent research to gauge how effectively intentional weight loss reduced the mortality risk of people living with obesity, compared to focusing on physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness.
Their findings? That increasing fitness and physical activity was associated with reduced harms from obesity - more consistently than when people with the condition focused on weight loss.
'We would like people to know that fat can be fit, and that fit and healthy bodies come in all shapes and sizes,' says Professor Glenn Gaesser, from the university's College of Health Solutions.
Their analysis underlined that when it comes to helping those with obesity, it's better to emphasise fitness and activity; they also encourage health professionals to big up the benefits of physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness, even in the absence of weight loss.
While a growing number of scientists and clinicians are catching up to the idea that you can be both fat and fit, mainstream society stubbornly puts out the message that they’re mutually exclusive. This prevents those who could benefit the most from discovering the positive benefits of exercise on their health from doing so.
Falling in love with fitness can help those who feel ‘othered’ by society to develop a habit that’s a robust, get-back-what-you-put-in source of self-esteem. Few other things make me as happy, and I want everyone to be able to get in on the action.
[Editor's note: this feature was written pre-COVID 19]
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