One of the great challenges for the fitness industry—and for the individual businesses and professionals working within the industry—is how to expand their potential client base. Many gymgoers are already relatively fit and active, and the industry tends to serve that same audience again and again. Yes, the industry is full of exciting and innovative entrepreneurs and businesspeople, but is it effectively reaching and serving as many potential customers as possible? And is it serving the people who may need it most?
More than 70% of Americans are now living in larger bodies, and that number is getting higher with each passing year. These individuals often have different psychological and physical needs than their normal-weight counterparts, so learning the skills needed to serve this population is an opportunity to expand your business and help more people achieve their health and wellness goals. And, importantly, it’s an opportunity to enhance the equity, diversity and inclusion in your business and beyond.
Unfortunately, there are countless barriers to overcome, from magazine covers and marketing campaigns to locker room signage and the language that we use every day. The industry, like society at large, displays weight bias at every level, but it’s best to start with yourself as an individual to see what you can do to overcome your own weight bias—whether its conscious or unconscious—and create a more size-inclusive environment.
Become a Size Inclusive Fitness Specialist
As a Size Inclusive Fitness Specialist, you’ll guide a vastly underserved population using a fitness approach that empowers larger-bodied individuals to feel welcomed and embrace movement for the long term.
This course, which provides 1.5 CECs and is taught by Louise Green and the Size-Inclusive Training Academy, will help you lead your clients to better health and a positive relationship with exercise, empower you to lower barriers to participation and build a lucrative business with marketing techniques that attract and retain these underserved clients.
Recognizing Weight Bias
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, “Weight bias is negative attitudes, beliefs, judgments, stereotypes and discriminatory acts aimed at individuals simply because of their weight. It can be overt or subtle and occur in any setting…. It also takes many forms—verbal, written, media, online and more. Weight bias is dehumanizing and damaging: it can cause adverse physical and psychological health outcomes and promotes a social norm that marginalizes people.”
So, how does weight bias show up in fitness facilities or in the work that health coaches and exercise professionals do every day? According to Louise Green, ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor, author of Big Fit Girl and Fitness for Everyone, and Founder of the Size-Inclusive Training Academy, people in smaller bodies may not realize the many forms of weight bias that larger people experience in macro and micro ways on a regular basis. “We’re not understanding the full lived experience of people living in larger bodies,” she says.
For example, larger people may not fit physically into certain spaces, whether that’s chairs in a waiting room or resistance-training machines. They may not be comfortable in certain positions or be able to move easily through tightly packed gym floors. These are things that can be tough to anticipate or recognize if you have not experienced them yourself.
Gyms are sometimes set up more for aesthetics than accessibility, explains Tasha Edwards, ACE Certified Group Fitness Instructor and founder of Hip Healthy Chick. Benches are low and narrow. Bathrooms and showers are often tight, as are the passageways people need to move through to travel around the facility.
It’s also important to recognize that weight bias in the fitness industry extends well beyond the physical space. “It’s the culture,” says Edwards. “Gyms are simply reflective of the industry.”
It may be time for the industry to think about who we’re trying to serve, as so much of what we do and how we market ourselves is geared toward people who are already fit and active. “We have not established as an industry that the goal is health, and that has nothing to do with size,” explains Edwards. “We’re discriminating against the very people who we say need our help.”
Overcoming Barriers to Participation
Weight bias isn’t simply a matter of inconvenience or about someone feeling embarrassed or unwelcomed. While these are important considerations and worthy of genuine reflection, the impact of weight bias is much further reaching. Weight bias and size exclusivity create barriers to exercise participation and thereby negatively impact people’s health, wellness and quality of life. It’s vital that individual health coaches and exercise professionals—as well as the industry as a whole—find ways to counter that paradigm and create inclusive spaces that welcome and empower all people to get active.
Here, Green and Edwards discuss how weight bias manifests in various ways in the fitness industry and offer tips for how to create a more size-inclusive environment. There are two main areas in which weight bias will show up in your day-to-day work: in conversation (including the assumptions you make prior to that conversation) and in exercise programming or class design.
Avoid Making Assumptions
Many people in larger bodies have tried repeatedly, over many years, to lose weight via diet and exercise, so treating them like newbies can be insulting. For example, exercise professionals may assume that a person has little experience or knowledge when it comes to exercise or nutrition due to their larger size, when the exact opposite is often the case. People in larger bodies typically have more knowledge about nutrition, exercise and weight loss than their normal-weight counterparts—after all, in many cases they’ve been dealing with this issue their whole lives.
As Green explains, “When people are hit with weight-bias experiences time and time again, it creates a negative fitness experience and a negative association with movement.” And, unfortunately, “the larger a body gets, the more weight bias a person will experience,” she says.
“Another place where weight bias shows up,” Green explains, “is when people go into spaces in a larger body. As fitness professionals, we’ve been taught that the idea is to get that larger body to be a smaller body, so we make a lot of assumptions about what people’s goals are without even really talking to them.”
Assuming that a person’s goal is weight loss is presumptuous, possibly insulting and often a surefire way to lose a new or potential client. The key is to treat everyone the same way during the intake process and to avoid the assumption that someone in a larger body is there to lose weight, is unhealthy and unfit, and needs to find their way into a smaller body to achieve their objectives.
Instead, listen to what their goals are, what their vision of health looks like and what their idea of success is—and avoid projecting your versions of those objectives onto your clients. Ask questions about their past and how they are currently approaching wellness in order to help them uncover what their true underlying goals might be. A thorough goal-setting process, led by the client, is absolutely essential.
Green explains that people in larger bodies will sometimes say the things they think they should say when talking about exercise and wellness. After all, they have been inundated with the same biased messaging and imagery as everyone else and may have internalized much of that communication. They may not know what their goals are because they’re so wrapped up in being told to lose weight their whole lives.
In such cases, Green offers the following strategy: “Ask people what they no longer want. This tends to expose what they really do want.”
Modify Exercise Programming and Class Design
Exercise programming and its connection to size inclusivity begins during the intake process. There are some key questions to ask new clients, regardless of their size, that will help inform your programming. For example, “How comfortable are you getting down to and up from the floor?” “How does lying face down on your stomach impact your ability to breathe or your overall comfort level?” and “How comfortable are you lying on your back on a weight bench?” You can also list certain movements and ask them whether they are familiar with them and feel they are able to perform those exercises. Use their responses to those questions when selecting exercises, as you never want to cause a client or participant to struggle or become embarrassed in the gym or class setting.
There are real differences in how larger bodies move. For example, a larger midsection will make performing deadlifts with proper form extremely difficult and leave the person prone to low-back injury. Since the exercises you might use with smaller clients may not work with those with larger bodies, think about the goals of the movement and find replacement exercises that achieve those same objectives without the potential harm or embarrassment.
Edwards offers some suggestions for how to be size inclusive when working with groups of exercisers, who will undoubtedly vary in size and shape. First and foremost, don’t assume—there’s that word again!—that larger people have no skills. Offering entry-level movements to experienced exercisers based on faulty assumptions about their abilities can be insulting and degrading.
So, learn the language of modifications. Edwards suggests avoiding the language of progressions and regressions—after all, the term “regress” can feel very negative. Instead, offer “options” and let each participant choose what feels best for them. She also suggests that instead of starting a movement and then offering progressions and regressions, instructors start with the basic skill (option A) and then build up from there, reminding all participants that they can stick with option A if that feels good to them. If they want to try option B or C, they can do that, too.
Another tip is to introduce long-time participants to newcomers (no matter their size). This builds a sense of community and empathy that can go a long way toward making someone feel welcome in a space that may otherwise be intimidating.
Weight-neutral Coaching and Leadership
Weight-neutral coaching and leadership is an important element of a size-inclusive environment. A weight-neutral coach helps their clients pursue health and wellness goals without focusing on weight loss or targeting a certain number on the scale. The idea is to instead focus on movement, health and nutrition while escaping the diet culture that is all too pervasive in modern culture. This approach can help clients heal their relationship not only with their bodies, but also with the pursuit of health and enjoyable physical activity.
“People are really looking for a better quality of life,” explains Green, “but they tie that to a number. Weight-neutral coaching is about letting go of that number and looking at the ways in which that individual’s life can be improved through exercise, for example.”
A few questions you might ask at the beginning of your relationship with a new client or participant include: What makes you happy? What kind of movement can you see yourself doing for the long term? And, how can we position you to do that consistently as a sustainable practice? Many people have a particular weight or clothing size in their head as a goal and it’s often based on a time they felt better about themselves or thought they looked better—but what they need to do to in order to get and then stay there may not be reasonable for them.
Strict adherents of weight-neutral coaching believe that you should avoid talking about weight as a goal or metric of success in all cases. Others say that, because there are plenty of people out there who are working out with a primary goal of losing weight, weight should not be entirely excluded from the conversation. The client should always lead you in terms of goal setting and lifestyle change and, as Edwards says, “being inclusive means you have the right to be seen as you are”—and that still holds true if your goal is weight loss.
As a health coach or exercise professional, your goal should be to serve each individual client in the way that best supports their health and wellness. That may mean adopting a fully weight-neutral approach with some clients and setting realistic weight-loss goals for others. As with all things health- and fitness-related, personalization is the key ingredient.
Many new clients and participants are carrying a lot of baggage and past experiences with them when they enter the gym, and that may be even truer for people living in larger bodies. They often have long histories with the pursuit of weight loss and get advice from all directions, solicited and unsolicited. They sometimes carry trauma associated with movement and physical activity, from being forced to exercise in front of their peers as a child to standing on a scale in front of a crowd at a weight-loss center.
Your job as a health coach or exercise professional is to help each client filter out the noise, identify and set goals that are meaningful to them and align with their lifestyle and personal values, and then get moving in pursuit of health and wellness. Being size inclusive is a way to welcome new clients and participants into your community and expand your business in the process.
Expand Your Knowledge
As a Size Inclusive Fitness Specialist, you’ll guide a vastly underserved population using a fitness approach that empowers larger bodied individuals to feel welcomed and embrace movement for the long-term.
In this video training co-hosted by ACE and SELF Magazine, you will learn from a panel of experts how you can play a significant role in helping combat weight bias and stigma in the health and fitness industry. The panelists discuss what an inclusive fitness space looks like, best practices for working with clients who may have experienced weight bias, and much more. This dynamic conversation will equip you with the tools necessary to serve, understand and become an ally for people of all sizes.