How To Have a Positive Experience at the Gym When You’re Fat

Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

I’m fat, and gyms aren’t exactly welcoming when it comes to people like me. People will stare, say rude things, and make me feel uncomfortable. Their not-so-subtle message is that I don’t belong there.

It’s hard to be around a lot of fit people, especially if they’re judgmental fit people, which is what I seem to attract at places that focus on fitness.

But I go to the gym anyway.

When you’re fat, you may feel apprehensive about going to the gym and may think that people are staring at you and making a lot of mean comments about your body.

No surprise, there’s a lot of fat-shaming that goes on at the gym.

As much as people may want a fat person to go to the gym; they seem to have a problem when they see a fat person working out as if our mere presence is insulting to them.

Ragen Chastain, self-identified fit fatty, and advocate for the rights of people at any size to engage in physical activity says, “Fat people have to endure unwelcome comments, judgments, and exclusions that can discourage our participation in fitness. We should be able to work out without being body-shamed.”

Are we supposed to work out as privately as possible until our bodies are deemed socially acceptable and only then are, we allow at the gym?

Well, screw that.

I’m going to have fun at the gym and haters can go f*ck themselves.

I don’t have the financial resources to have a home gym nor do I have the room. It’s worth it to me to pay a monthly fee and be able to use all the equipment, the pool, and take classes at the gym.

But there always seems to be somebody there that has an issue with my body or the fact that I choose to exercise in a public place.

I’ve been on the receiving end of disgusted looks complete with the lip-curls, wrinkled noses (as if they’re smelling something horrible) and the side-eye — all of this to let me know that I don’t belong there.

I’ve learned not to let the body-shaming comments disguised as encouragement bother me either.

“Look at you! I wouldn’t have thought you’d last very long on the stationary bike, but you’ve been riding harder and longer than me!”

Weight training? Are you sure you want to get bigger?”

“I wouldn’t dare wear those leggings, but good for you for not caring how you look!”

Many people seem to believe that my big body gives them the right to say whatever they want.

“Sometimes I’ll be at the gym walking on the treadmill or something, and someone will come up to me and say, ‘You’re doing great honey, keep it up.’ And it’s the most condescending s — I’ve ever heard. If I was thin, you wouldn’t come up to me and assume that this was hard for me and give me encouragement. I think there’s a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about fat people working out, and at the end of the day you just need to do what’s right for your body and dismiss what other people think.”

Whitney Way Thore

If someone doesn’t think that we deserve to be there, it’s their problem, not ours.

I learned how to ignore the haters and have a good time when I’m at the gym.

The truth is (and it surprises me as much as you) I enjoy the whole experience of going to the gym. I like having a routine, getting better at something the more I do it, and the feeling I get from working out.

It’s great having goals that are achievable even if they don’t seem like much; they help build my self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

Trust me, the 13-year-old girl who was a mastermind at getting out of gym-class would be shocked, but I’ve always had an athleticism to me; it was just buried so deep that it took me years to finally dig it out.

As a kid, I loved riding my bike, dancing and running. I was good at soccer, skateboarding, and relay races. Moving my body has always felt good to me.

However, I didn’t do well when I was forced to participate in the sports I didn’t like. My mother made me take tennis lessons during the summer, and I hated them. To this day, I never play tennis.

This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy competitive sports; just not ones I’m forced to participate in.

When I first started going to the gym; I only did the water exercise classes. Wearing a bathing suit was my first hurdle, once I got comfortable with that, I knew I could do anything.

I’m competitive out of spite — I will prove to any doubters in that in water-exercise class, I will jump higher, water-walk faster, and have more endurance than many of the average-sized people.

I was lucky because for a couple of years there I had an incredible teacher who encouraged me to get the most out of the classes, push myself, and to celebrate my achievements.

She made me feel like an athlete; not the fat kid who couldn’t do anything.

When she left for another job, it didn’t have the same vibe. There weren’t any other instructors as good as she was, so I focused more on the cardio room.

Now, I try to go a few times a week and do the stationary bike, the elliptical, the rowing machine, and all the weight machines.

Here are some tips that can help make your gym experience better especially if you’re feeling intimidated, apprehensive, or scared.

Be comfortable:

If you want to wear tight leggings and belly shirt, go ahead and do it. It’s all about how you feel. If you feel good in it, then wear it.

Don’t follow any of the unspoken rules for what other people think fat people should wear. If you’re too covered up, you’re going to get overheated and too tired to continue. You don’t want to chafe, blister, or bruise.

However, do dress in accordance to the gym’s policies.

Don’t allow the haters to hurt you:

If someone tries to fat-shame you; you can either shut them down immediately or just ignore them. Do what feels right to you.

If you don’t want to give somebody any emotional real estate then turn up the volume on your headphones and pretend like you can’t hear them.

Don’t compete with anybody but yourself:

Getting back to my “I’m going to exhaust myself proving to everyone that I can do everything that everybody else can do and twice as fast” mindset. First, that’s just a lie, I can’t do everything that everybody else can do, and to pretend otherwise will only get me hurt.

I can try to top my personal best as long as I don’t injure myself in the process.

As fat people, we need to be not only aware of our bodies but be able to adjust to accommodate them. Everybody has their limitations, know yours.

If you have bad knees, then you’re going to want to avoid things that put a lot of pressure on your knees like walking around the track or even the treadmill.

It’s always a good idea to focus on different parts of the bodies on alternate days. Do arms one day and legs the next.

Find the time when it’s not ridiculously crowded:

There’s nothing more annoying than when you can’t get on the machine that you want because there aren’t any available, or having someone try to intimidate you to get off a machine that they want.

The fewer people that are there, the more you can work out at your own pace and do the things you want to do when you want to do them.

Don’t go full force:

I once went to a dance class that was aimed at bigger people, and even though I thought I was being careful, it still killed me. When I told my doctor, he said that I needed to start slow. It seems simple enough, but I know how it is when it looks as no one is having any trouble completing the routine and you’ve got to rest for a while.

Working out from a chair is still working out.

It’s not a competition and if it was, I say you get a prize just for dragging your ass out of bed, ignoring your negative self-talk, and clapping back at those who try to fat-shame you.

Warm-up before and after your workout:

This means that you’re going to practice becoming a world-class stretcher. Nothing warms up your muscles or cools them down better than stretching. Gyms usually have at least one class devote entirely to stretching or if that doesn’t appeal to you, take a yoga class. If you think fat bodies don’t do yoga, then take an all-bodies yoga class.

Include things that will make it fun:

If you’re not doing a class and are working out on your own, music, recorded books, and/or podcasts can help keep your energy up and block out any verbal fat-shaming. I like to do a combination of all the above. Though I will say that nothing gets me pumping like Prince or Lizzo.

Find the things you enjoy and focus on that:

Spin class hurts my whole body, but I can do the stationary bike going at my own speed. I’ve worked my way from 12 minutes to 45 minutes. I avoid the things that I know will injure me, but I still challenge myself.

I may only do the elliptical for 15 minutes, but it still feels like a huge accomplishment. One day I plan to get up to 30 or 45 minutes. Maybe the elliptical will become my whole workout or maybe it will just be something I do when the mood strikes me. I’m not required to do anything.

Go for yourself, nobody else:

If you feel forced to go to the gym, you’re not going to enjoy it at all, and it will seem like torture. Each time you suffer through a workout, you’ll be reinforcing all the negative aspects of the gym and you’ll resent it and whoever made you go.

Go to the gym because you enjoy it.

Don’t go because someone is pressuring you or because you think it’s a quick way to get results. Go because you enjoy moving your body, challenging yourself, and feeling good.

We may not look like Hollywood’s version of gym-goers but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a right to be there and that we can’t have fun while we’re working out.



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Christine Schoenwald

Christine Schoenwald


Writer for The Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Startup, Tenderly, Fearless She Wrote, MuddyUm.