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The Weighty Issue of Fitness Instructors

As many of you know, I joined a new gym this past April and amongst other things, I have started going to water aerobics classes several times a week. There are a few different instructors and I have been trying to get to certain classes based on who is teaching because well, some classes are better for me than others because of the types of aquatic exercises that we do in each class.

Last week, one of my regular instructors was on vacation and there was a substitute instructor. When I got to the pool area that morning, I noticed a woman getting the various weights and flotation devices together for the class and I was puzzled. This couldn't actually be my substitute teacher for the class, could it?? There was only one water aerobics instructor that I had not met yet but I figured that it wasn't her. Maybe she was just someone in the class helping to get the equipment ready, which is a frequent occurrence.

I took my spot in the pool at 8:30am sharp and this woman I saw moving the equipment introduced herself and started the class. I have to admit, I was quite surprised that she was the actual instructor. Why? Because this fitness instructor was overweight. It was the instructor I had not yet met.

I have a difficult time estimating how much people weigh but if I had to guess, I would figure that this woman was about forty pounds overweight or so. And this brought up a lot of questions for me and as they so frequently do, the wheels started turning....

To begin with, I have some strong opinions about fat discrimination. I think bias against overweight people is one of the last accepted forms of prejudice in this country. Overweight people are frequently seen as lazy, incompetent, and ugly in a culture where we are constantly bombarded with messages about the importance of being thin. That is not to say that I think being overweight is a good thing or a healthy thing. However I do think that as a society, we often view overweight people with a lot of disdain and we are quick to judge them without even hearing a word coming out of their mouths.

Being an overweight person most of my life, I consider myself more open minded and less judgemental about overweight people than many other people however I quickly judged the competence of this overweight instructor without ever having taken her class and never even having spoken with her. I was surprised about the reaction I had to this substitute water aerobics instructor but I was conflicted about my opinion on having an overweight instructor teaching my class. Did that make me prejudiced?

I do not expect any fitness instructor I come across at my gym to be stick thin. But I do expect them to look fit. To me, fit means able to provide a good aquatic work out for the class participants as well as having a physique that includes looking toned. I don't care if they have cellulite or love handles. But I do care if they are overweight or obese. The other water aerobics instructors appear to be of average weight and more importantly, they appear fit. They have visible muscles and overall look toned. One of them appears to have a physical disability of some sorts that I have gathered, from overhearing conversations, is from some type of accident. She sometimes requires the assistance of a wheelchair. This woman is strong and fit despite her disability and she also does a great class. The overweight substitute instructor's class had some very good points, such as the balance exercises, but it did not provide me what I thought to be a great work out. I am not sure if this was related to her weight or fitness level at all.

And this got me to thinking: can overweight or obese people be fit and healthy?  I know this is a loaded topic for many people. To me, the answer to this question depends a lot on what your definition of fit and healthy is. It also depends on you definition of overweight. Lastly, it depends on whether a person's excess weight is within their control on any level as sometimes there are extenuating factors such as certain illnesses, medications, and hormonal factors.There is a difference between being five pounds overweight and being forty pounds overweight. As an overweight person, I can say that I have never been truly fit and almost every single overweight or obese person I know (almost every one but not quite!) is not fit and healthy. That being said, there are also a lot of average weight people who are neither fit or healthy.

This is the conclusion I have come to for myself: I have lost forty-five pounds in the past several years and I still have a minimum of forty-seven more pounds to lose to put me in a healthy weight category. Every single day I have to make very difficult choices about what goes in my mouth and every single day I have to find the motivation to exercise. When I am watching a fitness instructor lead a class, it is very important for me to see that instructor as an example of what I am striving for. Not the perfect body and not necessarily a thin body either. But rather a body that appears healthy and fit. I want, and need,to be inspired by people who take their fitness seriously. I need good examples such as the instructor who has a disability but yet is still is a healthy and fit woman. Maybe it is wrong to equate general good health with the appearance of a fit body but to me, it is a necessity. It doesn't necessarily make me right but just that I know what works for me.

Part of my reason for writing this post was to get feedback and opinions from others on this topic as I am curious as to what others think about this issue. Please feel free to comment below and remember to play nice. Thank you!

Photo Courtesy of Google Images


  1. Glad to see you are still doing "well". I was just about to send you an e-mail to find out if you were "OK" since you hadn't posted in awhile. :o)

    1. Thank you! Hope you are doing well as well! :-)

  2. I totally agree. At the YMCA that I go to, there is a lady who is obese teaching water aerobics. My first impression is, why is she teaching this class? We know she can definitely float, but any type of fitness teacher needs to be in shape. It is like an overweight doctor telling you that you need to lose weight. I believe that a lot of overweight people make excuses for being overweight rather than doing something about it. I believe that a lot of it is due to self-image.

  3. Sometimes, I read your blog, think about it for a while then write my thoughts. This time, I feel it is important to write my immediate feelings on such a hot topic...and not try to make them 'politically correct'.
    I want my gym instructor to be in good shape - because I won't believe he/she knows how to teach me something if they can't do it themselves. I want to know my police officers can run and catch a criminal. I want my doctors and nurses to be reasonably fit, smoke-free people. I will have trouble taking anyone seriously who isn't 'walking the walk'. In the past, working as a nurse, I smoked and felt guilty about being hypocritical. What gave me the right to tell people what to do when I wasn't taking the best care of myself?
    My father used to say, "Do as I say and not as I do". Guess what? I did what he DID - not what he
    We all need more than a good example of a bad example.

  4. I'm 40# overweight, some of is a result of the recent foot injury & subsequent time on crutches, but you raise a good point. Even before the injury I was definitely overweight, but I ate well, was physically active more than 8 hours a week, my cholesterol has never been over 160, my blood pressure is always low, and I've never smoked. I only drink in moderation. I do understand that the extra 30 lbs puts me in a higher risk bracket for long term health issues, but for now, one could make a solid argument that I am healthy. That being said, this is a marathon, & not a sprint, so I'm doing what I need to do to stay that way, and that involves getting the weight to a truly healthy level. I'd like to think that I would wait until I experienced a class with someone before I judged their teaching abilities, but since you did NOT get the workout you expected, I'd say it's probably a good idea to avoid her classes, if you can. For these days where you cannot, I'd make sure to swim a few extra laps to make up for it. Char

  5. Prior to my illness I had a serious love for running - marathons especially. I had been running over 30 years prior to my getting sick and during this time have run with some very physically fit people. My last marathon was my best - at 3:30, and I weighed 150lbs. (Olympians run it in around 2:30)
    I'm not stating this to toot my horn. I'm stating this to help put things into perspective.
    During this particular race (and many others in my lifetime)there were many, many people that ran the race faster than me. Some of them were older than me, some of them were younger, some of them were thinner and some of them were much heavier than me. I'm sure there were those that beat me past the finish line that were at least 40 pounds overweight. I, myself, have run marathons 20 pounds overweight. I think the heaviest I have run a marathon at has been 160 pounds. The lightest I have run is 139.
    I'll tell you, my fastest times were NOT when I was my thinnest. My fastest 10k was when I weighed 148. I am 5'9" tall, and now, after being sick for three years, I weigh 170.

    I do not believe that weight is an accurate determination of overall health and fitness. It CAN be...but also cannot be.

    The greatest yoga instructor I have ever had was a paraplegic (Matthew Sanford...he is quite famous and has an amazing story if you are interested...Google him!!). This man could not do anything I could do - but he motivated me like no other.

    I find that people have a lot to offer beyond what the eye can see. If I can just let go of my pre-conditioned stereotypes and hidden prejudices, I am often times amazed at the gifts that others have. We don't know their story or what they have to offer if we don't really truly look. I am at fault with this quite often. In fact, two years ago I "judged" the women that was to be my health psychiatrist (for many reasons I won't go into)She appeared to be completely incapable. Now, after three years - she's all but my hero.

    Our struggles are what make us who we are. Sometimes, those that struggle the most have the most to offer. I may not be able to run anymore - but I can give a great motivational speech on running and I have coached a lot of people on the subject.

    Lot's of good conversation here! Thanks for letting me be part of it.

  6. Readers: The following comments regarding this post were made on my Facebook page after I posted a link to this entry there. I am coping and pasting the comments here because I think they are important and add to the conversation about this important topic:

    1. Interesting subject here. The first thing that jumps to mind is, how can an overweight fitness instructor give me a workout that does what I need it to do? I mean, this is a person who is doing these workouts as her job every week. If the workout isn't working for her how's it going to work for me?

    2. Hmm...I didn't even think of it from that perspective but that is VERY true!!

    3. Just because a person is overweight, doesn't mean their workout is not working for them. They may still be a "work in progress" and eager to share what they've accomplished so far. She may not be suitable for everyone, but just think about how intimidating it might be for an obese person to begin their weight loss/fitness journey. Maybe by having a less-than"perfect" fitness instructor, they might not be as hesitant to join the class as they would be if they felt self concious about the way they look. An overweight instructor could more encouraging because they can truly understand. A few years ago, I joined Jenny Craig because I was having trouble losing 10 lbs. Not a lot of weight, but on my 5'1" frame, those 10 lbs mattered to me. I made an appoinment with the center director, and when I met her I was shocked! She was heavy. Maybe 75-100 lbs overweight. Arrogantly, I thought to myself "how in the heck is this woman gonna help ME lose weight?! Maybe I could teach HER a thing or two..." As we talked, and she shared her story with me, I learned that 1 year prior to our meeting, she was 250 overweight! She had lost over 100 lbs!! judgmental was I??? She knew SO much more about weight loss than I did. She was an expert! She was my new hero! I've run many marathon and half marathon events, and every time. I am amazed at the differences in the participants. The thin runners are not always the fastest, and the heavy runners are not always the slowest. It must take a lot of courage for an overweight person to be a fitness instructor. I'm sure they know they will be judged. But my hat's off to that instructor for not letting that stop her! :)

    4. Hmmm honest and interesting. Thanks Christine for challenging us to think!

    5. Okay, I understand what your saying. But I think that if you, a marathon runner walked into an aerobics class that was being taught by someone who appeared to be less fit than you, you'd say to yourself, "how is she/he going to challenge me like I want to be challenged?". She might know everything there is to know about aerobics, but can she actually apply it. That's all I was saying.

  7. More comments from Facebook.....

    I (a marathon runner) disagree. For example, I had the opportunity to listen to a retired marathon runner (one that had made it to the Olympic trials) who was currently not only old, but quite overweight. Obviously he was not only "less fit" than I, but he could no longer "apply" the information to himself. Yet, he was extremely motivational! I believe you are judging whether or not this person could be motivational based on one, if she is as fit or fitter than those she is teaching and two, if she could actually currently apply her teaching to herself. Although quite important at times, I do not believe that these items should preclude a person from being able to teach a skill or to be motivational. Now, if this person was simply a poor instructor, lacking in the skills needed to teach and be motivational herself, then the decision to not take part in her class would be based on such. This could have little to nothing to do with fitness or ability to apply. I had a college coach that was extremely fit and the absolute worst coach I have ever known. Appearance is a difficult thing to get past at times. I feel that our assumptions make it all but impossible. As I said in my post to Christine's blog, I fail miserably at times. But since I have become disabled myself, the world has taken on an entirely different light for me. I've been in the "judged" seat, and it feels quite awful. Last summer I spent time in a wheelchair and I learned some very difficult lessons from both sides of the fence. Knowing the person I used to be, yet feeling the pity and underestimation of others was very painful. I felt I had no credibility, and in some cases, I was given none. We don't know people's story. We don't know what they have to offer until we give them an honest, unbiased shot at things. Not easy to do, I know. But almost always worth the effort!

    Okay, your missing my point here. Your talking about sitting in a class listening to someone talk and maybe teach a technique. An aerobics class is different. The instructor actually does the workout with you, setting the pace for the class. Apply your former marathon instructor to a class where he's expected to set the pace for a training run. That is my point. I think everyone is reading into my point of view. It's not the perception that this person doesn't know what they are doing its more about the application.

    Many of these people do run. And I have run with some of them them. I used the person talking as an example, as well as countless others who have run with me - who are overweight, who are not as fit as I, who are extremely motivational and have a tremendous amount to offer. I spoke of a yoga instructor on Chris's blog. Matthew Sanford is a paraplegic and is by far the best yoga instructor I have ever had. He does not have the ability to do almost anything that I can do, yet his instruction and example are very motivational. He instructs those that are disabled, but the majority of those he instructs are fully functioning and very advanced. If I understand you correctly, it's not that the person is overweight, it's that they cannot apply what they are teaching. In this case, Matthew cannot apply what he is teaching. http://​

  8. I really appreciate your honesty!
    I also would have pause to see my fitness instructor not being at a healthy weight and level of health.
    I also expect that of my doctor .
    I spent most of my teen years 80 pounds overweight. I ate too many calories and moved too little. Nothing fancy or strange, just a math equation stacked too highly on intake with an end result of being obese.
    I had( and still have) to make conscious daily decisions to move, (a lot) each day and be aware of everything that goes into my body. Harsh at 17 but it set the standard that has left me at 43 with a slim fit body ( albeit genetically felled by sjogrens ).It has seen me through four pregnancies without additional weight gain. I am very glad I learned all those years ago that having healthy muscles,a weight the body is not stressed by comes from daily cumulative choices. It would be nice to think likewise but it is really that simple.

    We need to SEE reminders of that from people who hold themselves up as role models for good health- those of us who work within the medical /health community and those who motivate us to greater levels of fitness. Can a fat person be fit? perhaps, but not for long. It is like juggling fire, eventually you will get burned


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