There’s very little conversation surrounding fat people and exercise. As a result, it’s pretty common for fat people to be labeled with the following attributes: lazy, unfit, unmotivated, allergic to exercise. Google 'fat woman in the gym' and your first page will feature plenty of 'fat woman fails' or piss-taking images. I first started going to the gym in my second year of uni, where as I approached my final year, I developed an exercise addiction that saw me in there for several hours a day, seven days a week. My exercising was accompanied by a restrictive eating disorder, that was actively encouraged by my friends and family, who equated going to the gym and losing a large amount of weight at a rapid rate as dedication and a healthy lifestyle. Of course, they weren’t to know what was going on, but it does show that we immediately assume that exercise and weight loss are good things, when behind the scenes can often show an entirely different picture.
Now, I’m far from the size I was then, and once again in recovery from an eating disorder. Therefore, the way that I view exercise now has to be very different from the way that I looked at it before. Over the past month or so, I’ve been having real cravings to go back to the gym, because above everything, I actually enjoy it. But the fear of growing obsessed to the number of calories I was burning whilst I was doing it was proving a real issue for me and my return to exercise beyond walking my dog. The weekend just gone, I took the plunge. I promised myself, my mum and my boyfriend (who came with me) that I would remove calories from the equation and just focus on my health. And I did just that. The machines that could have calories removed from the screens showed just my elapsed time, my distance and my intensity level, and those that didn’t give me that option were covered with my sweat towel. I can’t say I didn’t think about having a quick peek at the number of calories that I’d burnt, but I stuck with it and completely ignored it.
I, much like the general assumption of fat people, am unfit. Am I unfit because I’m fat? Maybe my weight plays some small part in it, but that’s not the main reason. I’m unfit because I’m recovering from a failed lung and a hole in the chambers of my heart that lets oxygen escape, meaning I don’t breathe as well as I should, even more so when my heart rate is increased. I also have a problem with my intercostal muscles, that spasm and cause attacks that can often be mistaken - even by medical professionals - as cardiac arrest. I’m also unfit because, during the beginning of my recovery, I developed an eating disorder that saw me scared to go back to exercise when I decided it was time to put the kibosh on it, so my workouts were stopped completely. My mantra now when it comes to hitting the treadmill or bike or whatever it is I feel like doing is to take it easy, keep breathing, ban calorie talk, and just enjoy myself. But one thing I did notice in comparison to my previous experience with the gym is that personal trainers view me entirely differently.
When I started back at the gym earlier this year after receiving the green light from my specialist, I chose to start myself off on the bike, something that I’d always enjoyed. Within thirty seconds, I was approached by a personal trainer. He immediately introduced himself and I saw it as nothing more than him being polite; the gym had just opened so maybe he was just getting acquainted with the clientele. We got chatting, and I was aware that he was looking at the stats that were showing up on the bike screen.
‘You know, I can really help you take this exercise to a whole new level,' he said. 'Have you tried the HIIT setting? It’s perfect to shed fat and encourage weight loss, and the calories you burn are incredible. I’d be happy to sit down and work out a plan to help you reach your body goals, we could have you looking great in no time.’
I politely explained that I’d actually just been discharged from a respiratory clinic, and to be able to keep up conversation whilst cycling at that pace was a miracle, given that only months before I couldn’t breathe after walking from my bedroom to my bathroom. When it was made clear that there was no money to be made from me, I was left alone to get on with it.
A few weeks later, I stepped foot into the weights section to do some light resistance work. I had lost nearly all my strength, and I was determined to try and get some back. Before I could even set my sights on the first piece of equipment I wanted to use, I was approached (well, more ambushed) by another personal trainer. He went on — without asking me what I wanted to achieve — to tell me about how I would benefit from some abs exercises. Now there’s no denying that core exercises aren’t great, but my abs (under all that lovely chub) are actually quite strong and I was there to work on building some power up in my arms after hospital appointments had left me feeling weak. When I tried saying that I wanted to work on my arms, I was told that with his help and ‘the right diet of course’, I would see physical change and be impressed with how my body looked. I declined with a smile and went off to do my own thing.
It was then that I realised the way that personal trainers looked at me now was entirely different to how they used to before. Before, I was the girl that was showing ‘real results’ on her own, the girl that was progressing so rapidly, the girl that was committed to transforming her body. They used to join in with my long workouts and frequently offered me opportunities to try out the latest equipment with them for free. We actually became friends. Being fat, though, not only are you seen as totally clueless about exercise, you’re also, in most cases, just a ‘before’ photo to them and an opportunity to make money. Headed to the gym with my boyfriend this weekend, I told him about how I dreaded having yet another personal trainer come up to me and tell me what wonders they could do with my body.
‘They never come and talk to me,’ he said. ‘They just let me get on with my workout. Do they really talk to you every time?’
It’s important to point out that my boyfriend also knows his way around a gym, but is very fit and of an average build.
‘Think about it,’ I said. ‘If it was between me and you doing an eight-week programme with a personal trainer, who would visibly have the better results? Be honest.’
“Yeah, me. Because I’m fatter, so weight loss will be more prominent. Therefore, I’m the better candidate for their ‘before and after’ shots.’
I realised at that point that my boyfriend had never thought of it like that before (because why would he ever need to?) and was totally shocked by how I was constantly targeted as a potential client by the PTs.
‘You just wait and see,’ I told him.
Going into the gym this time round was different. Recovery beyond just my lungs was the priority and calories were off the table. Maybe I’ll go and warm up on the treadmill, I thought, and I headed in the direction of a long line of treadmills taken up by thin, fit people. I stood on my treadmill and set up my headphones and Spotify playlist. I pressed the big green GO button, and slowly began to walk. One minute and thirteen seconds into my warm up, coincidentally as the treadmill next to me freed up, a personal trainer bounced up next to me to say hi. Before anything more could be said, I listed off everything; the lung failure, the hole in the heart, the exercise addiction, the eating disorder(s), the importance of recovery and how weight loss and calories are off the table. He looked almost taken aback, but I knew that he sensed I was fed up of being pigeonholed by fitness professionals as the fat, clueless newbie that needed help and was begging for the transformation of a lifetime. We had a brief chat about everything and to my surprise he was super supportive; he wished me luck and said he was ‘amazed’ by my story. He then told me that he was around if I needed him for anything, and I was once again left to my own devices.
I’d like to think that, having spoken to me, the next time he sees someone step into the gym, that he recognises that everyone has a story and they don’t all need to end in some extreme weight loss big reveal. Being fat and in a gym does not make you the odd man out or an opportunity. Not every fat person’s goal is to look like something off of a Slendertone advert, but the idea that society puts into our heads — that exercise’s sole purpose is weight loss to achieve that dream bod — reinforces the notion that that’s what every person, fat people especially, should want. It’s because of this that showing diverse bodies in sporting and exercise industries is vital, and the assumptions around fat people and exercise need to be given the boot. I am more than a before and after photo. I am more than a opportunity to make some money. I am a fat girl on a treadmill, and I’m fucking killin’ it.