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(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyOctober 24, 2019

What the fitness industry gets wrong about fat runners

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Amy Russell loves to run, but as an overweight person, she is marginalised by an industry that finds that hard to understand. 

I love to run. Something about its intensity and rhythm is captivating to me. It’s simple as can be, but physically and mentally all-consuming. When a friend asked me ‘what do you think about when you run?’, I was interested and rather pleased to realise the answer was running – putting one foot in front of the other in a regular cadence over and over again. At its best, running is meditative for me and renders me serene. 

I’ve been overweight ever since I left my teens, sometimes just a little bit and sometimes (as now) a great deal. My BMI is currently 36 which means I’m definitely fat. Sometimes I’d prefer to be less fat, for example when buying clothes or trying to sit comfortably on buses; but I view it as an inconvenience, not a sin, and the word “fat” doesn’t bother me. It’s accurate.     

I started running over a decade ago. I didn’t start running with the aim of losing weight, which is just as well since I haven’t lost weight through running. Cutting out carbs, on the other hand, had the kilos falling off me (until I started eating them again. Mmm carbs). 

But as a fat runner, let me tell you, it’s hard not to get the feeling that we aren’t supposed to exist. 

For example, my workplace is participating in the upcoming Corporate Challenge 5k run. I went to select my race t-shirt and found that the women’s sizes topped out at 18 (XL) which too small for me. The organisers tell me they will consider getting bigger shirts for women next year; the men’s sizes already go to 4XL so hopefully, they’ll aim for gender equality. But in the meantime, the implication is that I’m too fat to participate even though I can, if you’ll excuse the expression, run 5k standing on my head. 

In a similar vein, Lululemon relentlessly advertises to me on Facebook despite the fact I don’t fit in any of their clothes. Ironically, I think the fact I once commented on a Lululemon Facebook ad saying that I’d buy their stuff if they made bigger sizes has resulted in Facebook targeting me with more of the same. The algorithm can tell I’m interested – it just can’t tell I’m also fat.  

A couple of years ago I went to Elite Fitness to rent a treadmill and contrary to what I’d been told over the phone, they didn’t have a single model there that someone my weight could run on. As if people as heavy as me just weren’t meant to run unless, I suppose, they’re an All Black (Rutherford Fitness, on the other hand, had several options for me and they were cheaper).

On the rare occasions that media show fat people running, they’re either the “before” photos in fitspo redemption stories or cautionary pieces about cardiac health. For fat people, the point of running is apparently meant to sweat away their shameful fatness and reveal, in its place, self-esteem, attractiveness, emotional healing and personal fulfilment. Hurrah! Stories of fat runners are stories of before and after, where only the after is an acceptable state of affairs. The forthcoming film Brittany Runs a Marathon looks to be a classic example, going by Kate Browne’s excellent analysis of it on Runner’s World.

Maybe some fat people find those stories inspiring and use them as motivation to make their lives better somehow? I guess that’s the theory. But given how hard it is for many people to lose weight, I suspect some would find it even more inspiring to know that they can be attractive, emotionally healed, healthy*, fulfilled and all the rest without bothering with the weight loss. 

I also think it’s really helpful for fat people – young fat people in particular – to understand that exercise doesn’t have to be a form of punishment or a stern disciplining of the self. It doesn’t have to be motivated by fear or shame, or something you only do in order to earn something (self-respect, weight loss, a doughnut). In fact, once you find the form that’s right for you, it becomes joyful and life-affirming, something lovely you do for yourself – an indulgence instead of a chore. That’s worth searching for, believe me. The health payoff is a nice side benefit.

I found joy in running, but it took me a couple of decades to find that out, in part because I believed that running was something fat people only did if they were on a hardcore heroic quest to become a different person. I wasn’t and I’m not. I’m just enjoying the gentle process of becoming myself day by day, moving through the world in bare feet and taking it all as it comes. 

Regardless of what the fitness industry might think, my fat body feels to me like it was made to run.  


* Even if you’re very fat, being fit can make you just as healthy as someone of average weight, and much healthier than an unfit thin person. Fatness is a rubbish indicator of health.

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