'You're so brave': What it's like to hit the gym as a plus-size person — and what's made my workouts more about joy and less about weight

Plus-size gym-goers face a lot of scrutiny amid a toxic fitness culture. But exercise can still be joyful. (Getty Images)
Plus-size gym-goers face a lot of disapproval amid a toxic fitness culture. But exercise can still be joyful. (Getty Images)

"You're such an inspiration." "I used to be your size too." "You're so brave."

If these statements sound familiar, you've probably been to the gym while in a larger body and had strangers give unsolicited commentary on your presence there. And it's not just coming from your fellow gym-goers; fitness instructors and trainers can be just as toxic, assuming you have a weight goal or that you hate your body.

The vast majority of gyms aren't made with plus-size people in mind; just look at all of the exercise machines with weight limits. And if people in larger bodies are in mind, the general assumption is that they must be at the gym to browbeat their bodies into submission and make themselves smaller. But what if that mindset changed?

Contrary to many corporate gym chains' business models, there are plenty of reasons to move your body that have nothing to do with changing your appearance. Building strength and endurance, improved mental health and sleep and a reduced risk of disease are just a few reasons people of all body types might choose to hit the gym. And when you shift your focus away from punishing your body for what it can't do and toward celebrating what it can, movement can become joyful — even for people who previously hated going to the gym. I should know — I'm one of them.

As someone who's been on a body liberation journey for years, I'm used to taking toxic fitness culture with a grain of salt. I've done the standard health assessments that come with new gym memberships, set up to encourage people to pay for a personal trainer to help them lose weight. I've done my best to tune out class instructors shouting about "burning it off" after a weekend of indulgence. Going into these experiences with a solid body-positive outlook is helpful and necessary, but finding classes and movement spaces celebrating all bodies is nothing short of life-changing.

In my hometown of Raleigh, N.C., the size-inclusive studio classes at Current Wellness are the gold standard of joyful movement. Thanks to instructors and personal trainers who align their guidance with the Health at Every Size movement, people of all body types leave the studio feeling empowered, not discouraged. And where mainstream fitness classes might suggest "modifications" for those who can't do the suggested workout at full force, Current offers a variety of options, none of which hold a moral value. It's a world of difference between steeling yourself for unsolicited gym commentary and being excited to show up at a place where your weight is simply a neutral attribute.

When I attended group fitness classes at weight-loss-focused gym chains, including Equinox and Life Time Fitness, I mentally crossed my fingers that I wouldn't be the biggest person in the room. (Nine times out of 10, I was.) Of course, I now realize this was internalized fatphobia, and that I was engaging in performative health behaviors to be seen as a "good fatty." But I was also tired of being singled out by instructors and fellow attendees who assumed I wouldn't be able to keep up or that it was my first time doing a certain type of workout. (Point this out, though, and the gym culture defenders will tell you that the instructor was "just trying to be helpful," and the other folks — to whom my fitness journey was none of their business — were "just trying to be nice.")

At weight-neutral fitness classes, though, I'm never tempted to compare my size to that of other participants, because it's simply not a factor. Each participant receives the same level of individualized attention and encouragement. Asking for a different option for a specific movement isn't a failure; it's a norm. Most of all, being in a smaller body isn't indicative of someone's fitness level, nor is it an achievement or a marker of success.

Columnist Meghan De Maria
Columnist Meghan De Maria describes which workouts work best for her as a plus-size woman. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: courtesy of Meghan De Maria)

And this pivot toward size-inclusive fitness spaces is expanding. More and more studios are working to accommodate their clients in larger bodies without pushing a weight-loss agenda. From removing calorie counts from machines' default displays to offering extended clothing sizes, small changes that prioritize larger-bodied members' comfort can go a long way.

Working out alongside people who look like me has changed my fitness mindset for the better. I've found a particular joy in strength training, first with a personal trainer who taught me how to use a squat rack for the first time and later with group classes. There's a common misconception that low-impact workouts are also low-intensity, or that size-inclusive classes aren't physically challenging. But you don't have to be miserable or adopt a "no pain, no gain" attitude to get stronger. And you can have a heart-pumping studio workout without doing a single burpee.

Shifting your goals from intentional weight loss to health-promoting behaviors can be healthier — and more sustainable — in the long run. Your body carries you through each day, and it's the only one you have. Why not resolve to treat it with kindness and move in a way that celebrates all it can do?

Meghan De Maria is a journalist and body liberation advocate whose work has appeared in Glamour and Cosmopolitan, among others. When she's not writing, she leads the Plus Raleigh group in North Carolina's Triangle area, connecting plus-size people for support and community.