Those of you who have been keeping up with recent literature about weight and health may be aware of the Newsweek cover story of 4/21/97, which asked the question, "Does It Matter What You Weigh?" A very positive article from a mainstream publication, it suggested what exercise physiologist Glenn Gaesser posits in his excellent book, Big Fat Lies: health is not much related to weight, but instead to physical fitness/activity. The negative health effects which have been attributed to fatness, in other words, seem to have more to do with couch potatohood. (And also, in my opinion, to the effects of weight cycling (yo-yo dieting), being the target of prejudice, and medical misinformation, prejudicial treatment/avoidance of medical preventive care-another column, perhaps.)
While in my psychotherapy practice, I specialize in weight-related concerns that people have, I do see clients with all kinds of concerns. For many years, I have recommended movement to nearly everyone I have seen. My favorite panaceas are chicken soup and/or movement. Bodies like to move and were designed to do so. Sitting behind a computer or television screen all day may stimulate one's mind and fingertips, but that is not sufficient movement for our bodies as they have evolved to date. When we give our bodies the movement they need, they respond by reducing depression and anxiety, helping us sleep better and digest food better, lowering our blood pressure, raising our good feelings about ourselves and our bodies, reducing pain, improving our sex lives, and raising our energy levels.
But recommending movement to a fat person is akin to recommending diets, or saying "Just eat less and exercise more." It sounds like the same old, useless, mindless, judgmental garbage people have laid on fat people since our grandparents' time-the stuff that doesn't work and ends up having us feel even more defective. So we have to consider what kind of movement fits us best.
Strengthening: Fat people are way ahead of the game here! One of the many health benefits of fatness is a lower incidence of osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease tending to affect older people-especially women-and people with anorexic. To strengthen our muscles, we need to lift weight. Well, we do that all the time! Walking, standing up, doing our daily activities-we're always carrying extra weight. Thinner people may strap on wrist or ankle weights, to intensify their workouts; we don't have to!
Since I like to incorporate fitness activities into my daily activities anyway, I also add little strengthening exercises like leaving my grocery cart at the store and carrying my groceries to my car (which in decent weather I've parked farther away from the store). If you carry children or pets, books, or any other weighty objects, be aware that you are also improving your physical fitness.
Some fat people experience back pain which may be due to the pull of a large abdomen. You can strengthen your back muscles and/or stretch such that the pain can disappear. Generally, for starters, I would recommend pushing your pelvis forward (think of pelvic thrusts during sex) and holding in your fanny and abdomen for several seconds, then releasing them, frequently. Since I am not an exercise specialist, though, I also recommend you consult a fat-friendly book like Lyons and Burgard's excellent Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women.
Stretching: Cats, dogs, and many of us stretch on first awakening-stretching helps us feel better and prepare for or recover from action. It can be as simple as moving our left ear towards our left shoulder, holding it there for a few seconds, releasing the stretch, and then doing the same on the right side. We can move gradually down our bodies, raising and rotating big muscle groups and small ones. Stretching can help us prevent injuries and can simplify and ease what we do regularly. Good exercise programs incorporate stretching into both warming up (preparing for more vigorous exercise) and cooling down. Yoga is a friendly form of stretching which many fat people like, and there are fat-positive yoga videos and classes available. As with any form of movement for any type of body, the movement should be modified to fit the individual, so (for example) you may want to stretch while seated on two chairs, rather than on the floor.
Aerobic: One of the harmful misconceptions that many of us may have harbored is that in order to strengthen our hearts and lungs, we need to jog or do some other similar, rapid movement. When I was new to NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), its Vice President, Lynn Meletiche (who is a nurse) informed me that "fat people get aerobic exercise just walking across the room). When you think about the strength it takes to move several hundred pounds, that makes sense. There are some forms of exercise which can give us an ample workout while at the same time being fun, and others which we should avoid like the plague!
My favorite for fat bodies is swimming. We are perfectly built for water activities! Fat bodies are buoyant, with built-in flotation devices. We carry our own built-in thermal underwear to keep us warm in cool water. And the effects of gravity are mostly relieved in water. We can move deliciously and more freely! Look at water mammals-they're built like us! You don't have to be a swimmer, though, to engage in water activities. Many Y's, health clubs, and rehabilitation centers offer water-exercise classes which are fat-friendly and which allow your head to be above water at all times.
A few hints: Generally, the less costly places to exercise have members with the most variety in body size (the pricier ones may have skinnier members, in general). Also, since the worst tormentors of fat people can be teenage boys, consider working out when they are asleep or at school. Many people meet with friends to work out together; fat people in many places have organized swim gatherings where they rent a pool/lifeguard for an hour or so during the week so that the pool feels "safer." Look for a pool with stairs, not just ladders, to help you get in and out. Worth Your Weight and other books and magazines can help you to locate makers of swimwear to fit you. NAAFA always offers fat-friendly pool events. I have also heard of several fat people banding together to take back the beach-together, we are formidable! And for fat-thinner couples, the thinner person may choose to walk around the pool while the fatter person swims in it.
For people who might be intimidated by swimming, there are many other possibilities-such as walking. We need comfortable, supportive shoes. We can start with walking across the room, and very gradually build up walking time. Some people like to walk in their neighborhoods, at the local school's track, or at the mall; some can even walk through their houses for a private workout. There are also videos such as "Chair Dancing" which allow one to get an aerobic workout while sitting in a chair. There are now lots of fat-friendly exercise videos available.
And don't forget the movement you already do but forgot was exercise because it was fun and/or a normal part of your day-such as housework, going to and from work, shopping, gardening, walking the dog, playing with children, dancing, or sex. It's definitely possible for activities which feel good and accomplish something to also keep us in good shape regardless of the shape of our bodies. ß