Meet The Size 26 Personal Trainer

Photo: Will Brembridge
It's a weird time for women's bodies. Though, as women of all sizes will tell you, it's always a weird time for women's bodies. But right now is particularly weird. Because on the one hand, the fitness movement has exploded; more British people are participating in exercise than ever before, and "clean" eating (whatever that now means) dominates headlines. Body types perpetuated by female celebrities, while still skewed compared to most women, have shifted ever so slightly to appear more "athletic" compared to the size zero phase a few years back.
On the other hand, though, fat acceptance and the body positivity movement has never been stronger or more powerful. Women of all shapes and sizes are, quite rightfully, refusing to conform to the insane standards of "beauty" that the media has forced on them for years.
But what happens if you straddle both worlds? Plenty of plus-size women take part in exercise. Nike knows – it's just released a plus-size fitness range, which has been received marvellously well. And plus-size Instagram fitness stars are everywhere, with accounts like MyNameIsJessamyn and Nolatrees attracting hundreds of thousands of followers obsessed with their incredible yoga moves.
A few weeks ago, a study came out saying that it is a myth that you can be fit and fat. The study, from the University of Birmingham concluded that "'metabolically healthy' obese individuals are at higher risk of coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease and heart failure than normal weight metabolically healthy individuals." So where does that leave the body positive movement?
Lauretta Johnnie, a size 26 personal trainer in London, wrote a post about this very subject two years ago. Lauretta was originally a size 34-36 and now runs a fitness company for plus-size people called Full Figured Fitness. In her post she agrees that being overweight "can be a predisposition for many diseases including cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers," but says there are other factors which come into play. She refers to a study from 2014 from the European Society of Cardiology headed up by Dr. Francisco Ortega, who found that "metabolically healthy but obese people had a 38% lower risk of death from any cause than their metabolically unhealthy obese peers."

This should not be interpreted as obese being 'healthy'. Even if you are fit being obese does increase your mortality rate.

Lauretta Johnnie
However, she also notes that this should not be interpreted as obese being "healthy". "Even if you are fit being obese does increase your mortality rate," she writes. "A metabolically healthy obese individual has increased risk of dying compared to a metabolically healthy individual of normal weight."
"We need to get the right messages across to people who are overweight, obese and inactive," she tells us. "This is why the body positive movement needs to understand sometimes loving yourself is not enough – taking care of your health, and your whole self holistically is needed."
Below, we speak to Lauretta about what it's like being a member of the plus-size fitness community, how she inspires and encourages her clients, and which obstacles still prevent some plus-size people from getting into fitness.
When did you get into fitness and why?
I have always had a personal interest in fitness. As a child my parents were strict. I couldn't say "I am going out to play", I had to "do" something. That something was tennis, going for walks with friends, running, cycling or practising some form of sport. I put on weight in my late teens and wanted to teach exercise as a way to get fit myself and motivate others.
When did you first get into personal training?
I qualified as a personal trainer over a year ago [Lauretta first became an Exercise to Music Instructor 16 years ago]. I wanted to qualify because I couldn’t find an instructor to train me the way I wanted to be trained. I wanted to be taken seriously and be on par with other fitness professionals.

I am happy if a client wants to focus on getting fit or losing weight. It is their body and their choice, either way is a move in the right direction.

How did you know there was a need for your company training fuller-figured people?
I knew my experience was not unique and wanted to create a space where every BODY could exercise. I wanted to shift the focus off weight loss and being an unobtainable size and self-hate, to focus on fitness, healthy living, eating nutritious meals and creating sustainable lifestyle changes.
Fitness can be intimidating to anyone. But what sort of things do you hear from your clients about their experiences in mainstream fitness classes and gyms?
I have heard a lot about experiences like these – including my own! I have heard of people attending classes where the instructor tells the class what to do and then looks at the individual and gives them another set of instructions. In my classes all instructions are integrated with modifications, so the class receives the same instructions.
When I first went to the gym at my biggest I couldn't actually get into the actual turnstile in reception – they had to open the service gate. The receptionist said sorry about 28 times. Also a concern is the communal changing room – often there are no private rooms, and small toilet cubicles make it difficult to go in and out of the loo. There’s also the question about what to wear and finding activewear that fits bigger sizes, although this is changing now.
Do people ever seem surprised that you are plus-size?
No, because it is advertised – there were a few surprises in the early days, though. I was once asked, "Do you know when the instructor will arrive?" I can still picture the woman’s face when I told her I was the instructor.

I once saw a comment saying, "this is promoting obesity". I am not sure how encouraging overweight and obese people to exercise is promoting obesity. Surely it’s the opposite?

How have you noticed people's reactions to you changing as the body positive movement grows?
I believe I exist beyond the body positive movement as it maintains, "Be happy with your body as you are". I am happy if a client wants to focus on getting fit or losing weight. It is their body and their choice, either way is a move in the right direction. It seems the body positive movement wants to shy away from discussing weight loss. If I did not lose weight I may not be here today, or I would be very unwell.
How do you deal with any negative press/comments?
Overall the comments have been 99% positive but I once saw a comment saying, "This is promoting obesity". I am not sure how encouraging overweight and obese people to exercise is promoting obesity. Surely it’s the opposite?
Some people are disgusted at the thought of an overweight person, no matter what you say. It is their default mode. In the UK, 63% of the population is overweight or obese but the images in gyms or advertising fitness clothing are of slim women or muscular men; likewise, the conversations berate overweight people into weight loss. Full Figured Fitness is about challenging the stereotypes of fitness and encouraging plus-size people to share their stories and create understanding and helping people get fitter.

You can be fat and fit – but be aware that 'fit' does not mean 'healthy'.

Is there one thing plus-size people are sick of hearing?
"Congratulations" when the plus-size person has just done a class or a gym session and they are the only one being congratulated, patted on the back or given a high five. Also, unsolicited dietary advice like, "I always make sure I eat loads of salad [smile]”.
Personal trainers can either be overzealous, overly sympathetic or overcompensate. There can be assumptions that you have never exercised before or need lots of help.
What misconceptions do you think there are about plus-size people and fitness?
You can be fat and fit – but be aware that "fit" does not mean "healthy".
Fat people have never exercised before – people always assume it is your first time in a gym or exercise class.
That all fat people can be lumped into one homogenous group, seen as lazy, greedy, inactive, uneducated, slow, unfit. Every BODY is different and tells a different story regarding their weight gain. If you dehumanise people it is easier to treat them unfairly or badly.
Are your journeys with your clients focused on losing weight or upping fitness levels?
Many of my clients want to focus on their fitness and health and creating a lifestyle that embraces both. Ultimately they run parallel to each other – if you get fitter and eat a healthy balanced diet, you will lose weight. At Full Figured Fitness I focus on behavioural change, upping fitness levels and nutrition, making "swaps" for healthier food.

If you dehumanise people it is easier to treat them unfairly or badly.

Are you worried about the impact the fat and fit study could have on your clients’ mentality?
I am worried that the interpretations of the study may be another reason to put off people who need to exercise and change to a healthier lifestyle. We need to discourage inactivity and encourage individuals to take up fitness. I am also concerned that the media may take this as an opportunity to further stigmatise overweight people.
Photo: Will Brembridge
Do you think our idea of what “fit” looks like is too tied-up in outward appearances?
We live in a society where calorie intake is up and calorie output is down, a society where over 63% of adults and 28% of children are overweight or obese.
I do believe we need to redefine fitness from the ground up, the organisational culture, the low expectations of service providers, the culture of blame, the imagery. We need more understanding of the connection to mental and emotional health, we need to challenge fat shaming and fitness shaming, gyms and health centres need to be more accommodating, for instance, when it comes to benches to sit on on the gym floor, cubicle sizes and attitudes of staff. We need to discuss the journey and create understanding. We also need to promote fitness to people of all sizes.
What are your recommendations for someone who is plus-size and wants to exercise but doesn’t know where to start?
First, get a check-up from a doctor – get clearance and medical advice and support.
Train with a qualified instructor – speak to the instructor ahead of the class and discuss any needs or concerns.
Make sure you have quality trainers and footwear, correct clothing and bring water and a towel.
Get a fitness buddy or a "crew". You may have a friend who wants to come along.
Don't go too hard, start with a good warm-up targeting your major muscle groups. It can be five minutes, although I usually recommend a 10-15 minute full body warm-up for the bigger body.
Do what you enjoy! Fitness can include: walking/brisk walking, swimming, cycling, chair-based exercise, cross trainer, exercise classes, weights/strength training and going out dancing. The best way is to get a personal trainer. You can join a class and there is also online training. Nutritionally, try drinking water and eating unprocessed foods. Keep a journal of your fitness journey, it's great to reflect on.
Lauretta Johnnie is a qualified personal trainer and founder of Full Figured Fitness. Clothes by State of Mind Activewear

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