When Ragen Chastain set the Guinness World Record for the heaviest woman to complete a marathon, she said she hoped her record would soon be broken "to increase visibility of what larger people can do."
As a self-identified "fit fatty," Chastain is an advocate for the rights of people to engage in physical activity at any size. She and a growing number of others are shedding light on ways in which our society upholds barriers to movement among the overweight and obese.
"Fat people have to endure unwelcomed comments, judgments and exclusions that can discourage our participation in fitness," says Chastain, who weighed 288 pounds when she set the record in 2017. "We should be able to work out without being body-shamed."
As a certified exercise physiologist, I've heard many stories like Chastain's, and they've made me realise that we need to be doing a much better job at welcoming people of all sizes into movement without making assumptions about them.
Many folks who eschew regular workouts have said they are really avoiding the recurrence of painful past experiences, such as fellow gym-goers blatantly mocking them, trainers saying their physical efforts weren't good enough and street harassment for simply taking a walk outside. One new mother described to me her wonder that the glares she experienced ceased only when she had a newborn in tow.
The prevailing myth about overweight and obese people is that if they just worked harder, they would become thin, but that's actually not a typical outcome.
Jennifer Kuk, a kinesiologist and associate professor at York University, says, "Weight management science is very complex, and much of how the body responds to weight-loss attempts is outside human control."
In the age of "tough love" training ushered in by the likes of Jillian Michaels and "The Biggest Loser," most of the professional fitness industry has rendered itself ill-equipped to truly provide what many people at higher weights desire, including modifications; diverse, enjoyable training plans; and goal-setting outside of weight reduction.
Those who have persevered and managed to build up serious fitness routines have said they are tired of always being seen as a beginner who should only be on the elliptical machine to lose weight, when they might be able to do more challenging weightlifting moves than thinner exercisers. Higher-weight runners complain that running stores assume they are there for walking shoes and the only clothing options that fit are hats and fuel belts. Even race events often limit participant shirts to sizes, only going up to extra-large.
Wherever the negative messaging comes from, people internalise that stigma, which can lead to exercise avoidance or over-training. Instead of seeing weight as a problem, consider that weight stigma poses a bigger threat to developing long-term exercise routines.
Reducing weight stigma
Everyone can reduce weight stigma by reducing body shame. Start by treating all exercisers the same, and don't assume anyone's goal is weight loss. Reinforce a positive, self-care mind-set, especially when someone shares any kind of frustration with past exercise experiences.
Fitness professionals should provide a plan that's safe, interesting and sustainable, with a focus on building strength, stamina and flexibility. And a crucial part of showing people they belong in fitness is visibility.
"The single most important factor that needs to change is the systemic bias against higher-weight people," Kuk says.
Chastain adds: "While it is not an obligation for anyone at any size to have to engage in physical activity, it's important progress to create spaces that welcome those who do for everyone's physical and mental health."
Scritchfield is a Washington-based dietitian, certified exercise physiologist and author of the book "Body Kindness."