Teresa (center), Avery (left), and Kathi enjoy the pool
at the Mount Diablo Family YMCA in Pleasant Hill.

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Published on August 26, 1997


Special exercise programs keep the pressure off the overweight


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YVONNE MOSS plunked down $1,000 to a join a gym, visited three times, then went home crying.

Overweight but wanting to improve her health, Moss says she was stared at by other club members who had neither tact nor subtlety. Her feelings hurt and her self-confidence gone, she vowed to never frequent a fitness facility again.

"Regular gyms just aren't for big girls. You can't be comfortable," says the water-service clerk from San Francisco. "You want to go there and help yourself and get into shape, but you can't. You're just so out of place."

But Moss, who once so firmly resigned herself to a life of inactivity, is back at it again, exercising three or four days a week at a Redwood City spa. Despite the hour commute, she has stuck with her fitness program since April and says she actually looks forward to exercise now.

The difference? Her club, Women of Substance Health Spa, is supportive of size differences.

Fat-friendly gyms and exercise classes are catching on across the country, though some would say not quickly enough.

Based in part on the notions that exercise should be a pleasurable part of life and that bodies are meant to move, the programs embrace the philosophy that everyone should be entitled to health and fitness, no matter their size or age.

"We do not have any scales. We do not do any body-fat testing. Nor do we have tape measures," says Dana Schuster, co-owner of the Redwood City spa, which opened in January. "We don't do any before-and-after kind of stuff. We don't do any dieting. Nor will we ever."

Friendly atmosphere

What these programs offer -- and why they are considered to be havens by many overweight people -- is an accepting environment that focuses on exercise for exercise's sake, minus the calorie counting.

Bettye Travis, a spokeswoman for Making Waves, knows the difference a little support can make in the lives of those who are overweight. Her Albany group sponsors a weekly swim for women 200 pounds and over, and dozens of women return again and again for the fitness, fun and friendly atmosphere.

"For once in people's lives, there's one place at least once a week where they're not in pain about their looks. For someone of size, that's a real big deal," she says.

Indeed, embarrassment and fear of intimidation can be some of the greatest deterrents for overweight men and women wanting to exercise, says Alice Ansfield, the Oakland publisher of Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women.

"It's hard to get out and walk around the lake when guys in a car yell out, 'Keep walking, Fatso.' And it's hard for (large) women to get into public pools, go to beaches or go swimming in the lake. It takes a lot to stand proud," she says.

Special equipment

What makes the matter worse is that fitness equipment and even many aerobics classes aren't always designed with larger bodies in mind.

"An awful lot of equipment is not rated for bodies weighing more than 250 pounds," says Schuster, whose spa searched for quite some time to locate machines that could safely accommodate anyone weighing up to 600 pounds.

The club also offers special benches for clients who wish to participate in aerobics classes but need to do so from a seated position. Additionally, the gym's fitness machines are equipped with wider seats and wider backs to offer better ergonomic support.

Support has been the secret behind many successful "oversize exercise" classes like Big Moves in San Francisco and Major Moves in Oakland. Participants are not pressured, belittled or laughed at. On the contrary, the activities are often as much about socializing and having fun as they are about physical fitness.

As well they should be, says Pat Lyons, co-author of "Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women" and a health education consultant in Oakland.

"The whole reason to be active and to go outside and play is because that's what our bodies are meant to do," says Lyons, a registered nurse.

All too often, however, society and the medical profession have focused primarily on the weight-loss benefits of exercise, benefits that may be overstated.

"You can expect the average exercise program to result in no more than five to 10 pounds of weight loss at most, and that's being fairly liberal. The average is closer to five than it is to 10," says Glenn Gaesser, an associate professor of exercise physiology at University of Virginia and author of "Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health."

"The average American who would like to lose weight typically would like to lose close to 30 pounds," he says. "Thus, there's a huge discrepancy between what people would like and what exercise delivers."

Disappointments encountered

Still, the idea that exercise and proper diet can make anyone rail thin persists in a society that is, by many accounts, fat phobic.

Obesity has somewhat erroneously been equated with inactivity and poor health, says Wayne C. Miller, professor of exercise science and nutrition at George Washington University Medical Center.

"To try and say to somebody who has got a genetic predisposition to obesity, 'If you eat right and exercise you'll be 115 pounds,' that's about as ridiculous as saying to a youngster when he's 6 years old, 'If you eat right and exercise you're going to be a 7-foot-tall basketball player,'" Miller says.

But because many people take up exercise with the belief they'll lose a significant amount of weight, many are also disappointed, Lyons says.

When they don't lose weight they often give up on exercise.

"I think the goal of weight loss is in fact a barrier to people getting involved with exercise, and it's even a greater barrier to people sticking with it," she says.

In a Kaiser-Permanente fitness program Lyons designed specifically for big individuals, 45 percent of the participants dropped out, even though a majority reported seeing improvements in their health --more energy, less stress and lower blood-pressure levels.

The percentage was consistent, however, with national fitness dropout rates, says Lyons, who believes the American public has little patience for exercise. The reason? Most rely on a bathroom scale as the ultimate measure of their health, often becoming disgusted with exercise and themselves if they haven't shed many pounds.

This is something the owners of the Women of Substance Health Spa understand.

In an attempt to make fitness more pleasurable and to dissociate it from the pain of dieting, they've placed a candy dish at the spa's front counter for patrons to enjoy.

Says co-owner Schuster, "Chocolate is a part of life, too. We're talking about balance."

Edition: CCT,  Section: E,  Page: 1

© 1997 Contra Costa Newspapers Inc.