Pilates is my jam. I discovered it about 10 years ago when I was recovering from binge eating disorder and I realized that more hard-core "calorie-scorching," "fat-burning" fitness efforts messed with my head—and turned exercise into a punishment for eating, rather than a dose of good medicine for mind and body.
One of my favorite things about the studio I go to is how little the instructors seem to care about what I look like—what any of us in those classes look like. What really excites them isn’t an inch lost off of a waistline, it’s watching us get good articulation in our lumbar spine or increased range of motion in our shoulders. (Seriously, those things’ll get you a shout-out and high five.)
This type of weight-neutral, body positive approach to fitness is gaining steam in the industry, but it's sadly still the exception rather than the rule.
Alex van Frank is a yoga therapist and instructor based in San Diego, CA. "In the 'typical' world of fitness right now there is an excessive emphasis on weight-loss and being 'cut' and 'ripped,' which to me sounds pretty scary in a dark-alley sort of way," she says. Tori Rodriguez, MA, LPC, a psychotherapist and fitness expert, agrees. "I've been in countless fitness classes where the instructor says something like, 'Let's scorch those Thanksgiving calories!' or 'This will get your body bikini-ready!' And I'm thinking, I don't want to scorch calories or get bikini-ready—I just want a good workout! Not to mention those types of statements have lots of other implications that can make people feel like sh*t." What's more, those sort of shame-based, extrinsic motivators for exercising and eating well don't often stick.
Anne Poirier, program director at Green Mountain at Fox Run, a non-diet mind/body wellness center in Ludlow, VT, was a fitness trainer for 30 years until she became convinced that the fitness industry was making many people less healthy, not more. "I would help people lose weight through diet and exercise, only for them to gain it back and end up feeling frustrated, depressed, and like a failure. Time and time again the same people would seek me out to help them again. It was especially heartbreaking for me, I think, because this same cycle was happening to me as well. The only time I really felt at peace with my body was when I was pregnant. As a fitness professional, you are expected to look a certain way, eat only 'good' foods, and exercise harder than others."
She also noticed that the workouts trainers were giving their clients were getting harder and harder, setting the average person up for either injury or failure. "Who wants to live like that? That all exercise has to be hard and painful and that we have to do it in order to stay healthy. What about what we want to do? We have to start thinking about sustainability and enjoyment."
I feel so lucky to have found an inspiring, kick-ass studio to call my exercise home. In the spirit of spreading some of that sweet body-love around, I've gathered a list of body-positive fitness studios and resources to help you find your own workout happy place.
In addition to the ones listed below, you can also check out Body Positive Fitness Alliance. The network was started by a gym owner in Southern California who's trying to make fitness more inclusive, less image obsessed, and less intimidating for all. On its website you can find a list of trainers and facilities that have completed body-positive fitness training and pledged to be a safe fitness space.
San Diego, CA and online
"When I do yoga and when I teach, I feel like I vibrate with excitement and energy because it speaks to my soul," studio owner van Frank says. "I believe that everyone is embodied to realize the pure pleasure and bliss of having a body, no matter what shape, color, or form. So go on find your bliss!"
Bettie Page Fitness creator Tori Rodriguez (mentioned above) is a psychotherapist and fitness expert in Atlanta. "Many people think body positivity is synonymous with 'plus-size,' which it isn't. It's a body-friendly approach for people of all sizes and levels of fitness and mobility," she says. "Another aspect of body-positive fitness is that it emphasizes exercising for intrinsically motivated reasons—like for the fun of it, for more energy or a better mood, or for health benefits, for instance, rather than for external motivation like appearance. I see body-positive fitness as a movement to reclaim fitness for all bodies and disentangle it from unhealthy ideals and weight-based stigma."
"I was over 200 pounds when I began taking Pilates classes at the YMCA at age 20, and I find my background helps larger clients feel a bit less intimidation when introducing a new movement," instructor Jo McDonald says. "I remember clearly how frustrating it was to be in a body that couldn't move well. I feel gratitude for every smooth roll up and for every side plank I can maintain. Proper posture and toned muscles are fantastic, but life is so much more enjoyable in a strong body!"
Nashville, TN and online
"I practiced yoga for almost a decade, and no teacher ever helped me make the practice work for my curvy body," Curvy Yoga CEO Anna Guest-Jelley told Shape. "I just kept assuming the problem was my body, and that once I lost 'x' amount of weight, I'd finally 'get it.' Then one day it dawned on me that the problem was never my body. It was just that my teachers didn't know how to teach bodies like mine."
"I offer one-on-one and small group training as well as classes and courses for beginners and those with fibromyalgia, arthritis, and other chronic conditions," owner Gillian Byers says. "To me body-positive fitness is about sending your body love and working in partnership with it, listening to, and respecting what it has to say."
Sunny Sea Gold is Greatist’s body image columnist and the author of Food: The Good Girl’s Drug—How to Stop Using Food to Control Your Feelings (Berkley Books, 2011). The views expressed herein are hers. A health journalist by trade and training and a mom of two little girls, she’s also an advocate and educator focused on reducing the rates childhood obesity and eating disorders by building Body-Positive Families. Reach out to her @sunnyseagold.