Sizing Up Gym Culture

‘The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise’ has ideas to get everyone moving

January 22, 2013

When Hanne Blank was diagnosed seven years ago with an insulin sensitivity, she learned the best treatment was working out. But the 43-year-old didn’t always feel treated so well as a heavier woman at the gym. Realizing that other people were facing the same issues, she got certified by the American Council on Exercise and began working as a movement coach, helping clients become comfortable in their bodies. In “The Unapologetic Fat Girl’s Guide to Exercise” ($14.99, Ten Speed Press), Blank offers tips for approaching workouts, dealing with injury and handling unwelcome attention.

How often do you work out?

Usually I’m physically active at least once a day in some way, whether that looks like a conventional workout or not. Sometimes what that means is I go out with my big dog and we walk up and down hills for an hour. Your body doesn’t know the difference between you walking up a hill and you walking on a treadmill.

How much does fear prevent people from exercising?

It’s not so much that people fear looking bad in their workout clothes. It’s the fear that other people are going to be nasty because of how they look in those workout clothes. Putting yourself out there often does feel like putting a great big target on yourself, and you’re just going to walk around and see whether anybody chooses to take a potshot. That is a really uncomfortable, nasty thing to do. It’s not fun.

How do you deal with rudeness?

Sometimes I just ignore it because really I don’t have the time. Sometimes I confront people and say, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” If I’m working out in a gym that feels like a hostile environment or where I feel like I’m being judged, I’ll just stop people and say, “Hey, look. Your mandate here as somebody who runs a fitness space is to help people get access and be comfortable using your facilities, and what you’re doing right now is not doing that and let me tell you why.”

Describe your ideal gym.

Make it as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, and that means things like making sure your equipment is physically accessible, like you don’t put the machines so close together that even a skinny person has to walk sideways to get in between the machines to get on them. You make sure that machines have a liberal weight limit, that you’re not using only machines that are really only designed to support up to 250 pounds.

What are obstacles to heavier people working out that most folks don’t realize?

It’s things that have to do with the fact that the mechanics of your body when you are in a fat body or a bigger body are just different. For instance, a lot of the people that I’ve talked to, including some people who are quite skilled athletes who are fat, we have often marveled at the fact that it takes more for us to stop because there’s more mass. It’s harder for us to stop on a dime. Sometimes people end up injuring themselves because they don’t realize that it takes so much force to stop themselves.

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