Throwing This Weight Around

Photo by Richard Sabel
Photo by Richard Sabel

Amber Riley (best known as Mercedes from Glee) is on Dancing with the Stars.  I’ve not been a fan of the way that the show has become about dancing for its thin contestants and weight loss for its fat contestants, so I tuned in with some trepidation. I was thrilled to see Amber displaying body pride, with no weight loss talk.  She said that she thinks it will be good for girls her size to see her dancing and “throwing this weight around!”  I agree with her and all of my fingers and toes are crossed that even if she experiences some (likely temporary) weight loss that she stays body positive and weight neutral.

This got me thinking about weight and mobility.  I get lots of e-mails from frustrated fat people whose doctors/personal trainers/family members who watch Dr. Oz and think they are doctors told them that the only way to increase mobility/fitness is by losing weight.  This is patently ridiculous for a couple reasons.  The first, of course, is that they have no idea how to help people lose weight long term – the vast majority of people who diet end up gaining their weight back – and often more than they lost – within 5 years so if body weight is the source of mobility problems, then recommending weight loss is absolutely irresponsible.  The second reason that this is stupid is that the suggestion that body weight=mobility ignores the realities of mathematics, not to mention the fact that there are people with varied mobility and fitness at various sizes.

Let’s start here – mobility is not a measure of value or worth, there should be zero judgment of people based on their mobility.  People have different levels of mobility for different reasons and none of those are anyone else’s business unless the person wants it to be someone’s business.  Not everyone can icrease their mobility and nobody should be pressured to do so.  Everyone should have access to every mobility option including mobility aids from canes to scooters and anything that can help rated for whatever their weight is and there should be no shame or judgment in the use of these mobility aids ever for any reason.   Fitness is not a measure of worth, people who choose movement/fitness as a hobby are no more laudable than people who choose anything else as a hobby.  Fitness by any definition is not an obligation.

If you want to increase mobility/fitness then I would suggest starting with the three pillars – strength, stamina, and flexibility.

Strength:  This one is often overlooked accidentally or intentionally by people who are doling out advice to fatties. Personal trainers are infamous for ignoring this for fat people because they don’t want to “put weight on,” telling us instead to focus on cardio.  I do not know how they can believe one half of the equation (if we lose weight then it will be easier to move at our current strength) but not the other half of the equation (if we gain strength then it will be easier to move at our current weight).

Strength training is the most important part of my fitness program  – it is what allows me to move my body around the way that I do.  I’m very lucky in that I seem to build muscle easily, as with everything, your mileage may vary.  I know that for a lot of fat people strength training has also been psychologically good for them because they excelled at it. As super heavyweight Olympic weight lifter Cheryl Haworth puts it – mass moves mass.  Strength training can include lifting weights, body weight exercises (wall sits, sit to stands from a chair, push ups – including modifications like wall push ups), using resistance bands, and strength work in the pool.


There are lots of ways to work on stamina – it’s essentially about elevating your heart rate.  One thing that people who have mobility issues can do is to separate stamina training from strength and flexibility work.  If walking is difficult then trying to walk fast enough and long enough to elevate heart rate could lead to lots of other problems, or be impossible.  Stamina work can be done with the upper body (like using a hand bike while sitting), or sitting down (chair dancing, chair aerobics, sit and be fit etc.),  stationary in the pool (holding onto the side and kicking), moving in the pool (swimming, aqua jogging, water aerobics).  A quick note about water work  – one of the reasons that it can be helpful is that a lot of your body weight is supported by the water.  This is great for people with joint issues, or those starting out on mobility work,  if your goal is mobility out of the water (being able to walk farther etc.) then you’ll want to eventually add work that has you support your own body weight out of the water.


I think that flexibility is really important because it helps with mobility and general body resilience and can be super practical (the importance of being able to wipe with both hands is often underestimated by people who have never injured their primary wiping arm).  There are lots of ways to work on flexibility – from yoga, to martial arts flexibility work, to resistance stretching, pilates etc.  It can also be aided by things like massage, partner stretching etc.  For me flexibility takes the most time, I’m not naturally flexible – it took me a year of working about an hour a day to get my splits – if I wasn’t a dancer I would definitely still work on flexibility but certainly not to that extent.

In general I suggest choosing functional goals (I want to be able to walk to the mailbox, I want to be able to lift my grandkid, I want to be able to touch my toes) or goals that mean something to you (walk x miles, bench press x pounds etc.)  You can start with a baseline (for example how far you can walk now), set a goal based on that (walking 1.5 times/twice that far) devise a plan that will work for your actual life, be flexible with yourself, be compassionate with yourself, and celebrate every small victory like you won the Super Bowl.

I believe that every body is different and they aren’t comparable so, to me, there is really no point in comparing my body to anyone else’s in terms of how it looks or what it can and can’t do. For me it’s about having fun and throwing this weight around.

There are great resources out there for those who want to work on this stuff, here are some I’ve personally experienced and loved (I’m living in terror of forgetting someone here, apologies in advance if I did) – feel free to list others in the comments.

Jeanette DePatie (aka The Fat Chick) is a fat personal trainer who has a book and video on beginner fitness that are fabulous, as well as doing personal training live and by Skype for those who aren’t in the LA area, and doing two beginner level fitness classes a week that she livestreams.  Jeanette is a good friend of mine and I’ve taken class with her and she is fabulous.

Punk Rock Hoops  is run by two rocking sisters (Blythe and Rowan) and their new Chief of Making It Happen Alejandra. They offer classes, teacher certifications, workshops, and the amazing Hottie Hoop Camp.  I took a class from Rowan with my friend Heather and not only was she awesome, encouraging and patient (I got a serious workout from all the squats I did dropping the hoop and picking it up again),  we ended up in

Abby Lentz is a fat yoga teacher who has DVDs, live classes and trainer certifications.  Abby is fantastic at using modifications and props to make yoga work for every body (including those who utilize wheelchairs, live predominantly in bed and live with disabilities)  I met Abby when I lived in Austin, I got to take class with her and it was wonderful.

Anna Guest Jelley is a self-described curvy yoga practitioner and instructor who offers resources in the form of books as well as classes live, and online and trainer certifications.  I’ve had the opportunity to meet her online and I’ve taken some of her online classes and loved them.

The Fit Fatties Forum is a place for anyone who wants to talk about movement and fitness from a weight neutral perspective. Jeanette DePatie and I founded it and there is a general forum where people talk about everything from chub rub, to getting out of a movement rut, to finding plus-size activewear. There are groups (like newbies, runners, hoopers, strength athletes etc.) and there are photo and video galleries that are pretty awesome.  It’s totally free to join and use.

Please feel free to add your recommendations in the comments!

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26 thoughts on “Throwing This Weight Around

  1. My favorite strength training is the Le Creuset workout. Lifting large, enamel-coated, cast iron pots and pans can do a lot to improve a gal’s upper body strength! Kneading bread is also a favorite of mine.

    Amusingly enough, I was chair dancing as well as checking my email when I opened up this article. Who says there’s no such thing as multi-tasking?

    1. I totally need to use the “Le Creuset workout” when someone asks me about my strength training! We have a pot rack over the sink and some very heavy pieces. Half my friends do not possess the strength to put the pots and pans away for me. And I ADORE baking bread.

  2. I’d like to add one more category for improving mobility– coordination.

    And I’ll second Ragen’s caveat that there’s no obligation of any kind to work on this stuff.

    People can lose some of their skill at moving as a result of lack of movement (you can forget parts of your movement repetoire if you haven’t been using them). This can be a result of injury (not moving in some way because it hurts, and then not recovering it when the pain is gone, lack of variety (walking on flat surfaces, for example), or emotional repression– if you generally don’t let yourself cry, this can involve immobilizing your face and chest. Following bad advice (stand up straight, hold your stomach in) can also lead to forgetting how to move easily and freely.

    I’m beginning to think that just living in a world with a lot of right angles and distinct objects is part of the problem for some people (including me)– efficient movement is geometrically complex. Muscles wrap around bones in non-obvious ways, and it’s all one system. People can hurt their knees by not letting their thigh bones rotate when they squat.

    Alexander Technique is a way of regaining access to good kinesthesia by letting head and back release upwards– it’s rather subtle, and I recommend getting a teacher rather than trying to do it from a description.

    The Feldenkrais Method involves paying attention to gentle repeated movements– the good news is that it includes Awareness through Movement, an approach which is designed for people to use without a teacher.

    Eric Franklin is a dancer and anatomist– he’s got an excellent series of books about using imagery to improve movement.

    1. This is worrisome to me, as I may need a knee replacement in the future. My mother, who is thin, had a hip replacement about 10 years ago in her 60’s. At the time, she told me that many of the other people there were large and having a very hard time with the procedure because of their weight. My own orthopedic doc has told me to keep exercising to prevent more weight gain (thus straining my knee further) but to be careful and stop when it hurts.

    2. the thing is, and I say this as a fat woman with an arthritic hip, every step we take puts forces of ten times our body weight through our hip joints. Being very overweight puts a lot of extra strain on hip joints and makes it more likely that the new hip will fail. It’s not fat-shaming, it’s just biomechanics.
      I injured my hip by falling off my bike and landing hard on tarmac (icy puddles and bikes don’t mix). I broke my pubic ramus and the force of landing shoved the head of my femur into the acetabulum (hip socket) and ground the bones together, permanently damaging the bony surfaces and leaving me with arthritis in that hip. I now find that riding my bike is painful, any high impact form of exercise is painful and leaves me walking with a stick for a week, so I went back to swimming. Breaststroke hurts my hip so I’ve learned a reasonably decent front crawl and now I swim at least 4-5km per week. I find if i swim 4-5 times per week, the pain in my hip is reduced to the point I don’t need painkillers, which is great because cocodamol is the devil’s drug. I’m stronger – getting muscles in my arms, I’m improving my cardiovascular fitness, I’m minimising the pain in my hip, and I’m not risking more damage to my joints – it’s great. I’d really recommend swimming and water-based activities to anyone with joint issues who wants to exercise.

      1. Hi Kirsten,

        Thanks for your comment. I understand what you are saying. I do want to be clear that even if it is true (though I’ve heard figures other than 10 times our body weight), and even if working on movement patterns, supporting muscles around the joints, anti-inflammation and other treatments fail to make the hip replacement last as long as it would in a smaller person, that still does not suggest that weight loss is an appropriate intervention because it doesn’t work. It’s like saying that people with joint problems should learn to fly. It might be effective if it were possible but that doesn’t suggest that we should tell people to try it.

        I don’t think it’s ethical to withhold treatments like joint replacements because they may wear out sooner. First of all, it’s all a matter of degrees – based on this math, someone who is 150 pounds will wear their joint out sooner than someone who is 100 pounds so should we deny hip replacements to those who weight 150 pounds? 151? 155? Any cut off that is chosen will be random. I have a friend with a very expensive prosthetic leg who wears it out constantly because he does extreme sports with it and his healthcare team is THRILLED to replace it and are always excited that he is so active. I think that at the end of the day this ends up being one of those times that the existence of a justification is used to hide thinly veiled fat bigotry and withhold medical treatment that could really improve quality of life. . ~Ragen


        1. I understand what you’re saying, and I’m not disagreeing. Joint replacement is something I know a little bit about through my work, although it is ages since I worked in orthopaedics. When a joint replacement fails, it has to be redone. Redone joint replacements are never as good as the first replacement, they’re more likely to fail again, and when they do fail again, it’s harder to redo them and might not even be possible to redo them. Sometimes the only option is to permanently fuse the joint, which means never being able to bend it again, or sometimes for hips as a last resort, they remove the femoral head and a bit of the top of the femur and leave the leg just not connected to the pelvis, which is obviously catastrophic in terms of mobility.
          Luckily surgical techniques and joint prostheses are getting better and lasting longer, so people can and do have much better outcomes than were available even ten years ago. But the more weight going through the joints, the more difficult it is. There aren’t any easy answers, but I think sometimes it helps people to know “these are the reasons why this is more difficult” rather than just “we’re not doing it because you’re too fat”

          1. I’ve been an RN for almost 30 years, and a large number of my patients in home care are recent knee/hip replacements. These patients come in all shapes and sizes, and the majority of them recover very nicely. The fact is, today’s artificial joints last a long time (probably 20 years and longer), and unless someone has other health issues that make joint replacement surgery ill-advised, there’s no reason a heavier person should not have the procedure done, after other more conservative measures have proven ineffective. It’s a quality of life issue, and all people, no matter what size, deserve that quality if it’s possible.

            Even if the joint wears out more quickly (and that is not a given), it will enable the person to have pain relief, to function at work and other activities, and just live a more normal life for a significant period of time. Is it even ethical to tell a fat person that if they do not lose weight, they must live with their pain and immobility? It’s like saying, “Well, like most people, diet and exercise didn’t make you smaller, but regardless, as a punishment, we won’t do what we know to do to ease your suffering!”

            On a personal note, I myself had both of my knees replaced last summer (at the same time. Because I’m crazy like that. 🙂 ) I am not a small woman. But I did well, and I’m doing well today. If I hadn’t had the surgery done, I’m not sure I’d be able to work right now. The pain had gotten relentless and debilitating. Now I have very little pain. I’m able to work, and walk, and not cry when I go to sleep at night. If doctors had denied me this procedure, I’m sure I would be disabled right now. And I’m in my 50s. My mother had both of her knees replaced over 20 years ago now. She is also a large woman, but she’s doing well, and this is without the joints that they’re using today.

  3. I just wanted to share that about two months ago I started yoga classes (Hatha-style) and have been going about three times a week. My teacher, who is on the plump side, came up to me one day and said that I had a great practice and great lines and that it was so good to see someone else with her body type in class consistently.

    Since starting, my weight has stayed the same but my clothes feel different and I’m STRONGER. I can do (and hold!) poses I couldn’t before, like chaturanga and chair, and my husband felt my bicep the other day and was like “Holy shit!” He said I’m even walking differently now, probably from a combo of more core strength, better awareness of posture, and increased confidence.

    I used to think I just wasn’t “the athletic type” because I tended towards being curvy rather than lean, and because running bored me to tears and team sports made me anxious/self-conscious. Now I realize that I AM an athlete, I just had to find my sport! And I’m awesome! It feels so good to come into class with thinner women and be able to completely keep up with them, or sometimes even outdo them in stamina and form. I don’t want to make it about competition, but I’ve always thought I had to “get thin” before I could excel at a sport. I have finally found something I feel great doing, that boosts my confidence instead of tearing it down.

    The only thing I wish is that plus size athletic clothing weren’t so damn pathetic. I am wearing the largest sizes in Athleta, and I have to be honest, feeling cute is a big motivator for dragging my ass out to class three times a week. Someone with some cash needs to step up and fill that gap!

  4. Couldnt agree me. This is why, when I was referred to physio for a condition for which the main treatment is strengthening the muscles, I ignored her advice which was “focus on cardio and weightloss”.

  5. I love yoga and strength training and have no will to run whatsoever. Thankfully I’ve always had a fair amount of flexibility (have always been able to touch my toes no matter what my weight) and strength but stamina is my weakness. I often struggle through an hour of yoga or bar method but I always feel better at the end. I took one cardio/weight combo class and felt like someone had beaten me up and my chest hurt. Never went back to that. I’ll stick with what I enjoy. I don’t understand the desire to feel like I’ve been through the wringer as some sort of accomplishment.

  6. I was informed today that as a voice major I would be required to have my vocal cords “scoped” and tracked during my academic career (“But it’s a free service in conjunction with the state of the art teaching hospital! It can let us see if there are any problems with your throat!”). I would also be required to participate in a Weight Management program sponsored by the hospital because “as a singer, you are an athlete, and we want to make sure you’re healthy, so we will be tracking your weight. The people working on this program with us are VERY interested in the health of you singers, and it’s ENTIRELY FREEEEE!”

    If they press me, I will tell them to bite me long, hard, and deep. I just had a physical from my real doctor, not some med students trying to get funding and a degree, and my BP charted in at 120/70, my bloodwork was absolutely perfect, and the only thing wonky was my thyroid meds which needed to be reduced. My doctor knows I stay active and healthy and has no problem with my weight, never has.

    Suddenly opera singers, traditionally known to be broad, now must account for their talent by maintaining a “healthy” weight.

    There are two very heavy singers in our classes, both weighing well over 300 pounds, both with fantastic musical prowess. I wonder what will happen with them?

    Incidentally, the lady who is spearheading this whole thing, a voice teacher with the adjunct faculty, is quite heavy set herself. I will suggest to her that if she wants us to do this, she should do it first herself and make the results as public as they intend to make ours.

    1. I think it was Helena Handbasket who is also an opera singer. She told of how the profession has been changing, and that today fat singers – who used to be the average singer – are no longer being hired. The thin “sexy” singer is hired, even though they can’t do the job, while the fat “unsexy” singer is left to sit on the sidelines, while she can do the singing.

      If Pavorotti was starting out today, he wouldn’t get hired.

        1. It is very true. We had a gal come talk to us as a sort of “Look what a music career can give you!” pep talk. She’d graduated from my school and had gone to Europe to pursue her career…had a STUNNING voice, was around 5′ 3, and probably weighed (PURELY a guess) around 115. But she had been flat-out told she was too fat to play anything but maids and wives because she had “big legs”.

          She said she’d even walked into the room to audition only to be told, “You’re too fat…go lose weight” without ever having sung a note. She also said once she returned to Europe she was going to start another diet. Her current diet (as she explained to us) when she was on tour and staying in hotels was to pack an electric kettle and take dozens of packets of oatmeal and dried fruit to eat because a lot of these tours don’t pay anything or don’t pay for food. In fact, in some places, YOU pay THEM to audition.

          I could go on, but after a while I tuned her out even though I was required to pay attention. I have no desire to be a professional touring opera singer, never have. I’m in this to become the best singer I possibly can. At 42, I’m hardly going to go on the opera circuit. I just kept thinking how beautiful this girl was, how at 27 she STILL wasn’t earning enough to make a living, and how every day she gets told that she’s just not thin enough.

          I felt sorry for the other kids there because I have a very strong sense of self after having lived in Europe for 12 years and having kids and REALLY learning what I’m all about…so I was able to hear what she WASN’T saying more than what she was. And my ego isn’t attached to my voice. But those other kids? I REALLY felt for them because they have some very hard lessons coming.

  7. Amber is magnificent, and has been unapologetic about her size for quite a while. I’m a total fan.

    Thank you for saying what you did about mobility and weight. My heart is too full to say much: just thanks.

  8. I love all this advice! For me, learning to use my body taught me to inhabit my body, which was so empowering.

    Also, Amber is amazing! Her dancing is so joyful– have you ever seen her Baby Got Back dance from the show Huge? Jaw-dropping. AMAZING.

  9. I appreciate the refresher on the types of exercise and what they accomplish. It’s so nice to hear about it in a weight neutral conversation. It was timely. My family practice doc has recommended more movement to deal with my red and rough shins. I’m one of those people that has never liked any kind of exercise until I met belly dance. However, due to my current health situation, I am not able to perform any routines.. Naturally, I incorporate some of the moves as I sit at the computer. And, yup, I already have plenty of DVDs for chair work, etc.

  10. I have been overweight my whole life; in 1994 I was involved in a head-on car accident (the oncoming car crossed over into my lane and hit me doing 70mph). Needless to say, I now spend my life in a wheelchair. A few weeks ago I needed a prescription from my physician to get a new wheelchair, and the very first reason she listed was “morbid obesity”. Paralysis was at the very end of the list. I get so tired of people assuming my wheelchair is because I’m fat. I do a lot of work in a pool to keep my muscles working – and I do a lot of upper body workout (first off, I have to motivate my 375 pound body in a manual wheelchair – that counts for something, right?).

    But, everyone I see says, “You should lose weight” *sigh*

  11. I have had good experiences using an old program for exercise and flexibility. It’s the my system from JP Muller and has some really nice graduated exercises to build up strength, flexibility and stamina while being able to adjust it for your current levels. It’s even pretty non judgmental about size of the person doing them. Of course since it’s from the early 20th century it does have some of the prejudices of the day so your tolerance of it may vary.

    I do like that most of it can be done where ever and whenever though without gym or equipment beyond a chair or wall.

  12. Urgh this reminds me of my mom who told me something like “I feel like I have a weight around my stomach and I have difficulty moving” as to why she is doing her latest ~lifestyle change~ (NOT a diet OF COURSE!) and she “knows she’ll never be thin” but just wants to be a “little smaller” and this is “for her health” /headdesk. Never mind that doing stuff like you said could help her increase stamina and strength which could help her mobility, No she has to do a lifedietchange for the 20 billionth time in her life and LOSE! WEIGHT! to help that all approved of course by the place where she exercises (also distributor of her dietstyle change plan) and her fatphobe doctor.

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