Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Fat vs. fit - the weight debate

Aerobics instructor argues that heavy people aren't necessarily unhealthy people

By Michele Day
Enquirer contributor

        Fat people can be fit.

        Now there's a controversial notion in a culture where doctors often describe obesity as a killer disease and the media promote the ideal body type as a size 2 model.

        But Jennifer Portnick, a 240-pound, 5-foot-8 San Francisco aerobics instructor, believes she's proof that the medical community and popular culture send the wrong message about the relationship between body shape and fitness.

        Healthy people come in all shapes and sizes, Ms. Portnick says. Last week Jazzercise Inc. settled a weight-discrimination complaint filed by Ms. Portnick who was denied a franchise in San Francisco. Publicity after the settlement has helped spread Ms. Pornick's philosophy. She says hundreds of people have contacted her to express support.

        “So many people have said that I inspired them,” Ms. Portnick said in a phone interview. “They tell me, "I didn't know people could be fit at any shape and size and that I could be proud to have my body at any shape and size.' ” If she had to narrow the reaction to three words, she says, they would be, “You go, girl.”

[photo] Jennifer Portnick leads her aerobic classes.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        Erin Donohoe of Hyde Park is one of Ms. Portnick's supporters. “Anybody who is brave enough to say, "I'm fit enough to do this and my size shouldn't matter' is definitely a role for people,” says Ms. Donohoe, who at 200 pounds has been physically active throughout her life. “We have a tendency to say people need to fit this particular visual image, she says. “Whenever somebody can say "I don't need to look like that to do these particular activities,' I applaud them.”

        Obesity is one of the “last bastions of prejudice and judgment,” says Ellen Shuman, director of Acoria Wellness & Eating Disorder Treatment Center in Hyde Park. “It seems to be OK to continue to be critical and judgmental of people of size. In the scheme of things, who cares if someone is a size 14 or 18 or a 26 — if they're healthy.”

        But can someone who is overweight really be healthy? For years, medical research has linked obesity to such health problems as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, and some doctors have even labeled obesity a national epidemic.

        But Glenn Gaesser, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says the relationship between obesity and disease is greatly exaggerated.

        “There's absolutely just unequivocal evidence published in untold number of scientific journals that fat people can be fit,” says Mr. Gaesser, who wrote Big Fat Lies; The Truth about Your Weight and Your Health. (The book is out of print. An updated version of the book is scheduled for release in June.) “By fit, I mean aerobically fit, muscularly fit and metabolically fit. In other words, fat people can do the kinds of aerobics things you might think that only a thin, lean person can do,” he says.

        Mr. Gaesser acknowledges that a random sampling would show more overweight people have such health problems as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. But he attributes the disease risks to lifestyle factors, more than weight. “Fat people also tend to be much less active,” he says.

        “How can you be sure whether the health problems are related to fatness or the lack of activity? Research shows that increasing physical activity and eating a healthy diet makes people healthier — even if they don't lose weight,” Mr. Gaesser says. “Fitness is more important than thinness in terms of a predictor of good health.”

    These three Tristate doctor-affiliated weight-management programs combine behavioral counseling, fitness and food plans.
    • A Weigh Out, part of the Acoria Wellness & Eating Disorders Treatment Center in Hyde Park, offers a wide range of programs including therapy, coaching and fitness classes for people concerned about out-of-control eating. Web site; phone: 321-7202.
    • UC Physicians Weight Management Program, offers nutrition and behavioral counseling and medically monitored weight loss programs. Phone: 558-5377; Web site.
    • Jewish Hospital Weight Management Center offers nutrition education, medically monitored weight-loss plans and behavioral and fitness counseling. Phone: 554-3820.
    Dozens of authors have written books on the fat and fitness issue. Two that Jennifer Portnick recommends are:
    • Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women by Pat Lyons and Debby Burgard ($16.95; For information, visit the authors' Web site.
    • Bountiful Women: Large Women's Secrets for Living the Life They Desire by Bonnie Bernell ($15.95; Wildcat Canyon Press). Information on the book and the author are available at the Web site.
    • For more information about Jennifer Portnick's new aerobics program, currently available only in California, visit her Web site.
    • The National Institutes of Health National Heart Lung and Blood Institute offers recommendations for maintaining a healthy weight and provides general information on the relationship between obesity and health at its Web site.
    • The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, founded in 1969, sponsors rallies, conferences and other events aimed at improving the quality of life for fat people. More than 50 NAAFA chapters meet in cities across the country, but the group's Web site does not list any
        Some research does show that losing 10 percent of body weight can improve a person's metabolic health. But Ms. Shuman criticizes doctors who prescribe dieting for their patients. “Diets don't work, period,” she says. “Statistics show 97 percent of the time the weight will be regained.”

        The Acoria program includes several facets, such as psychotherapy for people with eating disorders and wellness coaching for anybody who's interested in changing their behavior toward food and exercise.

        “My program believes that healthy people come in all sizes,” Ms. Shuman said. “We see that. We have people of all shapes and sizes who are running marathons, who are long-distance bikers, who are doing our exercise classes three times a week and are taking yoga classes.”

        Ms. Donohoe is one of those active clients. After months of training six days a week, she successfully completed a 5K race in Chicago last fall. She's continued a regular walking routine since then, but plans to start training soon for a 10K race later this year. She also has a goal of running a mini-triathlon and a marathon.

        “I'm not as fit as when I was 16, but not very many people are,” she says.

        Tina Holmes, an assistant manager at August Max Woman in Kenwood Towne Centre doesn't share Ms. Donohoe's athletic aspirations, but she does share her ideas about fitness and weight discrimination.

        At a size 22, she faces a lot of discrimination based on her size and sex, she says.

        “A man can be overweight and it's OK, but for a woman it's completely different,” she says. “There's a very big stigma attached to it.”

        She worries about the effect cultural views about obesity have on her impressionable 12-year-old daughter and her daughter's friends. She hears them talking about dieting and losing weight. “I'm like, "You're just 12,' ” she says.

        Ms. Holmes, who is five months pregnant, says she'd like to lose weight, but she's not overly concerned about it.

        “My doctor says I'm healthy as a horse,” she says. “As long as I'm healthy and my blood pressure's normal, that's most important.”

        Jazzercise officials also have come around to the view that fitness comes in more than one size.

        In the settlement of Ms. Portnick's complaint announced last week, the company said it would drop its requirements that its franchise owners look thin.

        But Ms. Portnick has decided not to buy a franchise, after all. She recently started her own aerobics program in San Francisco called Feeling Good Fitness, (, which she says offers an “upbeat nonthreatening and noncompetitive environment” for people of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels. Such a program would be attractive to many large people, says Karen King, program director at the University of Cincinnati Physicians Weight Management Program.

        “There are people who are in our program who avoid going to regular fitness classes because of the sense of not feeling like part of the fitness crowd,” Ms. King says. “Having an instructor who looks less like an anorexic model and more like a normal person would probably be a plus for most women. Businesses might be enhanced if they thought about who really are their clientele and what makes people comfortable.”

        Ms. Shuman also sees value in making people of all sizes feel comfortable about exercising. The Acoria center's exercise classes stress a nonjudgmental attitude about people's weight, she says. “I can't tell you the difference it's made in people's recovery. It's been phenomenal. We've removed the barrier of walking into class where everybody looks a certain way and is wearing a certain amount of Spandex — which is not much.”

        Ms. Portnick, however, has a slightly different view about her responsibility as a role model for full-size people.

        She understands that her “realistic body type” might make some people feel more comfortable — and some less so. “But I don't recommend anyone aspiring to look like their instructor,” she says. “I would like to lead people through a vigorous and delightful workout, to feel more energetic. I want them to be happy with their body.

        “I think we all have our own natural shape that we attain when we're not dieting, and it's just different for everybody. I don't believe any one body is better than another.

        “I'm for diversity. You should have an instructor population that represents America, if you want America to come to your class.”


Little spears create high hopes
- Fat vs. fit - the weight debate
Cleaning can be dangerous
Exercising rights paid off
Andy's samples Mediterranean
Smart mouth
Trade Secrets
Body & mind
ABC makes radical changes for fall
Mexican photographer layers images in meaning
Visa problems sideline soprano
Get to it