Health at YOUR size

Strangers in a Gym

Let’s say you’re like Ellen, the client I described in my last post. You might have been fit once, but life has gotten in the way and you’re now returning to the gym in a state of, let’s say, less-than-perfect conditioning.

When you walk in, I know you’re uncomfortable. There is a big purple sign bragging about how the gym is judgment-free, but you’re skeptical. I mean, look at all the Barbie-doll-looking women and musclebound men. And musclebound women!  You may feel like you’re the only one who feels out of place and doesn’t know what they’re doing.

Maybe you’re seeing people who look just like the kids who teased you in middle school phys ed.

Maybe they ARE the kids who teased you in middle school phys ed.

Maybe you’re getting anxious just thinking about all this.

Take a deep breath, let it out, and go read this.


You are going to get through this, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because YOU have a plan. Before you ever packed your gym bag, you’ve taken the time to think about what you are going to do, and established your goals. You’ve written them down, and the crib sheet is in the pocket of your shorts. The goals are challenging but realistic. Setting your goals is that single first step on a thousand-mile journey; and your workout plan is the map. The map is for you and only you, and what others are doing around you may be interesting to watch, but we are not concerned with comparisons.

With that in mind, let’s get started.

When designing a workout plan, we need to look at four aspects of exercise:





Hey, that spells FITT. Neato! Each of these four aspects will be decided based on your medical and workout history. In this example, we’re planning for a middle-aged female who used to be quite fit but has not worked out in a long time. She has been medically cleared to work out and has no history of major illness or injury.


Even though this workout plan is for a previously very active individual, it’s important to start slowly. What we do in the gym is meant to last a lifetime, and no one can go from zero to Ahnold overnight — not even Ahnold himself!

So push yourself, but don’t get so sore today that you won’t want to come back tomorrow.

About muscle soreness: you will get sore, especially in the first few weeks. Later on, it won’t be as bad, I promise. To allow for your body to learn how to recover, we’re shooting for 2 or 3 workouts per week to begin.


You will notice that there are charts and graphs right on your gym’s cardio equipment to help you plan the intensity of your workout. This massively confusing array of beeping equipment and numbers in teeny-tiny print is designed to help keep you at the correct Target Heart Rate (THR) for the type of exercise you are doing. It makes the machine look very complicated but guess what? You can totally ignore all that stuff and get a great workout! Sure, you can drive yourself crazy watching your heart rate go up and down, and worrying whether you’re in the “fat burn” zone, or the “cardio” zone. But (and you will surely be relieved to hear this) these measurements are totally unnecessary for our purposes. If you’re basically healthy, the only “zone” you need to worry about is the “on the treadmill” zone. You showed up, and are developing a new habit. You are already doing it right! All you need to do is listen to your body. For those folks who find visual guidelines useful, check out this much more user-friendly chart:

In your first week or two, there is no reason to go above 6 on this scale.

Seriously, don’t do it.


About an hour, total. This is kind of long for a first workout, but it is broken up into several activities and includes the warm-up and cool-down.


No matter what type of exercise you choose, workouts should always include a warm-up phase, a work phase, and a cool-down phase. Each part is important in keeping you safe and preventing injury.

In this case, we’re starting with some simple, gym-based activities.

WARM-UP: five minutes on the treadmill or elliptical

Don’t skip this! It gets the heart rate up a bit and warms the muscles in preparation for everything else. There’s no need for speed here, either — just a slow and steady buildup to the point where you might get a little out of breath.

WORK PHASE 1: Upper-body strength training, mostly with free weights: 15 minutes

Nothing fancy here, just some old, familiar exercises with much lighter weight than was used in the past. Emphasis here is on form, so that the body can remember how exercises are done while avoiding excessive soreness or injury.

Should I Use Free Weights or Machines? Good question! So good that it deserves its own blog post. In the meantime, don’t use any machines if you’re not familiar with them. Get a gym staff member to help you learn to adjust it. Believe me, they will be more than happy to help you — it gives them a break from mopping floors and scrubbing toilets.

WORK PHASE 2: Treadmill walking: 30 minutes

In a deconditioned person, walking not only works the cardiorespiratory system and lower body but also the supporting muscles of the upper body (the core). Good form (head up, shoulders back, NOT holding onto the hand rails) maximizes the benefit to the core. Twenty to thirty minutes is just about the longest duration I would recommend in a first workout, and in fact if you’re severely deconditioned, as little as ten minutes may do the job. In your first couple weeks, don’t bother with the incline settings either — just go faster or slower on a level surface.

Important Safety Tip: If you are done with your treadmill walk and are really winded, do NOT jump off and go sit down! Slow your pace and stay with it for a few more minutes, until you get back down to a 3 at most on the RPE scale. If you just can’t stand to be on the treadmill for another second, take 5 minutes to walk around the gym and let your muscles settle. The important thing is to keep moving.


This is where you relax and and talk sweetly to all those muscles you just worked, so that they will be nice to you in the morning. Thank them for a job well done. Drink some water now, and some more later; hydration helps minimize muscle soreness. Some basic stretches to get you started. 

The most important thing is to stretch slowly and gently. Don’t bounce. Hold stretches for 30 seconds to a minute. You should feel the tightness of the stretch but there should not be any pain. Remember to breathe. (You might laugh that I’m telling you this, but wait ’til you catch yourself holding your breath! It happens.)

What are the best stretches to use? My body is too big/small/inflexible to do the things they’re doing in the pictures.  And do I have to get down on the floor? I hate getting up off the floor! Good questions all! So good that this topic deserves its own blog post. In the meantime, don’t do things that hurt, or that make you uncomfortable.

And with that, we’re done.  Have another drink of water and enjoy that delicious “good tired” that comes from doing something nice for your body.

If this workout seems underwhelming, that’s because it was meant to be. But it accomplished three things:

  1. you showed up;
  2. you made a constant effort for a full hour; and
  3. you now have a feeling of accomplishment that I hope makes you want to come back and do this again, soon.

My New Client

Ellen (not her real name) headed back to the gym on Super Bowl Sunday after a long hiatus during which she had gained considerable weight and become deconditioned.  She chose Super Bowl Sunday because it is a celebration of some of the country’s biggest athletes, like her favorite Patriots player, defensive tackle Vince Wilfork.

Vince Wilfork

The Patriots’ Vince Wilfork: proof that a lean, hard body is not a requirement for health, athletic prowess, and a successful career using one’s body. (Photo courtesy

“He inspires me.  If he can get his 325-lb body through NFL training with the Pats and be a force to be reckoned with in the Super Bowl, I can by-God get my own body to the gym and get myself fitter and stronger.”

Ellen is not lacking in positive fattitude.  This is encouraging.

As a personal trainer, I think it’s important to know one’s client as a person, so that I can tailor a program that will not only be helpful but will keep her (or him) motivated.  This includes current and prior medical conditions, nutrition, and activity levels. I also have found that Ellen’s story strikes a lot of familiar chords for many people. Perhaps it will for you as well.

Ellen is a middle-aged woman who grew up in a blue-collar household.  She did not suffer from food insecurity as a child.  She attended public schools and earned a college degree.  Her current medical condition is very good: metabolic panel and BP are normal, and she has no history of major illness.  Resting pulse is a little high, which is to be expected in someone who has been inactive for a long time.

Like many fat people, she has a long history of weight cycling., also known as yo-yo dieting. She started dieting in elementary school when her mother, who was also fat, began taking her to meetings of the unfortunately-named TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). She learned to count calories by placing 100 pennies in a cup, and moving one penny for every 10 calories to a second cup.  When your first cup is empty, your food has run out for the day.  This, her mother said, would help her grow up thin rather than chubby.

In pictures from her early childhood, Ellen is somewhat chubby.  She ran, rode her bike, swam, and took part in phys-ed classes.  In spite of being teased for her size by classmates, she played basketball in elementary school, but stopped all sports in middle school because she was convinced she was too fat to play on the “real” team.  At home, under her mother’s tutelage, she tried diet after diet, occasionally losing weight but then quickly regaining it.  By high-school graduation, the consequences of weight cycling were becoming more evident: she would probably have been classified as obese by a physician.

In addition to countless ineffective short-term diets, Ellen  lost 50 or more pounds three times — once during college, again in her late twenties, and a final time in her late thirties/early forties.  Each time she stopped dieting, all or most of the weight came back (sometimes more). By 2001, her weight was at an all-time high and she was beginning to have difficulty walking. She became short of breath and had chest pain with minimal activity.  She had episodes of heart palpitations while at rest.

“I felt like the best of my life was behind me, and I was going to be dead before long.”

At her highest weight, Ellen was also extremely unhappy in her home life.  When not at work, she stayed at home, because she took no pleasure in going out.  Her relationship ended in a tumultuous argument with her boyfriend on 9/11.

For the next several years, Ellen lived alone and focused her energies on emotional healing.  She found a new job where she was happier.  She joined a worship community that nurtured her spiritually.  She reconnected with family members.  Ellen built herself a support network of friends, family and co-workers that sustains her to this day.

In the first year after the breakup, she also lost 75 pounds without making any deliberate changes to her diet or activity level.  Once her weight began to fall, Ellen felt better and began walking for exercise and paying closer attention to her diet.  She began planning for a happy future — a thin future.

At the suggestion of a co-worker, Ellen went to a nutrition consultant who also happened to be a competitive bodybuilder.  He gave her an eating plan which, although not deficient in calories, tightly restricted the proportions of carbs, proteins and fats, and required her to write down the amount and time of every meal, snack, and calorie.  Her adherence to the eating plan was virtually perfect — so perfect in fact that it occupied her full attention, all day, every day.  When she wasn’t eating, sleeping, or working out, she was planning meals or cooking them, and became a font of food-related knowledge which she readily shared with her friends and family, whether they wanted the information or not.  At this point her obsession with food had become a full-blown eating disorder: orthorexia.

Likewise, her workouts were nearly perfect. She exercised faithfully, six days a week for two or more hours, often going from an hour-long water aerobics class to the gym where she worked out for another hour or more.  On days when she did not have water aerobics, she worked out on cardio machines at the gym, burning 800-plus calories at a time (“the same calories as a stick of butter,” as she would tell anyone who would listen).

When her weight loss plateaued, she worked harder in the gym and (predictably) sustained a series of injuries resulting from overtraining.  Discouraged with what she perceived as a lack of progress (she was still classified as “obese” by her doctor after all), her gym attendance flagged and she began to regain weight in spite of continuing to eat healthy foods.  As her weight snowballed, she became demoralized and stopped working out altogether.  She thought she would resume her workouts once the injuries healed, but six months turned into a year and more, and she became deconditioned. The shame of having failed yet again kept her away from the gym.

Fortunately, during her workout hiatus, Ellen also had some really positive things happen in her life.  She married her loving, supportive boyfriend; and she has learned a lot about the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach to fitness.  She came to understand  why diets don’t work, and why weight cycling in particular is harmful.

Ellen is just beginning to see herself not as a failure, but as someone who has been working very hard to improve her health, and using the wrong tools.  So she has decided to try something new: focusing on what good nutrition and exercise will do for her health today, not on some far-off hypothetical day when she finally becomes thin.

If this sounds like an approach you might find useful, join me on this blog as we talk about the power of positive steps, no matter what your size. Next time: Building an Effective, Appropriate Workout Plan


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