Sweatin’ With the Fatties

My endless, fruitless quest for a fat-girl-friendly exercise DVD.

See the rest of Slate’s Fitness Issue.

How to find the right exercise DVD?

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m a big girl. While I’m not going to share my BMI (it doesn’t mean much anyway), I’m pretty solidly in the overweight category, though not obese.

Despite my zaftig figure, I enjoy a good workout. I run, albeit slowly. I ice-skate, albeit poorly. I do my strength training and my yoga, and I put in my time on the elliptical. And rather than stay sedentary at home, I turn on Just Dance for the Wii and jam my chubby little uncoordinated heart out. (It made my day when I discovered that Just Dance 2 contains my jam, Mika’s “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful).”)

Though I’m obviously not lacking in ways to break a sweat, there is one fitness category that has continually left me cold: the exercise DVD. All I want is a good, challenging workout video that is fat-girl-friendly. As far as I can tell, no such thing exists.

I’m not looking for some scammy system that promises to take me from flab to fab in 30 days. That’s not going to happen. What I want is a DVD that understands that heavy people are not sedentary blobs whose only exercise comes from waddling from the couch to the car—that some of us sport a gut while actually enjoying sports. I’d pay the proverbial top dollar (well, probably not much more than $19.99) for a DVD that understood that not every workout is about trying to shed weight. Since I know that exercise is not the best means of weight loss, I work out to feel my body get stronger, to loosen up the kinks from sitting in front of a computer each day, and to clear my mind.

Why must I have a fat-girl fitness DVD? While some may find it motivating to watch tight bodies sweat, I find it deeply depressing. Sometimes I lose weight, but, cliché that I am, those pounds tend to come back on and bring their friends along for the ride. Even if I did, by some miracle, whittle myself down to tautness, I would never look or move like a fitness-video vixen. These embodiments of the unattainable make my workout seem in vain, and that’s not a motivator for me. I want to feel the burn, not the shame.

It’s easy to picture my perfect exercise video. The instructor and her grimly grinning entourage are fully clothed, some of their bodies typical for a workout tape, some heftier. The modifications offered are not presented with a hint of scorn or pity. The cardio is intense, the squats created with a mind toward people who have to exert a little more effort than a size-4 dynamo to rise back up. In sum, the exercises are constructed with the understanding that my pooch and badonk sometimes hinder my movement, particularly when bending forward or leaning way back.

Really, it’s absurd that I can’t find such a DVD. As we know from the nightly news shots of headless fat people lumbering along city sidewalks, more than 30 percent of the U.S. population is obese, and about as many are overweight but not obese. Amazon’s list of best-sellers in fitness and exercise doesn’t reflect this reality. One group of titles—packed with masochistic vocabulary like banish, xtreme, shred, and insanity—promises to enable you to kick fit in the ass. The remaining best-sellers are gentle yoga DVDs, Jane Fonda workouts for “older exercisers,” and walking routines. These DVDs either send the message that being overweight is disgusting, something that must be banished with an xtreme transformation, or assume that the best you can do is take a slow amble around the mall. There’s nothing for people who want a routine that isn’t all about weight loss, or something that offers minor adjustments with bulk in mind.

Shame is the prevailing message of the Biggest Loser workout DVDs, which fall firmly into the category of titles aimed at the long-sedentary. I’m too advanced for the Power Walkworkout; the Boot Camp, which includes former Biggest Loser contestants, is weirdly uninspiring because it highlights former Loser wannabes who just about die during the course of exercise. It’s a reminder that the show is all about unhealthy, largely unsustainable weight loss, and that’s not a franchise I want to support. For them, the only mark of fitness is a slim body. No, thanks.

There are a fair number of DVDs explicitly marketed to the overweight, but the ones I’ve tried have all been for exercise newbies. I loved the idea of Heavyweight Yoga, which is subtitled “Yoga for the Body You Have Now.” When I tried it out, I was sorely disappointed: This was meant for sedentary older women, not for a heavy but active twentysomething who can keep up—if a bit inflexibly—at a traditional yoga class.

Please, skip the lectures about how I should just lose the weight and then I’d feel comfortable with any old fitness DVD. I know about as much as any educated urbanite about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight. I live a rather healthy lifestyle and have a good rapport with my doctor about these things. You don’t know exactly why I’m fat, and I don’t feel an obligation to tell you my medical history. You just need to know that I’m not the only heavy-but-fit girl who wants to work out in the privacy and comfort of my living room.

Weirdly, the DVD that comes closest to making my dream come true is hosted by Carmen Electra. I bought 2003’s Fit To Strip, part of an aerobic striptease box set, because I was intrigued by the possibility of a totally different kind of workout. (It was the same impulse for novelty that led me to buy a Bollywood dance workout DVD.) While I never took to the striptease aerobics, I’ve often come back to the challenging set of traditional aerobic and toning exercises. The trainer who leads the workout, Michael Carson, is marvelous, crafting a set of exercises that fits nearly all of my requirements: My bulk doesn’t get in the way, my heart rate goes up, and I feel sore but not incapacitated the next day. His explanations are clear and helpful, his tone positive but never grating. While the inane patter forces me to watch the disc on mute—Carmen: “Thanks, Michael. And my butt thanks you, too!”—that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise great DVD. And, in a final plus, Carmen is clad in a preposterous bubblegum-shaded sweat suit, meaning I’m not forced to confront the naked futility of my fitness routine.

If nothing else, my willingness to work out with Carmen Electra should reveal that I’m not excessively choosy. A fat-girl-friendly DVD doesn’t have to be explicitly marketed to the overweight, and it doesn’t need to feature plus-size models. All I want is an exercise routine that feels like it was designed with people like me in mind. Workout-video makers of the world, is that too much to ask?

Also in Slate’s Fitness Issue: Annie Lowrey swings Italian-style tomato cans  in her “extreme” exercise investigation, Elizabeth Weingarten  flexes her cheeks and winks creepily to see if face exercises really work, and our handy flowchart  helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations.

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