Size Inclusion in Fitness and Recreation
December 18, 2023 • By Erin Bransford, Fitness & Wellbeing Coordinator • Guest Contributor
Erin is the Fitness & Wellbeing Coordinator at Campus Rec at Portland State University. She has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, and is certified as a Group Fitness Instructor, a Personal Trainer, and a Health Coach.
Weight stigma and diet culture are deeply entrenched in our society, and the fitness and recreation industries are no exception. Fitness marketing in particular often “sells” a product and/or service based on the assumption that people want to change their body (i.e. lose weight or “tone”), sending a message that weight-centered goals and outcomes are the only, or at least the most important outcomes. Imagery (hello “six pack abs”), language (“shred”, “fat-busting”, “summer body”, etc.), and even programming (“biggest loser”, “little black dress”, before and after photos, etc.) all reinforce this message and belief. So what can a fitness and recreation professional do to push back against this harmful narrative and create a facility, programs, and services that are size inclusive, weight-neutral, and welcoming to all bodies?
This article will share examples of how Portland State University’s (PSU) Rec Center has tackled this question. Please note that this is just one example and there is still a lot of room for improvement. The purpose of the article is to serve as inspiration and idea-generation for other fitness and recreation professionals interested in creating a more size inclusive environment. Importantly, it should be acknowledged that much of our progress at PSU was guided by the amazing work of the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH), who promote, manage, and evolve the Health at Every Size® (HAES®) approach. The resources, education, and learning provided by this organization was and continues to be absolutely critical to anyone who desires to pursue a more size inclusive future!
The PSU journey began in 2018, with Body Diversity training offered for all Group X fitness instructors. The Fitness & Wellbeing Coordinator, along with two fitness instructors studying diversity and fat liberation in graduate school, facilitated the training which received excellent feedback from staff. The following year, upon analysis of Campus Rec’s annual member survey data, the need for more widespread training and efforts became clear as members in larger bodies were identified as a demographic whose needs were not being met. In 2020, we offered an optional training to all Campus Rec staff on “An Inclusive Rec Center for Every Body”, which was attended by about a third of the employees.
In 2021, when Campus Rec updated its strategic plan, promoting size inclusion was elevated to a focus area and intentional work began in earnest. We created and launched a Health at Every Size® website and hired a Health at Every Size® Graduate Intern with dedicated time to help move size inclusive initiatives forward. A relationship was established with faculty teaching “Body Liberation for Health” (titled “Intro to Fat Studies” at the time) and collaborations between that class and the Rec Center were established. Examples of successful collaboration include sharing our size inclusive programs and initiatives with the class for input, leading the class on a facility tour and receiving feedback on the space from a size inclusive lens, and helping evolve our annual Love Your Body Week programming and marketing. Several tangible changes were made with class feedback, including updating the Personal Trainer bios to remove language about weight, piloting a calorie counter cover on cardio equipment, and asking our graphic design team to create images of people in larger bodies for promotional materials.
Another significant change included a reduction of the number of scales in the facility from 3 to 1 and relocation of the remaining scale from the entrance of the locker rooms and weight room to the far corner of the 4th floor track. We also created an educational sign about Health at Every Size® principles that is displayed near the scale. While removing scales completely from the facility would have been the ideal outcome for size inclusion, we were unable to get stakeholder buy-in for this level of change. In addition, we successfully advocated for larger towels and ensured size-inclusive furniture options were purchased during the remodel of our lounge and Rec Sports office.
Staff training on size inclusion was also expanded. In 2021 we provided training on Anti-Fat Bias for all CREC staff and in 2022 we brought in a keynote speaker to our annual all-staff training to speak about weight-neutral health. Starting in 2022, all CREC staff receive initial training in the Health at Every Size® Approach, with a minimum of 15 minutes of supplemental size inclusive training provided during the year.
While PSU Campus Rec had long since eliminated diet culture language from marketing, representation of body diversity in our photos was still very much lacking. To address this, we offered a U Belong photoshoot to help increase representation in our photo library. This effort proved to be highly successful, as our member survey data showed the percentage of members in larger bodies who agreed with feeling represented in our marketing increased significantly, from 62%-90% agreement.
Future plans include a Campus Rec values campaign that explicitly states our commitment to size inclusion and an educational campaign about the harms of weight stigma and diet culture.
While creating a weight-neutral and size inclusive fitness and recreation environment takes concerted effort, and sometimes feels like an uphill battle, the effort is worth it! We know the benefits of movement and physical activity unrelated to weight are numerous. ALL people deserve to feel welcome in fitness and recreation spaces, without fear of being shamed or stigmatized. It is our job as professionals to help reduce barriers and increase access for ALL bodies to find joy in movement!