By AMANDA VOGEL, M.A.
Think back to the last few fitness classes or boot camps you’ve taught. While you might have noticed a variety of body shapes and sizes in the group, how many of your “regulars” would you classify as being overweight or obese?
If this population tends to come sporadically and go quickly in your traditional fitness classes or boot camps (or not show up at all), it might be time to re-strategize your approach with participants who are overweight or obese—a group that is in desperate need of carefully planned guidance from qualified and sensitive fitness professionals.
On the other hand, if you currently teach a class geared to this population—and therefore consider all or most of your “regulars” to be overweight—you are ahead of the curve in terms of your ability to reach out to and motivate a group that typically shies away from the fitness industry.
No matter which type of class you teach, this article is for you. Here, you’ll find tips and advice on how you can join ACE in its goal to eliminate the obesity epidemic in the U.S. in the next 25 years.
And if you’ve never been overweight or obese yourself, you might not be aware of important challenges that overweight and obese clients face. The proper handling of these challenges in the group fitness setting can greatly increase exercise enjoyment and success.
Classes Geared to Overweight and Obese Participants—Pros and Cons
While it seems reasonable to assume that fitness consumers who are overweight or obese might feel most comfortable in, and motivated by, a class geared specifically to a plus-size population, that’s not always the case.
Creating a specialty class for plus-size participants has its pros and cons.
On the pro side, there is an element of safety—both physical and emotional. “Most overweight people worry about not doing the exercises correctly, not being able to finish the class, whether anyone is watching them, if they’ll get hurt, and whether they’ll be able to stay motivated,” says Debra Mazda, CEO of ShapelyGirl Fitness, a company in Philadelphia that specializes in plus-size fitness. “Classes that address these needs are crucial for keeping them motivated and inspired to come back.”
Since many participants who are overweight or obese feel self-conscious about how their bodies look and move—at any time, but especially during exercise—offering classes that take attention away from a body-conscious approach might be most welcoming. For example, consider how traditional classes with names like Buns & Guns or Total-Body Blast might appear unapproachable to an overweight participant who is just getting used to physical activity, perhaps for the first time.
“Participants may feel more confident in really believing the class will be geared toward their needs if it is named and taught accordingly for the larger body,” says Rochelle Rice, M.A., a New York–based speaker, educator and author of Real Fitness for Real Women.
And instilling a sense of confidence can be a powerful first step toward adherence. “Classes specifically geared to this population can help participants find a successful starting point for fitness,” says Jonathan Ross, an ACE and IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, ACE Fitness Symposium speaker and owner of Aion Fitness in Bowie, Md. “By starting right, the experience can be a positive one (or at least less negative than they may be used to or expect), and this leads directly to more regular participation, consistent progress and continuation on a regular pattern of exercise.”
On the con side, however, there could be a stigma attached to classes designed just for exercisers who are overweight—even if the class is meant as a gateway program to other types of classes and a more active lifestyle. “Some people don't want to put themselves in the ‘overweight’ demographic and, even more so, in the ‘obese’ demographic,” says Louise Green, a personal trainer and boot-camp instructor who specializes in programming for plus-size clients. She is the owner of The Body Exchange Health and Fitness in North Vancouver, B.C. “For many people, being overweight can be shameful, and rather than empowering themselves by showing up and doing something about it, associating themselves with a specialty class for overweight individuals may be embarrassing.”
Adds Green, “And as with many health issues, there can be an element of denial that the problem [of being obese] is as bad as it is.”
Ross agrees that denial may be a major deterrent. “The frequent denial of obesity may make people who are firmly in that category shy away from classes that are geared directly to them because they don’t ‘see’ themselves as obese. Many people want to identify themselves with a vision of fitness that is closer to their ideal than where they are now,” says Ross, a leading fitness expert in the area of obesity and weight loss.
So while a class that specializes in exercise for overweight and obese clients may encourage some people to attend, it may cause others to take a step back. And that is the Catch-22, says Rice, creator of the Size Sensitivity Training Program who has been working with the plus-size population for 16 years. She has heard multiple reasons why overweight women are reluctant to come to a class for plus-size participants, including one that reinforces Ross’s point above: “They’re concerned that there may not be enough motivation without skinny women in the class,” Rice says.
Group Fitness Formats—What Works, What Doesn’t
If you are currently unable to offer a specialty class for overweight or obese participants—or you feel you can serve this population best in your traditional classes or boot camps—your next step is to design programming that is both welcoming and accessible.
But can all classes reasonably accommodate people with a diverse mix of body sizes? Probably not, says Mazda. “Most classes are geared to average- and small-sized clientele,” she points out. And even if a class or program is advertised as being appropriate for a variety of levels and abilities, it doesn’t always live up to that promise.
“There are some pretty intense programs out there that are marketed as ‘all-inclusive,’ yet they start off with a 15-minute run,” says Green. “Severely overweight and out-of-shape clients simply can’t keep up and they leave feeling hopelessly defeated. We need to realize and empathize that some people have literally sat on the couch for decades, so even walking can be extremely fatiguing.”
One solution is to think outside the box of traditional group fitness formatting. “Find ways to structure the workout so that everyone in class can take a break if they need to without making it obvious to everyone,” says Ross. “And realize that the level of fatigue experienced by your obese participants will be higher and come on sooner than you may have ever experienced yourself, so don’t be too pushy with intensity.”
Another consideration is class format. Ones that tend to work well for overweight and obese participants include circuits, aquatic fitness, walking programs, low-impact workouts, stability ball workouts, indoor cycling and small-group training.
Formats to stay away from: high-impact classes, fast-paced choreography and programs that promise quick-fix weight loss.
“Most overweight people get unmotivated really quickly if they do not see the results they want to achieve,” says Mazda, who points to quick-fix diet and fitness programs for encouraging these expectations. “Many overweight people view exercise mostly as a weight-loss program rather than a tool for achieving better health.” Instructors can educate participants about the many benefits of activity while also striking a balance between exercises that motivate plus-size participants with safe weight loss and exercises that foster healthy, functional living. For example, look at “what muscles need to be lengthened or strengthened to bring the body into alignment as best as possible,” says Rice.
In-class Strategies for Teaching to Participants Who Are Overweight or Obese
When it comes to teaching a class with a mix of body sizes, use your common sense and skills as an instructor to make all class members feel welcome. As always, avoid singling out participants who might be embarrassed by the attention, plan lots of progressions and offer plenty of exercise options.
Basically, says Ross, “treat overweight and obese participants just like everyone else while making sure you have options in your programming that speak to all ability levels no matter how low or high.”
Beyond that, consider why and how some exercises might not be suitable for larger participants. “There are simply some exercises that don't work for obese individuals,” says Green. She offers examples to watch out for: “It’s difficult to do exercises on the stomach, such as back extensions. Lunging can be difficult on the knee joints, so I start my clients off squatting. Abdominal exercises can be hard for some as the shape of the client’s body can get in the way.”
In fact, some participants might feel uncomfortable doing any and all supine or prone exercises on the floor. “Sometimes it can take a minute or two just to get someone standing after doing a floor exercise,” says Green. This might feel embarrassing to a participant in a group setting, especially if the other class members are already moving onto the next exercise or waiting for everyone to stand up.
“I even had a client say to me that she felt like she was drowning in herself when she lay on her back, something I had not thought of before that moment,” says Green.
Green continues: “I think it’s difficult for some trainers to understand the difficulties of being obese, and understandably so, as many trainers have not been overweight themselves.” She suggests that instructors experiment with what being overweight feels like—do lunges with heavy dumbbells or climb stairs while wearing a fully loaded backpack. Then consider that new participants might not require any additional load when performing some resistance exercises. “These individuals are already loaded to the max,” says Green.
“One thing most people don’t realize,” explains Ross, “is that many obese people have more strength than endurance. They have to carry around a lot of body mass, but perhaps aren’t used to doing it for a great length of time. This misunderstanding often leads to fitness instructors focusing too much on working endurance with an obese participant. Instead, try shifting the emphasis a little to the strength side to use more of what they already have.” This can help the participant feel more successful.
Finally, in cardio classes, analyze how seemingly simple movements, average music speeds and basic choreography may present a challenge. For example, Rice encourages slim instructors to be aware that larger legs don’t cross well during grapevines or seated spinal twists, and large breasts may get in the way or feel painful during certain exercises.
Welcoming and Appropriate Cueing and Language
In addition to exercise selection and progression, your cueing and language can have a bearing on how appropriate and welcoming your class appears to others. “Avoid talking about how many calories you’re burning or how much weight you can or will lose,” says Mazda. Focus instead on how the health benefits of fitness make you look and feel better.
And don’t forget who your audience is, says Green, citing how she once heard a trainer talking about “bikini season coming” to a class of women who were obese and over 40 years old. “These ladies just want to be healthy and live longer,” says Green. “The thought of a bikini is as far away as Mars to them.”
Also avoid offering exercise modifications in a way that negatively emphasizes a person’s limitations. Says Green: “Use language such as, ‘If you want to challenge yourself today, step it up this way,’ instead of, ‘If you can't do this exercise, then try this.’"
Additionally, Rice offers these communication strategies for working with plus-size participants:
- Talk about “healing” the body versus “combating obesity.”
- Use the word “movement” instead of “exercise.” “Movement is more invitational and creates possibilities,” explains Rice.
- Instead of saying, “as you lose weight,” use the phrase “as your body changes.”
Join ACE in Reaching out to the Plus-size Population
Whether you join ACE in reaching out to the plus-size population through traditional group fitness or with classes geared specifically for participants who are overweight and obese, you’ll be contributing to a much-needed and important initiative in the health and fitness industries, and beyond. There is also the positive impact it can have on your own personal and professional pursuits. “Working with overweight and obese clients has been the most rewarding experience in my career,” says Green.
Amanda Vogel, MA, holds a master’s degree in human kinetics and is a certified fitness pro in Vancouver, B.C. In addition to being the co-author of Baby Boot Camp: The New Mom’s 9-Minute Fitness Solution (Sterling, 2010), Amanda owns Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. Her articles have appeared in Prevention, Shape, Health and SELF. You can reach her at www.ActiveVoice.ca, http://FitnessWriter.blogspot.com or www.twitter.com/amandavogel.