As I’ve mentioned before, I really love the Tuesday “fitness” section of the local commuter paper. It can be mildly fatphobic, but it details all kinds of trendy, expensive equipment and classes, and I like to imagine that if this blog were my full-time job, I’d try them all out (tax-deductibly!) and report back to you. Sadly this blog is merely the thing I do when I should be doing my full-time job. But it occurred to me that, with your help, I could still provide a pretty broad view of exercise options outside the hamster-wheel gym mold.
As it happens, I like the gym — my short daily stint on the elliptical is what keeps me off antidepressants. But I’m going to lean away from classic gym exercises like standard cardio machines, weight training, and swimming, for a few reasons. One, the fat-friendliness of these exercises depends almost entirely on the climate of your gym, which I can’t really predict, and some people have understandable aversions to the possibility of judgmental hardbodies, or in fact anything that smacks of phys ed. Two, gymgoing evokes a self-punishment mindset, where you drag yourself through a workout you hate because you think it will make you “good”; it doesn’t have to be like that, and it’s not for many people, but I really want to make the point that there are plenty of other options available. Three, relatedly, I figure everybody already knows that the gym is there, and many people probably already know if they like it or not. I want a compendium of physical activities that people might never have thought of, that might catch the imagination.
My ultimate goal here is that we have a list of activities that exercise-prone Shapelings can peruse for fun new ideas, and that Shapelings who aren’t active but want to be can scour for something that sounds exciting and meets their needs. (If you aren’t active and don’t want to be, obviously it won’t be very helpful for you, but I’ve put most of the text behind a cut!) If possible, try to be sensitive to size ranges, fitness level ranges, health ranges, and expense. There will necessarily be some guesswork involved — for instance, I don’t know how much exertion a person with chronic pain can handle, and thin Shapelings will have to estimate the fat-friendliness of their favorite activities. For that reason, don’t hesitate to post reviews of things that have already been mentioned, offering your own view.
I’ll start, with some sports and activities I have personal experience with. Don’t feel constrained to my format when you add your own.
Even if you couldn’t keep a hula hoop off the ground in elementary school, you can probably hoop; adult equipment is bigger and heavier, making it easier to keep momentum going. If you’re like that girl from Heroes and can copy what you see on TV, there are tons of YouTube videos to inspire you to learn tricks. Personally I need the class, because some of the tricks actually look physically or geometrically impossible, so it’s important to me to get a breakdown. But anything you learn in a class can be easily practiced at home — hoops are very cheap to make. I just had my first class last night and I’m really excited for next week.
- Builds core muscles — I’m pretty sure my teacher could throw something across the room with one flick of an oblique.
- Looks awesome.
- Totally bleeding-edge. You know it’s cool when the Burning Man types are already bored with it.
- Has an art project aspect, since most people make and decorate their own hoops.
- Can absolutely be done solitary, in any backyard or spacious room.
- Fun at parties.
- You will bruise the shit out of yourself at first. I’ve been doing waist hooping for a while, so my ribs aren’t too bruised after last night’s class, but I have a fucking LUMP on the back of my left hand.
- Humiliation potential is high. During some types of tricks, if you lose control of the hoop, it will shoot across the room. Other people will be doing the same thing and you can probably laugh with them.
- Potential for smacking yourself in the face is also very high.
- Some of the Burning Man types still really like it.
Taller and wider people need bigger hoops in order to get enough momentum. I can imagine that this becomes a little difficult if you are quite wide but not very tall, because it might be hard to keep a very large diameter hoop off the ground when doing tricks that involve passing it around your body. Larger hoops also tend to be heavier and thus require more wrist strength to hold (plus they probably bruise more). You could counter this by using one made of a lighter material, or using a proportionally smaller hoop and just hooping faster. Available hoops in my class ran very large, and they can be made even larger; I can’t imagine anybody who wouldn’t be able to find or construct a hoop to fit.
Fitness level required:
In a class, minimal. I barely broke a sweat in an hour and a half of learning and practicing tricks, and I inherited my dad’s sweat glands, which believe me are in no way shy or retiring. On the elliptical, I usually reach saturation levels by 18 minutes, but I can’t say I was more than dewy after hooping class. Doing a full routine would require a fair amount of strength and stamina, and continuous hooping (what I’ve been doing in my backyard, since I didn’t know any other moves) is more demanding than learning tricks. It does require a fair amount of wrist strength, which is easy to build up, but I might not recommend it for people with arthritis or other joint pain.
For a couple of years, belly dance has been the trendy way to get exercise without having to make an enemy of your body. (I’d say it’s the new yoga, but yoga is still the new yoga, as there’s no evidence that it’s about to relinquish its throne.)
- Not as much ab-strengthening as you might think in early levels, but it’s very good for muscle strength and control.
- Almost as good as yoga for getting you in touch with your body.
- Very femme, if you like that sort of thing. Lots of pretty clothes and sexy wiggles.
- Looks hot.
- Possibly culturally appropriative, though you can decide what your relation is to that.
- Very femme, if you don’t like that sort of thing. Popular styles want you to be made up, long-haired, and smiling if you’re going to perform. (If you’re not, then whatev.)
- Can get really pricey, what with classes and costuming (although you’ll only need a hip scarf if you’re doing it for fun and not performance). And you will learn better in a class, at least at first, than from a video. It helps a LOT to be able to ask questions.
Very! I’ve heard stories about belly dance studios that behave like other dance studios in terms of body image, but they are atypical, because the ideal body type for belly dance is one that shakes and jiggles. One of my teachers actually told us repeatedly to “eat a lot and get your shimmies bigger” over Thanksgiving. You do generally have to bare your belly to perform, though not necessarily to practice, so that can be a psychological barrier because we tend to think belly dancers ought to look like Shakira, but fatter women can get amazing effortless-looking shimmies which is really the idea. Depending on where you live, you will probably be practicing with other fat women. I’ve often ended up being the fattest one in my class, but I am far from the fattest one at my studio, and many of the fatter women are advanced dancers.
Fitness level required:
I think you could start belly dance at any fitness level. Sustained dancing or drilling is tiring, particularly for the quads, but you’re unlikely to get out of breath or anything. Some moves require a fair amount of muscle strength and control, but you build that as you go. It’s certainly harder if you’re uncoordinated and out of touch with your body, but that will definitely improve with practice! A class might be hard for someone with chronic pain, because there aren’t a lot of options for scaling the moves to be easier if you’re having a rough day. But overall it is physically demanding without being extremely strenuous.
I fenced from age 9 through college, with a particular obsession when I was on my college team. I’ve found it hard to find a place to fence as an adult that has the right attitude — not too cutthroat, but rigorous enough to keep me happy — but people who haven’t been spoiled by college athletics will probably have fun in a typical adult fencing class. It is just a fucking great sport, that’s all.
- Reflexes! Fencers dodge and parry well and play a wicked game of coasters. My reflexes were particularly helped by rooming with my coach, because I could pretty much get hit with anything at any moment, but that’s just a more extreme version of typical training. I pretty much credit fencing with any ninja catch or dodge I manage to pull out, or basically any time I’m not clumsy.
- Arm, leg, and wrist strength.
- Balance, supposedly, though that’s never really come through for me. I even got red carded once for falling over.
- This may not apply outside a team, but every bit of personal discipline I have, I got from fencing.
- Increased pain tolerance.
- Even after you stop fencing because you can’t find a place that suits you, you will still get keyed-up and energetic when you talk about it, and really annoy other people. Ahem.
- A competitive spirit really helps. Eventually you will have to fight, even just against other people in your class.
- You will get bruised as shit, and more significant injuries are possible (anything that draws blood is really really rare and almost never serious, but for instance I’ve gotten struck right in the throat, bypassing the protective gear. I also had a mole removed via epee).
- Can get REALLY expensive, once you graduate beyond using club gear.
There is a material benefit to being small in fencing, which is this: different weapons have different target areas, but in all cases your opponent has to hit you on your body. The smaller your body is, the tougher that is for them. There’s a reason that the top fencers are very thin and wiry, and it’s not just the fact that exercise is their job. Fat people are just easier to hit, so they need to make up for it with strong parries and good strategy. It can also be difficult to get bigger gear — at one purveyor, jackets top out at a 56″ chest, but knickers don’t go past a 40″ waist. I found them up to a 52″ waist elsewhere, but there was a fairly significant fee tacked on to the larger sizes. And now it is hurting me to look at fencing gear so I will stop.
In a class, you’re unlikely to experience fatphobia beyond the garden variety. On the competitive circuit, I imagine there’s a fair amount, because fencers are assholes. But I was certainly not the only fat woman in the Northeast Fencing Conference, and the other fatties were considerable opponents. In fact, the fattest woman kicked my ass one time.
Fitness level required:
One of the things I love and miss about fencing is the fact that it helps to be strong and fast, but it’s good enough to be strong OR fast. If you’re not quick on your feet but you have a good parry, you’re not that bad off. That said, fencing is physically demanding and classes usually involve a lot of drilling and warm-up exercises like running, jumping jacks, and wall sits. It’s a sport, after all. That said, if you’re interested but not very athletic, check out your county’s parks and recreation service — they sometimes offer fencing classes that are much lower-key.
I only did this for a while while the school pool was closed, but it strikes me as a perfect activity for the newly active or those with health considerations. It’s very low-impact and usually everyone there is either fat, old, or both, but it’s pretty decent exercise.
- Moving around for an hour can’t be bad — even if it’s not too hardcore, you get all the mood and emotional benefits.
- You get to do stuff that would look utterly ridiculous on land, which is fun, especially if you have an instructor who demonstrates on land, as mine did.
- Being in the water is really relaxing.
- You can probably find a class at a community pool, where it’s cheap.
- There is a lot more muscle-building going on than you actually notice.
- Not everyone is comfortable in a bathing suit.
- Don’t get all cocky, because there is actually exercise going on even though it doesn’t feel that way. One time I tried to make some moves harder for myself and ended up with a hideous calf cramp.
- One woman’s “meditative” is another woman’s “boring.”
Higher than anything else I’ve ever done. Sure, you’re in a bathing suit, but so is everyone else, and they’re probably fat too. Water aerobics is low-impact, and buoyant, so it’s very popular for women who are fatter, older, in poor health, or some combination thereof. It’s not a cop-out exercise, but it can be more comfortable than higher-impact activities if you are quite heavy and not acclimated to strenuous exercise, have joint or pain problems, etc.
Fitness level required:
Minimal. The stronger you are, the better you can bounce around, and the harder you can push the water around with your arms, but you can do the moves at any level. Also good for pain sufferers, not just because of the buoyancy, but because nobody can see what you’re doing if you need to slow-roll the moves for a while or alter them to be more comfortable.
Kate can handle this one better than me, but she’s on her birthday vacation. I’m sure she’ll flesh out my description eventually, though.
- Really, really great for stress. People are not kidding when they say this.
- Makes you increasingly bendy.
- Improves posture.
- Good for back problems, knee problems, etc. — though you might want to get a targeted DVD if you’re going that route, and if you’re taking a class you definitely want to talk to the teacher. Yoga teachers know a lot of anatomy and can tell you how to tweak moves to suit your body.
- Awfully trendy!
- With many classes and DVDs, you will encounter a level of new-age mumbo-jumbo that many would find intolerable.
Some places offer “Yoga for Round Bodies” or a variant, which some people might find more comfortable, but personally I’ve never felt out of place in a yoga class or felt like I couldn’t do the moves. I guess there are some where my belly gets in the way, but not so’s you’d notice, and you can always ask the teacher about that (if you’re brave enough) or just adjust moves on your own. If you’re going to a very chic yoga studio in a large city, you might feel weird around all the gym bunnies in their matching Lululemon outfits, but not everyone is like that — and even if they are, once you get started, yoga is such a solitary and concentration-heavy activity that you can be sure they won’t even notice you.
Fitness level required:
Yoga is scalable to all fitness levels. As long as you don’t expect to do everything exactly as the teacher is doing it, you can get the benefits of yoga even if you’re out of shape, inflexible, have a pain condition, whatever. Basically, if you can’t do something or it hurts you, do something different. Some teachers will give a running commentary on this, telling everyone how they can vary the pose for more and less stretch. Others, you may have to ask them for advice on using things like blocks if you can’t reach the floor. But there’s no stigma in not doing a pose that hurts you, or doing a pose less deeply than your neighbor, or taking it easy on a day you’re not feeling great. If someone judges you on that, they’re doing it wrong.
Okay, have at it, Shapelings! I can’t wait to hear about the things you like to do with your bodies. (Er, but keep it PG-13 please.)