Louise Green, aka Big Fit Girl, has spent the last 15 years supporting and encouraging other women of size to defy stereotypes by embracing their bodies and discovering their athleticism. Originally from Liverpool, Louise, 45, now lives and works in Vancouver. Her new book, Big Fit Girl, tells her personal story and offers practical advice and inspiration to plus-size women.
What set you on the path to fitness?
I’d made many attempts to get fit over the years. I was living a very unhealthy lifestyle – I smoked and drank, and partied at the weekends – but had a deep desire to be a runner. Sometimes I’d drive to the track, do one or two laps and then drive home. But there was always that negative chatter in my head: ‘Who are you kidding? You’re never going to do this…’
What was the turning point?
When I was 29, I signed up for a 12-week learn-to-run course. I was terrified – convinced I’d be the biggest, slowest one there. Then the trainer, Chris, arrived and she was plus-size, too. It was the first time I had seen a woman of size as a runner. The fact that this person could be a coach altered my perception of athleticism – and the way I viewed my own body. I quit smoking and drinking and started taking running seriously. Everything changed from that first session. That is why it’s so compelling for me to be that person for others.
Is the lack of role models for plus-size women in sport and fitness a big issue?
Yes. Imagine if you picked up a fitness magazine and saw a range of sizes and ages. Whatever demographic you might fall into, you could identify with someone: ‘Oh, there’s someone who looks like me. They’re doing it, maybe I can, too.’ It gives you an invitation into the sport. At the moment, the stigma around body size makes fitness unapproachable for millions of women.
How did you go from runner to trainer?
My personal trainer suggested I volunteer as a run leader for the Sun Run, a 10K race in Vancouver. I was hesitant, but she said, ‘You can do this’. She saw something in me that I didn’t believe was there. As soon as I started, I knew it was what I was meant to be doing. I loved telling people who didn’t believe that they could do it, that, yes, they could cross that finish line. Six years later I retrained as a personal trainer and launched my business, Body Exchange, a plus-size fitness bootcamp.
What sort of discrimination do plus size runners encounter?
It’s constant – conscious or subconscious. When I registered for my first half marathon, the volunteer automatically reached for the 5K race pack without even asking what distance I was doing. I’d trained my butt off! And there’s the supposedly motivational – but condescending – cries of ‘Good for you!’ from other runners during a race. Or I’ll go into a running store and be asked, ‘Are you looking for some shoes for walking?’ Comments like this make it clear that my body size is not viewed as being capable of significant athletic pursuits. People need to be careful about making these stereotyped assumptions.
Your focus is on women. What about plus size men?
Sure, men need positive role models too, but it’s not the same. Larger men are more widely accepted and paid large sums of money in the sporting world, for example in boxing and golf. At the same level, larger women are often overlooked.
You license other trainers to teach plus-size women. Do they have to be plus size themselves?
No. But I make sure they can understand the issues bigger athletes face. There’s no underlying shaming about body size. We don’t say things like ‘bikini season is coming, let’s work hard!’
Why don’t you recommend dieting?
Calorie restriction isn’t an area I’m comfortable with. Diets don’t work. In North America, the stats show only five per cent of people keep off the weight they lose – and yet we keep putting it in front of people. Almost all the women I work with have been chronically dieting for most of their lives. Most have not been exercising. I’m not telling people not to lose weight – I’m offering an alternative that will lead to better health. Often, when people are eating nutritionally dense food and exercising, weight loss is a side effect.
Do people ask why you haven’t lost weight through exercise?
I’ve had people tell me I have no ‘right’ to do what I do for a living because of my size. I tried to reduce my weight for years and then I threw in the towel and accepted it. My blood pressure is healthy, my blood sugars are in a safe range. We need to stop governing women and their bodies. This is my size and I tend to find that whatever I do, I remain within 10 pounds [4.5kg] of where I am now. [Louise weighs 15 stone (95kg)].
What inspired you to write Big Fit Girl?
My own experiences as a big athlete and what I’ve learned from working with hundreds of plus-size women. I wanted to address an audience that has been ignored by mainstream media and offer them an alternative route to health and fitness than the one promoted by the weight-loss industry. We need to champion body-size diversity in athletics and open a space for women to live their athletic dreams in the body they have now. Not when they are thinner or fitter – right now.
What has running brought to your life?
Absolutely everything! Better health, greater self-worth, a new career. Running has the power to really elevate someone – to change the way they feel about themselves. That’s what it did for me.
What would you say to a nervous would-be plus-size runner?
Walk through your fear. On the other side, the rewards are incredible. Fitness is a vehicle to body confidence and feeling good. The other option is to not do it – to stay where you are. Don’t let what others think be the thing that stops you from living your athletic dreams.
5 tips for plus-size runners
It’s all about small steps and support.
1/ Start off where you are
Wherever you are now is OK. Set small, attainable goals and increase them as you move along. The key to success for any beginner is finishing each workout feeling successful.
2/ Go slow and easy
Doing too much too quickly is the number one culprit for injury, burnout and giving up. Start with two days of exercise a week, get your body conditioned and when it feels good, add a third day.
3/ Find the right kind of support
I found a run leader who trained me as an athlete and never mentioned weight loss or the size of my body. That changed everything for me.
4/ Don’t go it alone
An accountability partner is good, not only for staying on track with the training but for taking away the fear of getting out there. Or look for a supportive group.
5 / Go ‘low and slow’
That means keeping your feet low – almost as if they’re not lifting off the ground – and your pace slow, to begin with. This leaves little room for impact and protects the joints.
Big Fit Girl: Embrace the Body You Have is out now.