Fifteen years ago, on a quest to lose weight, I joined a Learn to Run 5K clinic. I was terrified, filled with worry that I would be the biggest, the slowest, or get left behind; I was certain I didn’t belong. On the first night, our run leader introduced herself and to my surprise, she was a plus-size athlete. Under her leadership, I realized that I could live my athletic dreams in the body I had without constantly battling with my weight. Quickly, my motives changed from trying to conform my body to a certain size to building the body I had into the strongest version of myself. It was one of the most freeing experiences of my life and it changed everything I thought I knew about fitness.
Today, I am a plus-size personal trainer and athlete on a mission to change how our society views athleticism. Ten years ago I opened a business called Body Exchange, a fitness boot camp dedicated to plus-size women. Since opening my business I’ve trained thousands of plus-women and guided them to realizing their athletic potential. This March, I’m releasing my first book, Big Fit Girl (Greystone Books), which I hope will empower others to do the same. I believe that fitness comes in all shapes and sizes—I witness this every day. As a trainer and an author, I strive to broaden the way we think about athleticism and ensure that women in a diverse range of sizes feel included and represented in fitness and sport.
But I also know that embarking on a fitness journey can feel daunting. Here are my tips for getting started and unleashing your inner athlete—in the body you have now.
1. Know your why.
It has been proven that people who are motivated by core-values sustain changes for the long term. For example, if you start exercising because your doctor instructed you to and only because you feel you “should,” it may be difficult to stick to your goals. However, if you’re exercising because you believe that exercise will give you more energy and help you keep up with your two-year-old, then that becomes a core-valued belief and will have more lasting power. Think about your core values and get to know them; write down your why and keep it visible. It may take some time to find your “why,” but that’s what will keep you going.
2. Get the gear.
Getting the right gear is an essential to step in your fitness pursuits. Having the wrong gear can result in skin chafing, pants riding up into your crotch (trust me, not fun), boobs bouncing out of control, and many other fitness catastrophes. Let’s not go there. We don’t want any reasons to arise that beckon you to throw in the towel.
Unfortunately, the choices are not as vast for a plus-size athlete as they are for women of smaller sizes, and you may need to purchase items online—it’s just the reality. There are many up-and-coming brands that realize that fitness comes in a range of sizes. Search the internet for these brands, check out their Instagram or Facebook accounts to see real customers wearing the clothes, read reviews, and make sure you check their sizing charts when ordering online. Here are some of SELF’s favorite plus-size workout clothing brands.
My top three absolutely must-haves are: a good sports bra, compression leggings, and good athletic shoes, preferably with a professional shoe-fitting at a running store.
3. Set SMART goals.
I have set goals with women for many years and sometimes I find there’s a standard reaction of “I want to lose x amount of weight.” Setting goals should be done in a SMART way, meaning, specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. I recommend writing this acronym down vertically in a notebook and breaking your goals down in each category. If weight loss is a goal, I recommend actionable goals (that may result in weight loss) where weight loss isn’t the primary focus. For example: I am going to meal prep five days a week. I will go grocery shopping on Sundays and Thursdays and prepare all my meals in advance for the week. I am going to do this for 30 days, then reassess. Likely, there will be a side benefit of weight loss to this healthy lifestyle change, without leaving you fixated on a number on the scale.
4. Find the right trainers.
Your support system is paramount to your fitness success. I often remind women that they are the CEO of their own bodies. Like any good CEO, they have the right to interview and vet who they work with. You don’t have to accept whoever is assigned to you by the gym staff. It’s essential that both you and your trainer have synergy in what health and fitness means to you. If you work out with trainers who are constantly harping on calorie reduction and doling out workouts that are too difficult, motivation can wear out and defeat will set in. Having trainers who are body positive and understand your emotional, physical, and psychological needs will be a game changer.
5. Break the rules.
As plus-size women, we often hear recommendations from health professionals such as, “You should swim, do water aerobics, or yoga.” These suggestions are usually made because these forms of exercises are typically viewed as “more gentle.” But that might not work for every woman. I say, break the rules and do what feels good for you and your body. I personally know many plus-size women who participate in triathlons, running, and CrossFit training. The key is to start off slow and work at a manageable pace to avoid injury. If it feels good to you, break the rules and just do it!
6. Believe in yourself—and remind yourself that you believe.
As I mentioned earlier, the will to keep going has to come from within. As plus-size women we face many messages that tell us we need to be thinner—that our bodies are unhealthy and unfit. But what’s more important for your success are the messages you create internally. Your own thoughts and beliefs are an important element to living your athletic dreams. I recommend introducing daily mantras into your routine. Here are some of mine:
I am an athlete.
I am strong and capable.
I’ve put in the training time; I can do this.
Find a mantra that feels authentic to you. Say it, write it, chant it, be it.
7. Enjoy the ride.
I’ve worked with many women who’ve had really negative fitness experiences, some dating back as far as high school gym class. These negative experiences caused them a great deal of shame and disdain for moving their bodies. If this resonates with you, it’s time to say good-bye to those old experiences and adopt a new mindset: Fitness can be a positive experience. This can be added to your mantra list. I know it can be hard, but start by opening your mind to the possibility that this time could be different. Seek the right support, step forward with this new mindset, and enjoy the ride. There’s great reward in experiencing just how strong your body can be.
8. Track your fitness progress.
We know from many studies that sustainable weight loss is difficult. Yet, unfortunately, for many women, the scale is their only measurement for athletic success. For many years and for this very reason, I felt like a constant failure.
In my opinion, the scale holds the least value in my fitness achievements. Through your fitness journey, I urge you to make a list of other progress indicators, such as:
How much are you lifting?
How far can you run or walk?
How has your flexibility improved?
How long can you plank?
How quickly do you recover after dashing up a flight of stairs?
How is your energy level?
When the scale is your only measure of success, it can breed feelings of defeat. And making weight your focus detracts from all the important ways you are improving your health and fitness. Using some of these other measures for tracking your fitness improvements will leave you feeling happier and more confident the next time you hit the gym.
9. Smash stereotypes.
Women of size, especially in fitness, don’t get a lot of visibility. By showing up and claiming your space at the gym, you are making a bold statement and changing others’ perceptions of what an athlete can look like. Take note that you are part of a bigger picture and are smashing stereotypes along the way.
10. Celebrate your success every day.
I will be the first to tell you that getting up every day and trying to change your lifestyle has its challenging moments. Making fitness a part of your life takes commitment, motivation, and good planning, but I wouldn’t trade the highs, good vibes, and health rewards for anything. I want you to celebrate your success each and every day. Change your internal chatter to positive messages such as: I really kicked ass today, let’s do it again tomorrow! No more: I should have, could have, would have done better. It’s your time now to celebrate your body and everything it’s capable of.
There’s never been a more exciting time for plus-size women in fitness and sport. We are getting the visibility and recognition we deserve, not only in plus-size-centric mediums but also now in the mainstream. Everybody deserves the right to sweat, endorphins, and victory.
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