Basic Training: Fitness Comes in All Sizes

You walk into the room, clad in your brand new jogging suit, confidence oozing from every pore of your size-whatever body. If they want attitude, you’ll show them attitude! Then you look around at the women who are already there. They’ve warmed up; in fact they’re steaming. And you can’t figure out why on earth they are there. Their waists aren’t any bigger around than your thighs. They don’t have an ounce of fat on their entire beings. Suddenly, you realize that you are probably the trainer’s worst nightmare.

You bolt for the door, intimidated beyond belief, when one of the women comes over to you and says, “If you aren’t ready for this, follow me.” With a spring in her step, she leads you through a hallway into a room filled with-other yous. Okay, you can handle this! How on earth did you luck out?

Fantasy? Perhaps. It certainly was for Shelley Bond of Belmont, Calif. Fate plays funny tricks on all of us, and Bond was no exception.

Initially, Bond hated the idea of working out. The mere thought of going to a gym was enough to cause her to break out in a cold sweat. Then she went to a program called Size with Style, which forever changed the way Bond looked at a structured exercise program.

Dana Schuster and Lisa Tealer were at the same program, sharing their new venture, Women of Substance, a spa and health club geared especially for the plus-size woman. They needed a “guinea pig” for a routine they were demonstrating. Before she could say “Richard Simmons,” Bond was sitting in a chair doing the routine, spouting with no qualms that “I don’t do this.” Undaunted, Schuster told her to “Be quiet and try it.” She did, surprising herself.

The Size with Style coordinator, a friend of Bond’s and a member of Women of Substance, “dragged me to the club, kicking and screaming,” Shelley recalls.

“I was so comfortable there within a few minutes that I came back the second time, then the third, and I was hooked,” Bond enthuses. “The women were all so great. We might be fat, but we’re fun, too!”

Bond says the best part of the exercise experience is the great support system spa members feel for one another. “It is not just praise when we have done good, but they give us a good kick when we need it, too.”

The final test for Bond came when the other women kept bugging her to try water aerobics. “I was scared to death of water,” she says, “and I couldn’t imagine getting into a swim suit. I hadn’t had one on for years.” But, the treadmill was getting boring, so with a great deal of coaxing, she finally ordered a swimsuit. She put it on and managed to get into the pool-very slowly. “Now,” she exclaims excitedly, “I just love it. I’m swimming three times a week.”

“I’m serious when I say (movement) changed my life,” Bond says with conviction. “I feel so much better, so much stronger, and so much more positive about everything.” Her husband, Mel Kiyama, adds, “I’m really glad she is doing it. She is so much healthier and happier.”

Dana Schuster and Lisa Tealer, who opened the Redwood City, Calif. spa in 1997, talk about their own spa with almost as much vitality as Bond.

The basic premise of Women of Substance, Schuster says, is to help women return to the fun they had when they were children, back when they didn’t even know the meaning of the word “inhibition.” “As kids, we had fun with exercise; we can do it again. It takes a change of our thinking, as much as a change of our lifestyle. We try to keep the goals for each of our clients functional and obtainable.”

New York City’s In Fitness and in Health is another facility that caters to the plus-size crowd. Owner Rochelle Rice says that she “saw that the fitness industry was not accommodating the needs of these people, either physically or emotionally.” So, she decided to try to fill in the gap.

“We emphasize the anatomical part of the body in our sessions,” she explains. “We concentrate on a different part of the body each month. This month it is the inner thighs.” The staff does not weigh or measure anyone; the main goal is to get people into an active lifestyle, both physically and mentally. “Too many people separate the head from the body,” Rice asserts.

While some of In Fitness’ 200 members get private sessions, most of the women prefer the group workouts. “It’s like any other group – the support system is probably the most important aspect of the program,” says Rice. “Nobody judges anybody; not for the speed they work at, the clothing they wear – nothing.”

Cinder Ernst, a San Francisco-based personal trainer, has also heeded the call to help people of all shapes and sizes become physically fit. She describes herself as a “size 12-14. Not really big, but in the fitness biz, that is really big.” She laughs as she adds, “I’d never make it on the cover of Fitness.”

Ernst began offering her services to plus-sizers after finding that many women, even if they started a program, soon dropped out because they couldn’t keep up with other class members and because the instructor was yelling at them.

According to Ernst, the best way to get yourself in shape is to do whatever you can at whatever pace is comfortable for you. “If your body says you can’t do it,” she advises, “don’t do it. If your body says, ‘Stop!’ it’s time to stop.”

When she’s not serving her clients, Ernst lends a hand at an embryonic website,, which will soon be up and running. She describes it as “sort of like guerilla warfare.” One of the features on the site will be “How to train your trainer.”

Ernst says that while her clients are working towards a goal of better health and physical control of their bodies, they are not obsessed with such issues as weight loss. “They have their priorities straight; they are worried about the really important things in their lives.”

Okay, sounds great, right? But what if you don’t live in San Francisco or New York City – if instead, your town or city has no facilities for plus-size women? Take heart; there are still ways to meet your plus-size fitness needs.

If you can afford it, you can hire a personal trainer (see sidebar). If you can’t, you can begin incorporating more movement into your life on your own. Ernst encourages her clients to hone their instincts in order to listen to their bodies and their spirits. “There are two goals that I teach people,” Ernst says. “One is to show up and the second is to enjoy the ride.” In order to “show up,” she says, you have to know yourself – what kinds of things you like to do and when you like to do them. Are you a morning or an evening person? Do you like solitary or group activities? Do you like to swim or do you hate the water? To Ernst, “enjoying the ride” means that you have to stay in the present, so that you’ll know when an activity feels good to your body. “If it’s not fun, if it doesn’t feel good, change it,” she advises. In any event, she adds, “Err on the side of caution. Do less than you think you can do, and add onto it in increments.”

Another option to a personal trainer is to contact a physical therapist from your local hospital. See if she would like to earn a little extra money (and who doesn’t these days?) by helping you set up a suitable exercise routine. Don’t let it overwhelm you. Start out slowly, then build on it.

If you find that your own newfound strength and enthusiasm animate you, start talking to your friends. Before you know it, you will have formed your own group. There might be only two or three of you to start with, but it is surprising how fast a good thing grows. If you all enjoy the water, you might want to consider contacting the local YWCA to set up a water aerobics class for plus-size women. Or if you have access to a private pool, hire a water aerobics instructor for your group.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to sweat to the oldies to get health benefits from movement. Yoga, bellydancing, or even a walk around the block will help to improve your flexibility and stamina.

There is nothing more frustrating for a plus-size woman than someone whispering behind her back, assuming that she is incapable of climbing a flight of stairs or swimming ten laps just because of her size. A recent discussion on plus sizes resulted in this comment: What is the opposite of a plus size? Simple. It’s a minus size! A negative! So go on, be your positive self. Be the best that you can be-in a size 16, 26 or 46!

Delve Deeper

Finding a Trainer

Personal Trainer Cinder Ernst gives a money back guarantee to her clients that they will feel better when they’re done than when they began. Ernst says that the key to creating an active lifestyle is “building on little victories” and taking fitness goals one small step at a time. If you’d like to find a personal trainer in your area who can help you achieve your goals, Ernst gives this advice:

  • Check on the trainer’s certification
  • Be certain that the trainer is insured
  • Find someone with whom you have a rapport, and whom you like
  • Always remember that they are working for you, and clearly communicate your goals to them
  • A good trainer teaches you how to be your own best expert. If an exercise scares you or hurts, a trainer should respect and honor that, rather than saying, “Come on, you can do it!” It’s you who has to live with any injuries that result from exercises that aren’t appropriate for your body.
  • “99% of the fitness industry wants you to focus on weight loss and body shaping.” Find a trainer who will support you in exercising for the health benefits, rather than for weight loss.

Exercise = Health

Personal Trainer Cinder Ernst says that while weight loss can be a byproduct of a fitness routine, you’ll get all the health benefits of exercise even if you never lose an ounce. “You’ll want to move more, and you’ll be more active, so you’ll have more fun,” she says. “You’ll be able to play with your kids more, walk your dog more, and even shop more!” According to Ernst, a fitness routine can help you:

  • sleep better
  • reduce stress
  • increase flexibility, strength and endurance
  • stabilize your blood sugar
  • lower your blood pressure
  • prevent osteoporosis
  • alleviate depression
  • improve your sex life

This article originally appeared in the print magazine.


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