There’s nothing wrong with a six-pack, but most of us can’t (and won’t) forever look like that, which makes aspirational fitness marketing feel exclusionary and unwelcoming, like a false promise based on health assumptions that are so last decade.

So let’s reframe exercise — not as a tool to change your body but as a journey to enjoying movement or living your bouldering-Mt.-Kilimanjaro dreams. Those goals should surely be inclusive of all bodies and abilities.

For this series, we wanted to talk to fitness professionals who don’t see working out as merely a means to craft bodies into athletic machines or whittle them down to the smallest form possible. To them, it’s about furthering the spirit with kindness — to one another and to ourselves.

To do this, one has to honor the human body as, well, human, which means including all that comes along with being one: history, emotions, and mindset.

Once I let go of diet culture and that pursuit, my confidence built, my self-esteem built.

Louise Green is a trainer and athlete who is working to change the narrative around body size in the fitness industry. “When we’re talking about everyday athletes, anyone that suits up, shows up, and does the work is an athlete,” she says.

Green specializes in working with people in larger bodies whose relationships to exercise have been impacted by diet and “picked last in gym class” culture. If you’ve ever felt unwelcome at the gym or unrepresented by ads for sportswear, she wants you to feel seen.

Her empathetic approach to adapting exercises for larger bodies and bodies with varying abilities sets people up for success. That radical mindset shift — that anyone can succeed — is something we can all take away from her.

How was your 2019, in terms of your business and even your personal life related to fitness?

I went through a divorce in 2019, so it hasn’t been the greatest year for me. But I will say that exercise for me — in the most challenging of times — is the savior. It really is. Exercise really carried me through some really difficult emotional times. I feel very strong and powerful when I work out, and I’ve had to really cultivate that to carry on with my business and transition to this new life that I’m living.

On the hardest of days, how do you cultivate strength to show up?

This last year I’ve really had to ask: What is the best thing I can do for myself today? It’s often been one of the two extremes. Either it’s go hard at the gym and get it out, or it’s to be really kind and restful to myself.

I come from a background of hardcore fitness. BUT [I teach my clients] there are times where that’s not appropriate or where doing the opposite is what is actually needed. Especially in this last year, I’ve been really trying to apply that to my life and be honest about and aware of what my body and my mind need.

What does fitness mean to you?

Fitness had always been a [weight loss] tool for me until about 15 years ago. I met this [running] coach who, for one, had a body that looked like mine. I was quite blown away by that. This was before mainstream Facebook or Instagram. So I didn’t have the luxury of seeing diversity in fitness, because it certainly wasn’t in magazines.

And for the 12 weeks I worked with her, she never mentioned calorie expenditure, she never mentioned bikini season, she never talked about getting our bodies from this size to that size. Her training was all about digging deep as an athlete and coming to the table with your best performance. I’d never come across [that approach], and she literally changed my life. She showed me that [fitness] is so much more than aesthetics.

How did your life change once you broke up with diet culture?

Once I let go of diet culture and that pursuit, my confidence built, my self-esteem built. I experienced a freedom I never had before in my life because my mental real estate was no longer taken up by “if I eat this, if I run there, I can eat that”… I think that is really why I pursued this career — to give that back to women oppressed by believing their value is wrapped up in how they look. There’s so much more.

So many clients come to me with what I call fitness trauma. [It comes from] not being considered athletic and being forced into environments like gym [where you’re picked last].

It is weird because I’m a fitness professional, so people sign up for my online coaching and they’re like, “Oh, I thought this was a lot more fitness.” I’m like, “Well, there is a fitness library” — but there’s such an underbelly to why people can’t pursue fitness and sustain it or even approach it. That’s more what I focus on.

Can you talk more about that underbelly — how experiences growing up come into play?

So many clients come to me with what I call fitness trauma. [It comes from] not being considered athletic and being forced into environments like gym [where you’re picked last]. It creates this very negative relationship with fitness, in some cases so severe. I mean, there are a lot of ways our society is not setting up every body to be successful or to have a positive relationship with movement.

Once you’re past that stage, is there anything that you would adjust in terms of actual physical workouts that would be any different for the clients in larger bodies?

Yeah. It stems from how it’s cued from a psychological position to what they’re actually physically doing.

So one of the things that I do, and I’ve always trained my trainers to do, is remove the word “can’t” from your vocabulary. So, say the example is a plank. What we’re typically seeing is fitness trainers cueing exercises on the toes, planking on the ground, assuming everyone can do that. And then [they say], “If you can’t do this, here are easier versions.”

Instead, I show the plank on an elevated surface, where somebody doesn’t have to get down on the ground. That [elevated version] is the exercise. Then you can say, “If you want to step it up, take it down to the ground and get onto your knees. If you really want to step it up, then go onto your toes.”

So you’re switching the framing of the exercise to be more positive, approachable.

The [typical way] can be alienating and create a public display of the people who can’t do that. When they have to move to the modified position, this person already has negative fitness experiences and feels like an outsider. The [typical way of] cueing them reinforces their apprehension.

Are there other tangible examples to share?

You often see trainers loading clients with weights. I think a lot of fitness professionals don’t understand, that person’s already squatting 100 pounds more than you are [in body weight], and you’re adding 20 pounds of weights on top of them.

So [people in larger bodies or new to exercise] are being cued in a way that sets them apart from the rest of the group, and then they’re being loaded up with weights and exercises are too hard. That approach is galvanizing an already negative experience, especially for somebody with fitness trauma.

You actively serve your community on Instagram. How do you establish boundaries?

Boundaries are something I work on all the time because I work a lot. Like my son said the other night while we were watching a movie together. I was doing an Instagram post and he’s like, “Mom.” And I’m like “Oh, you’re right.” [Setting boundaries] is something that I do try to practice, and it’s not something that I have mastered.

In terms of Instagram, what’s your philosophy on sharing struggles versus the bigger wins?

My most vulnerable posts, which there are many because I’m pretty transparent, are the most engaged. A lot of people feel very alone, and I think when people share their struggles, it creates community and trust and vulnerability. And I think that the world actually needs more of that.

How does community fit into fitness?

For me it’s everything. And for my business, it’s been everything.

Studies will show that when there’s a community element associated with exercise, it is more likely to be sustainable. But I also think with the community of women that I work with, where there’s been such a kind of exclusionary component to this specific demographic, that the community is everything.

What have you learned about yourself and about the fitness world in the last decade, since you founded your first fitness community?

That I am so powerful and I have the ability to change the landscape. And also the fitness industry is ready to listen [to people in larger bodies]. I’m now being invited to speak at conferences, and fitness people that are pretty high up in the fitness world are starting to come to the table and talk about potential partnerships. Even a year ago, that didn’t exist.

That’s great you’re finally starting to see this change. What would you hope to see in the fitness landscape in the next 5 years?

The marketing. I think we’re all done with “skinny white chick with ripped abs who’s 20 years old.” Not that there’s anything wrong with her, but let’s see more. Sizeism in advertising has a huge impact. If people just simply want to increase expressibility and impact global health at the same time, start being diverse in your marketing.

What would you tell someone who is living in a larger body who wants to start exercising but is intimidated by joining the gym?

Well, there’s all kinds of ways that people can work out at home now. But if people do actually want to go into a gym, you have every right to interview people that you’re going to work with.

There’s this hierarchy we’ve created with fitness professionals where that person’s better or they know more and so a person [new to exercise] doesn’t want to ask the questions. But you have every right to ask: Can you give me some ideas on how we would work together in a way that feels safe and approachable to me?

Now, if that trainer stumbles on that and is like “Uh…,” then I would go to the next. When you’re looking at trainers’ websites, look for keywords like “body positivity,” “all-inclusive,” and “weight-neutral.”

Whitney Akers is a writer and traveler who always overpacks all the wrong things. She helps health professionals connect with the people who need them most at Whitney Akers.