After years of falling for fatphobic fitness messaging, writer and blogger Stephanie Yeboah had all but given up on fitness. That was until she found a Health At Every Size (HAES) trainer. Here’s how doing the same could transform your mental health too.
As a person who has always existed in a fat body, I’ve always had something of a hate-hate relationship with the gym and, to an extent, fitness in general. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely sickening when it comes to team sports (my year 9 rounders MVP accolade can attest to that), but when it come to working out either alone or in public, my association with exercise has been triggering to say the least.
From the age of 11 up until my mid-20s, I had an incredibly toxic relationship with my plus-size body, frequently subjecting it to a host of diets and ‘get-slim-quick’ schemes, from hypnotism, fasting and liquid-only meals to training twice a day, every day, under the watchful and fatphobic digital eye of Jillian Michaels and her 30 Day Shred DVD.
I would try my damndest to keep up with the super athletic, lithe bodies on screen who could complete 15 burpees in a row with ease while I huffed and puffed on my weak knees after doing one, and I’d ‘punish’ myself by completing ‘Insanity’-style workouts whenever I allowed myself to indulge on snacks.
Over time, working out became an activity I associated with shame, pain, self-hate and an act exclusive to only slimmer bodies. I eventually began pushing my body to the extreme in order to keep up, internally congratulating myself on being a ‘good’ fat person even though my muscles would be in agony at the end.
I went on to join many gyms over the course of the next five years, promising to go three or four times a week, only to end up hating said gym after a month and cancelling altogether. It wasn’t just the lack of diverse bodies on show at the gym, the glares and smirks I’d get from smaller patrons while I sweated on the treadmill in my tight leggings, the ‘beginner’ work-out classes that were akin to Navy SEAL training, or the constant posters and quotes dotted throughout the gyms that re-emphasised fatphobic messaging that made me hate the place. It was the fact that most of the gyms I attended seemed to promote only one way to achieve fitness: by training as intensively and as quickly as possible.
It’s no wonder that the vast majority of fat people have issues with attending gyms. Who wants to go to a place where you’ll be shamed for not working as hard as everyone else? Where other members secretly take photos of you huffing and puffing?
Studies have frequently shown the positive effects that exercising has on mental health, alongside a host of other benefits that do not centre on weight loss, but in my experience, capitalising on people’s physical insecurities seems to be the only thing these spaces care about.
About four years ago, I decided to pack it in altogether, and I stopped doing any form of physical exercise. And then the pandemic arrived.
With an incredibly large amount of time on my hands and my almost neurotic need to have some kind of daily routine, I started waking up at 6am every day and finding home workouts to do, predominantly using the Walk with Leslie YouTube series where you can choose to walk from one mile to five miles in any given session.
Although a low-intensity workout, I realised that not only was I working up a sweat while having fun, I was completing the exercises in full and feeling good in myself because I was doing it at my own pace. From there, I began picking up the pace and walking five times a week.
About 10 months into lockdown, I decided to start seeing a personal trainer who specialised in Health At Every Size (HAES) – an approach that decentres weight-loss from exercise and nutritional programmes. It’s based on the belief that good health can be achieved at any size, focusing on mental health and strength instead of weight loss.
Training with HAES personal trainers such as Hannah Lewin has completely changed my whole outlook on fitness and what it means to take on challenges at your own pace. I remember the sheer joy I felt after being able to pick up a 70kg deadlift after starting with a 12kg weight a mere five weeks earlier.
Between the relief of not being told that I have to do burpees and the comfort of knowing that I’m hitting the gym to work on increasing the strength of certain muscle groups instead of losing weight, I’ve finally been able to enjoy, access and thrive in a fitness space. Hannah’s encouragement is always gentle and without shame. If I find a certain routine hard, I’m allowed to stop there and then and gradually work up to it later.
Once I decentred weight loss from my workout regimen, going to the gym became – for the first time ever – fun. I now train four times a week, and taking out my weekly frustrations on a deadlift routine has become something that has definitely improved my mental health.
It’s not the concept of exercising that a lot of us find intimidating, it’s the messaging, the scaremongering and the fatphobia that often comes with it. If all gyms took the HAES approach to training, not only could they allow for training and exercise to be fun, but they’d also help to destigmatise fat people in these spaces – allowing us to feel safe enough to concentrate on balancing our mental health.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped on a scale, but the me who can now deadlift 75kg is a thousand times happier than the person who had given up on exercise. The combination of working with body positive personal trainers and refusing to centre weight loss as a goal has ultimately changed my perspective on looking after my health. These days, I’m ‘team gym’ all the way.
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Images: author’s own