Is it True that Most Fat People Don’t Exercise?

Ragen Chastain 5’4 284 pounds. Trained by Kate Catlow of The Mindful Body Center in Austin, Texas.

Recently at a talk I was giving at Long Island University someone suggested that my exercise habits make me an anomaly among fat people, suggesting that most fat people don’t exercise.

I pointed out to her that my exercise and physical fitness (pressing 1,000 pounds with my legs, doing the splits etc.) make me an anomaly among everyone  -typically I exercise more than anyone, of any size, in any room that I’m in.  It should be clear that I don’t do this for my health- I do it because I’m a dancer (and a dancer who is moving to LA where she intends to work.)  If I just wanted to be healthy I’d do 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 days a week and take up knitting, learn a couple languages, and finish my damn book.

I also want to point out that the idea that most fat people don’t exercise is based on a stereotype and not good evidence.  (The Fit Fatties Forum has only been around a few weeks and we already have almost 550 members talking about fitness from a Health at Every Size perspective.)

Even if we believe  the stereotype, the truth is that it’s kind of amazing that fat people workout at all considering the massive social forces that work against us being physically fit.

First is the lie that if exercising doesn’t make us thin then it’s not making us healthier.  This flies in the face of the actual evidence which shows that exercise will NOT lead to weight loss but does lead to health. The misinformation campaign around health, fitness and weight loss often causes people to give up on exercise when it doesn’t make them thinner.  What they often don’t realize is that it’s making them healthier.

Then there are the challenges we face just getting dressed to exercise.  While my thin friends try to decide between 20 brands of workout wear, what style of sports bra they want to wear, and which kind of advanced sweat wicking fabric they prefer, I’m desperately looking for one pair of workout pants that is wide enough for my ass and not too long for my short legs.  Failing to find some, I often have to have my yoga pants hemmed.  Dude. I don’t really care about looking cute at the gym but I’m not excited about pants that have a cathedral length train.  And a lot of people do care about having cute clothes to wear at the gym and it’s not fair that thin people have that option but fat people don’t.

Next is what we face when we get there.  Tonight two women who were at the gym with me at 3am illustrated almost every “what not to do” that there is.

First, people who assume that if you’re fat you must be new to the gym, or new to working out. Tonight as I started my interval work one of my two new best friends came up to me waving with desperate flailing muppet arms.  I removed my earphones and she said “You’re going to hurt yourself, you don’t have to do it all right away, take it slow when you’re new!”

Next, the assumption that our size dictates what we can do.  I was doing plyometric work (I was jumping on and off a box) and the other woman came over and told me that “jumping is dangerous at your size, you want to be careful.”

Then there is the assumption that we are unhappy with our current bodies, that our goal is weight loss, and that we want to be encouraged in that pursuit.  In my gym next to the weights there is a wall of “success” stories where “success” is weight loss.  I was resting between sets of leg pressing 630 pounds.  The woman who was worried about my interval training showed back up to say “just keep working hard and you’ll be one of those successes on the wall someday.”  As if pushing around more than twice my body weight doesn’t make me a success.

Happily I did not face the worst thing – which is when people are cruel to us at the gym. It happens sometimes – someone will moo at me or say something nasty to their friends within my hearing.

So I have to deal with all of this and I have the benefit of being experienced at the gym – I have a program, I know how the machines work, and I can kick the physical fitness ass of most of the people there and some days I still don’t want to deal with it.  It can seriously suck for a beginner, and even if they don’t have a bad experience the intimidation factor can be off the charts.

There are some things that you can do.  I’ve talked before about how to repair a relationship with exercise and how to make the gym less scary.

There’s another option as well, I’ve been meaning to tell you all about this book for a long time.  I actually got the book before I became friends with the author. Jeanette DePatie is The Fat Chick.  She is a certified fitness professional who created a 12 week program to help people get into exercise. Whether you want to keep working out from home or you want to develop a baseline of fitness to be more comfortable at the gym, her program is awesome.  Jeanette and I have since become very good friends (she is my get shit done soulmate) and she and I started the Fit Fatties Forum together. I highly recommend you check her out at www.TheFatChick.com.  (The fine print:  I paid for my copy of her book and she is not paying me at all for this endorsement.  I just think that she is awesome and her program kicks ass.)

In exercise as in everything, you are the boss of your underpants. You get to decide if exercise is important to you.  If you are trying to decide if it’s worth it, I highly recommend this video.  Regardless of what each individual does, in the end I think that assumption that “fat people don’t exercise” is grossly oversimplified considering the tendency to stereotype fat people, the evidence to the contrary, and the issues that fat people face when  we try to workout.

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on April 6, 2012 at 10:46 am  Comments (47)  

47 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There is fantastic workout wear on Etsy that caters for quite a lot of sizes.
    (and I’m not just saying that because I’m on there!)

  2. I’ve lifted weights for a long time, longer than the lifespan of many of the college kids who share my gym. Every now and then when I see another patron, usually slim, who would be judged by most of society as being “healthier” than me, lifting weights that are clearly a lot for them but wouldn’t be much for me, I’m tempted to come up to them and “encourage” them in the same way that those women did you. “Keep it up and you’ll be strong like me in no time!”, just to watch their minds boggle. I haven’t done it yet, and probably never will, but it’s fun to imagine.

    • Argh! I know what you mean! I’m a certified fitness trainer and I’ve approached people in the gym who were in immediate danger of injury due to trying to lift excessive weight without a spotter. Since I don’t wear my certification on my workout clothes, I look like any other fat lady in the gym … so when I offer them a spot, they look at me like I have three heads. People’s assumptions are so maddening.
      Theresa
      The Fat Personal Trainer
      http://www.biggirlsworkout.com / bigguysworkout.com

      • Oooh, I wish you lived near me, I would save up my pennies to hire you!

  3. It never fails to amaze me that everyone and their freaking dog seems to be of the opinion that if fat people just exercised we’d all be magically thin and delicious (yes, I do like that phrase don’t I?) and yet, the instant we dare set foot outside and actually do exercise, we need to be berated, insulted, have garbage thrown at us, etc.

    Was out for a bike ride last month and fell behind my husband… some jerk in a car decided to throw a pop bottle at me while telling me I need to move my lazy ass once in a while. Mostly I just laughed it off (guy in car calling woman riding a bike ‘lazy’…) but when I dodged the bottle I ended up straining my bad ankle and got to spend several days limping around in an ace bandage and my walking boot thingie. So. Fun.

    Also had some kids start in on me when I picked up a piece of litter from an energy bar on a hike — their wit basically ran “oh look, the cow must think there’s still food in it!” So. Funny.

    It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t really. I have no doubt that if you just stayed in your house and used an exercise bike or a treadmill or something, it would be dismissed as “not real exercise” or something too.

    • So true. It’s too bad you didn’t get that guy’s license plate and report him. Not only did he injure you, he could have caused a worse injury if you’d fallen from your bike. At least they might have fined him for littering.

      • That’s not littering, it’s assault and I wish DESPERATELY that you’d gotten his plate and walked it in, complete with your medical bills. That dude’s a colostomy bag with legs. *SEETHING*

      • Yeah, I wished I had too — at the time I was more concerned with not falling all the way over to really look that close. And to be honest, I have the memory of a six week old kitten and no paper/pen so I’d of forgotten it by the time we got home anyway.

        No medical bills to sue him for anyway – I took a bad fall when I was a kid, now my ankle sprains itself in my sleep on a somewhat regular basis so I’ve become a master at strained/sprained ankle care over the years. Not near as bad as the time someone actually DID peg me in the head with a *glass* beer bottle and the nurse at the ER gave me some weight watchers and lap band pamphlets while informing me that if I would just consider taking care of myself and losing the weight these things wouldn’t happen.

        Honestly, that one pissed me off a LOT more, not only because my brain doesn’t work that great when it isn’t concussed but because of the whole blame the victim crap. That was quite a few years ago now. Never did catch that tool either, I didn’t get enough of the plate number then either.

        I’ve actually found that the harassment goes WAY down if my husband is with me, so much so that I don’t go out alone anymore. Good thing we like the same kinds of physical activity (except I miss swimming, which he really does not care for) heh. But it really does irritate me that it has to come to that, just because I don’t fit some arbitrary beauty ideal. It’s bad enough that I’m actually scared for people larger than I am. I mean, if I’m getting crap thrown at me how much worse are they being treated? And for what… even if every last thing they say about us is true, what the hell does it even matter? It’s not like we’re tying them to chairs and force feeding them the twinkies they assume are all we eat!

  4. Being tall and needing pants wide enough for my ass is also problematic. I was abolutely thrilled to find yoga pants in 20 colors large enough and long enough. I finally have pants I can wrar with my shirts!

    Regarding exercise, one should also remember that ANY movement counts. Anyone who doesn’t think that 30 minutes of vacuuming doesn’t count had never tried it. If you discard the fact that exercise needs to make you thin, needs to hurt needs to be labeled exercise in order to count, you would be surprised just how much reasonable movement people get in one day.

    • I seriously need to just start making my own. Not only do I have the height and the booty, but I also have a *small* waist compared to my hips (10+ inches difference) so when I get pants that fit the hips, they’re made to fit people who are built like balls or something. The waist is larger than the hips so I need to find stuff with draw strings so I don’t go mooning people!

      • Hi Ras~ If you do start making pants for your shape, please let me know… I am shaped like that too and yes, when I get pants that fit my hips, they gap in the waist. Grrrr…

    • oh please tell me where you found those pants! Tall & fat myself =)

    • Fran, please oh please tell me where you found those pants! Being tall and fat myself, I would love to find a source for workout/dance clothes that fit…

      • I get my workout wear from, of all places, Old Navy. I know there’s some hate for them because they refuse to carry larger sizes in stores, but their yoga pants really are great, and come in sizes up to 4x at very reasonable prices.

      • Keep an eye on Junonia. Sometimes they have tall work out gear. I buy it 3-4 at a time when they do! And then I keep my fingers crossed that they last until the next time someone carries a tall 4x!

  5. Well if fat people are like everyone else, sure most don’t exercise. The fallacy is not just that anyone with some adipose tissue is lying on the couch, it’s also that thin people are all out running wind springs. Per the American Time Use Survey — only about 16% of folks exercise on a daily basis on average.
    http://www.bls.gov/spotlight/2008/sports/pdf/sports_bls_spotlight.pdf

    So I guess it would be technically correct to say most fat people don’t exercise, but the way it’s usually interpreted is pretty inaccurate.

    • Perhaps the reason why the reporting levels of exercise are so low is because people only think certain movement “counts” as exercise…..

      Just sayin’- I think that many people get quite a lot of physical exertion on a regular basis, we just don’t count it as such because we’re not in a gym or it’s not for five hours in a row.

      I remember when I was going to the gym two hours a day AND also walking and biking around town. I only counted the “two hours” as exercise, even though I was seriously walking like 5-10 miles a day and bicycling even further. It was only later that I realized how many types of crazy this sort of mentality was for me….

  6. Ragen…I agree The Fat Chck Works Out program that Jeanette offers is awesome. and her website has all kinds of great stuff on it. Any one of any fitness level can use it, but I think Jeanette’s gift is to help the beginner feel comfortable and get started on a regular routine.
    Deb

  7. There are people of all sizes who live their lives sitting down. Some of them just happen to be fat.

  8. And, as someone above pointed out, exercise is not limited to going to a gym. Whatever feels good, do it. Simply moving a 200, 300, 400, 500, 600 pound body is HARD. I’d like to see a thin person wearing a vest with hundreds of pounds of weights in it, walking around, doing stairs or bicycling without thinking about the extra weight.

    And for those of us who want to have pleasant physical movement (what I believe HAES endorses), there’s dancing, swimming, gardening, etc. It’s important that each person finds *something* they enjoy doing and doing it as often as their bodies allow.

    • Well, I imagine that if someone half my size were to add an extra 125lbs all at once they would find the extra weight very difficult to deal with, but to be fair I would find it very difficult to maneuver myself around if I suddenly lost 125lbs — my muscles and everything are basically calibrated to carry around 250lbs so I really don’t think walking, stairs, etc are any harder on me than on someone who is smaller. Probably, on average, if it was measurable we’d probably find that their lower weights mean less muscle mass, which would translate to those muscles having to work just as hard as my muscles to do the same task. If that makes sense.

  9. The clothing options is one of the things that really gets me. I can make my own, but so many others don’t have the skills, time, or desire to do so. And after doing some research, if there’s actual exercise clothes out there for women over a 60″ hip measurement other than Junonia, I sure couldn’t find them. They’ve got some great options, but the cost! And as you mentioned Regan, there are lots and lots of brands and options if you’re thin, but very few options if you’re a larger size. You know, I don’t think I’m going to sit around waiting for an existing company to do better. Maybe the solution is to encourage those of us with the skills to do so to start our own companies. Not just in clothing, but in other areas where we see gaps. I’m working with a small group of talented friends on the possibility of starting a clothing company. We’ve still got a lot of the practical details to work out, but it’s looking very possible.

    • I agree that Junonia’s products are pretty expensive. But I can say that I’ve been wearing some of their things for over 10 years that still look brand new. So the silver lining is that at least you’re getting good quality for that big price.
      :o)
      TFC

  10. I was walking around the block the other day, taking a break from some rather onerous housecleaning. This douche nozzle hollered at me from the porch “you should be jogging!” Because I didn’t want to risk my home being vandalized while I was working the night shift (this guy is a neighbor in a unit behind mine) I simply said “I doubt it.”
    This sort of thing is why I usually will not walk during the day if I can avoid it. But I never thought it would happen right here in the ole trailer park. I felt like saying “why don’t you put down that cigarette and start jogging if you’re so all fired keen on it?”
    I’m lucky that in the place where I work there is a workout room and a therapy pool and I can come in around 8:30 at night and generally be completely alone. Things like mooing and over-helpful people would make working out at the gym a miserable experience for someone like me, who prefers to be left the hell alone.

  11. I think a lot of fat people who are exercising to lose weight get really discouraged or confused. When I was desperate to lose weight, I’d be told all the time I was doing the wrong type workout (too much weight lifting, not enough cardio or sometimes vice versa) or that I wasn’t working hard enough/long enough. When you’re not losing weight and that’s your primary motivation to work out, it’s tough to keep doing it.

    Once you drop the weight loss goal, you can find lots of different reasons to work out and they don’t have to be same every day. That mindset also encourages more diverse workouts, at least for me.

  12. More than once at the gym, I have — while very much within the stated and implied time limits of “fair use” — been asked to give up my equipment. Not because the person was in a hurry or had a stated special need or whatever. Rather, they’ve commented or gestured about my size and explicitly told me I wasn’t “really” using it.

    And those are the days when I get pissed enough to run extra long before getting off. But with so much explicit fat shame coming at fat people who exercise (among other times), let alone all the internalized issues as well — Well, there’s a reason most of my workouts take place in situations whether other people don’t talk to me.

    • Why am I thinking it would be helpful to have really frightening temporary tattoos for such a situation? Slap a few fake skulls on your neck, put on some serious black eyeliner and if anyone starts in with that nonsense, give them a malevolent glare.

      If only they made black exercise clothing with chains and spikes…

      • I resort to my Kindergarten Teacher Voice (I really teach high school, not kindergarten, but it never hurts to have a Kindergarten Teacher Voice). “You can have my machine when I’m through with it. That’s called sharing. Can you say ‘sharing’?”

  13. Love this post! I’m definitely not as in shape as I’d like… Mainly need to work on cardio endurance. But I work outside/in tents taking care of animals for a living. I am physically active around 7-8 hours a day, 6 days a week. I’m strong and I’m pretty agile. People will once in a while say “oh have you lost weight?” or “are you losing weight?” and I just shrug. Maybe a little but not really and I don’t care. I hate that it’s always about weight loss and not skill or health or strength.

  14. Funny, fat peeps are told to exercise, but when we do, we are berated, and made fun of. I do excercise every day, whether its cleaning house, dancing, or on my cardio machine. Since I have diabetes, it can be very difficult to lose weight due to the meds and insulin. I just want to stay healthy and be mobile. True story: I worked out at Curves for a year and a half. In fact, I acutally worked there for a time. I lost 16 inches but only 6 lbs.! Everyone is different..I gained muscle and lost jiggle! But I did find that a women only gym was great for me.

  15. Old Navy has plus size active wear up to a 4X (28-30) including cropped yoga pants. I had a pair before my daughter was born, but I’ve lost enough weight breastfeeding (though why I can’t convince people that’s all I’ve done and that I’m not holding some sort of magic secret) that they don’t fit anymore. I liked them for just average get your body moving exercise, and at 5’1 it was nice not to have to roll them up. I’m not an athlete so I have no idea how well their stuff would hold to that sort of a work-out. Their prices are fairly reasonable if you have a coupon, and while it’s all online since apparently fat people can’t be allowed in their stores they do offer free returns by mail.
    For the record I’m not associated with them in any way other than having given them too much money despite my ongoing plans to quit shopping there until they put plus sizes in stores so you can try stuff on.

  16. Ain’t that the truth… if i was a more acceptable body size no one would fault me for my primary exercise regime of walking a lot and dancing myself stupid.

    People see the fact that I joined a gym – and, like majority of people, kind of stopped going because I’ve not been very well, as a failed weight loss attempt and not as a case of “Hey I wanna be more like this awesome DancesWithFat chick” (I know, comparing oneself to another person is usually not a very healthy way of goal-setting but it’s pretty much my default setting….) and then realizing I am not in a point where I have the spoons for it.

  17. Well said as always, Ragen

  18. Me: Walking up a steep hill near my house some years ago when I weighed about 160.
    Carload of young men passes, barking loudly at me. I wish I could say I wasn’t bothered by it, but I was.
    If this is what people are willing to dish out when I’m that size, what might I have to put up with at 215? The fact is, I still exercise, but I can’t say that people’s attitudes have helped me in that pursuit.

    I am appalled at the holier-than-thou attitudes by the women you encountered at the gym. What a couple of pieces of work!

    Always enjoy your blog.

  19. “Tonight as I started my interval work one of my two new best friends came up to me waving with desperate flailing muppet arms.”

    ZOMG. I heart this description SO FREAKING MUCH.

    My other annoyance is when I’m breathing heavy (because I’m working out heavily) but my heavy breathing is deep and even, (I just tend to breathe loudly), people often try and approach me like I must be having a heart attack or even laughing (ostensibly because I’m a “gross fat person who is having trouble breathing” or something) because I’m breathing heavily while doing heavily aerobic activity. Seriously, people, that’s what happens when you push yourself- you BREATH HEAVIER. I breathed like this when I was a size 8 too, and people still gave me crap about it. I also tend to have to concentrate on deep heavy breathing because I have minor scarring in my lungs from a bout of pneumonia that almost killed me back when I was “thin and healthy” (except not, I was in full-on exercise bulimia mode and I was destroying my body- the pneumonia was basically my “knock on the ass” awakening).

    So no, just because I am BREATHING does not mean that I’m having trouble exercising. Seriously, I know when to ask for help. Does everyone seriously seem to think that all fat people are totally stupid- that instead of a brain, we just have excess fat rolls hugging the inside of our cranial cavities (although, fun fact, the brain is mostly fat anyway, lol)?

    • I run into a similar problem because my face gets really red when I exercise and I get a lot of worried looks and am told to slow down. My face just gets red, like right away, before I’m breathing hard. So does my mom’s, who’s very, very thin.

      • YES! Ihave a red face, and anytime I get warm it lights up like a christmas tree. People are always asking me if I’m OK or commenting on my sunburn (yes, I’m fine and no, I haven’t been in the sun and who asked your opinion about my face anyway).

    • Ha. I’ve also been known to: 1) Use yoga (and pranayama) as warm ups at the gym; 2) Use deep pranayama to focus myself during a workout (generally to check my pacing, which might involve slowing down or speeding up). I should not be, but I am always surprised when people start reacting like I’ve accidentally worked myself into cardiac arrest.

  20. Laughed out loud when i read this. It is so nice to read that I am not the only one!

  21. I’ve been a swimmer all my life. Once, at the YMCA hot tub, I had this exchange with an elderly woman named Ruth…

    Ruth: How often do you swim?
    Me: oh… about 3 – 4 times per week.
    Ruth: I’m so PROUD of you! And how much weight have you lost?
    Me: ummmm. None.
    Ruth: oh, I, so sorry dear. How long have you been trying?
    Me: Forty-seven years!!

    Cracked myself up!

    • I hear the same things (only about yoga and about running). Except when they ask how long I’ve been trying, at this point, I just go, “I’m not.”

  22. I actually joined the FFF but I have only participated a little… I have some fitness goals that are all completely unrelated to weight loss, but I have such a traumatic relationship with physical activity (and it is rooted DEEP, goes all the way back to as young as I can remember) that any attempt on my part to take on anything with any kind of structure or regularity turns into a cycle of self-punishment, and if I let it go on long enough like that I also start getting restrictive on taking in food. Which, btw, doesn’t tend to make me any slimmer, though it DOES make me sick and paranoid.

    So it extra annoys me when people are all “I can tell how fit you are by looking at you!” because it’s thanks to people like that who are oh, so concerned for my HEALTH, that I’m not as fit and healthy as I could be if they’d just shut the (string of expletives) up forever and let fatties do with their bodies as they please, in peace.

    I am so sorry those twits at the gym felt the need to go all “Messiah Thin Folk” on you. There’s not a power on earth that could have stopped me saying something rude in return so I admire your restraint. I won’t step a pinky toe in a gym. (I was about to say I wouldn’t even go if someone was willing to pay me, but hell who’m I kidding, if someone was stupid enough to pay me for it, sure– pay off my student loans and I’ll go twice a week for a year if you want, Mystery Rich Fat Hater. I’ll hate it, but I’d do it.)

    • “Messiah Thin Folk” hahahahahahahahaha.

      Thanks for that.

  23. People are so unbelievably messed up. I’m steamed reading some of these stories. Regan, you didn’t say how you reacted to the muppet-women. I guess you could have just done the splits in front of them; would have shut me up in a second!

  24. I am sososo happy I found this blog! Great words and great body acceptance message!! The next time a ” well meaning” skinny person acts super “concerned” that my face is too red or I’m “working to hard for someone of my build”–direct quote I got last week BTW–I’m going to point them to your blog :-)

    • Hi Mel,

      Welcome to the blog. I’m sorry that people are idiots (even if well-intentionedly so) I will do what I can to help!

      ~Ragen

  25. I’m in a marathon training program and significantly slower than most of the walkers so what ends up happening when we do our out and back long walks is the faster walkers pass me on their way back and I get a lot of “good for you”s and “keep it up”s and “you’re doing great”s which could be about the slowness but there’s a thinner girl who’s a little slower than me and I hear absolutely nothing when they pass her. I’ve started counteracting them by throwing them right back. “Good for you too! No, YOU’RE doing great!”


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