By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)

It is well established that the fitness industry is obsessed with weight loss and aesthetics when it comes to marketing fitness and exercise for people. The pervasiveness of fitness and diet culture has become an obsession in our modern society where a person’s physical appearance is often subject to criticism and judgement. More so, the whole notion of exercise and fitness being centered around this level of aesthetic, with every gym, book, diet supplement, MLM scheme and everything else marketing itself based on how much weight it promises you will lose and how sexy it will make you look. Unfortunately, with this has come out the obesity epidemic, eating disorders, mental health issues, and numerous physical, mental, and social consequences as a result.

More so, it has made exercise and sport into almost an exclusive club that is only reserved for those who “look” like they belong. Our society as a whole has an unhealthy relationship with exercise and fitness that seemingly reserves it only for those who look the part, which is a catch 22 given that they “look” the part because of consistent exercise. However, even from a young age our PE classes are failing to create a healthy relationship between ourselves and exercise, with a lot of people I work with often sharing traumatic memories of being in gym class. Even my own memories of gym class in school are not at all positive. Physical education is more focused on performance and skill (often that is untrained yet still judged) rather than capability and effort level. PE students are evaluated objectively against each other rather than subjectively based on their own efforts to improve. Rather than teaching kids how to move their bodies and how to utilize exercise as part of their daily life, we are teaching them about the technicalities of sport that they will never use. Bigger kids are often judged and bullied in these classes as well, feeling left behind and otherwise incapable, when in fact they are capable of so much more but left without even a chance to show it. Leading many of these kids to grow up with a negative relationship to exercise and fitness that makes it even more difficult to take it up.

It is well established that exercise, fitness, and sport have a wide array of physical, mental, and social benefits, it’s what drives my passion and why I work so hard within this field to overcome the stigmas and barriers that often drive these negative relationships. My coaching and training philosophy has always been rooted on effort level and capability in that for those I coach, I focus on where they are within the moment, I am working with them. What is their capability and where can we build from there. All I ask of my athletes is that they put in their best effort in the training we do, knowing that “effort” level is subjective. That is why I employ the “Rating of Perceived Exertion” scale to evaluate effort. It is subjective to each individual athlete based on their capabilities, but also is an adaptive tool that allows me to collectively evaluate a group of athletes together rather than making unfair comparisons. If Athlete #1 is doing 10 pushups whereas Athlete #2 is doing 50 pushups, all that matters is that they are both putting in their best effort and the benefit from the exercise is ultimately the same.

However, an average person, let alone a larger person, walks into any average gym, they will see a wide array of complex machines and apparatus, as well as the skinny and fit looking people using them. While there is certainly nothing wrong with the people using them, after all, everybody is at the gym for the same reason, right? To exercise. However, for larger people who don’t necessarily “fit” (pun intended) that aesthetic, the simple act of walking into the gym to be difficult. Even for those who make it past that first barrier, they often find themselves alone and feeling like they are standing out from the crowd, putting on an underlying pressure or a bit of self-consciousness regarding their simple presence that can make the environment uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this means that, even for those larger folx who make it into the front door of the gym, will still face more difficulties in maintaining a regular consistent routine. Even with the best intentions, fitness environments, including classes, gyms, and groups, even with the best of intentions, can become inaccessible. Especially when there is such an emphasis on aesthetics, losing weight, “looking fit” (whatever that means) or anything involving diet culture. It’s like posting a sign up that says, “you must look *this* hot to enter.”

When I started coaching with SC Janus, the LGBTQ+ sports club here in Cologne, Germany. I was asked to take over the Ü100 course, Ü100 meaning “Über 100kg” or “Over 100kg (220lbs)” which meant that the course was specifically designed for larger people. Having put on some kilos myself since moving to Germany, I also gained a different perspective on my own relationship with exercise and sport. So, I was intrigued to take over this class, fresh out of the pandemic quarantine and building it into a new community. Unfortunately, we got off to a rough start and spent months with only a small handful of people attending the course. Was it lack motivation stemming from months of lockdown? Me being a new and unknown instructor for the group? Inconvenient class times? Probably a mixture of it all.

But then things shifted, coming from a classic fitness trope, the “New Year’s Resolution” crowd. I had been teaching Ü100 for a while at this point but still hadn’t found a rhythm with the class, but a sudden surge of interest in the class and within a month my class size had doubled and tripled. A new group of people who had searched for “fitness classes for larger people” and my Ü100 class was one of the only ones they could find, not just in Cologne but in all of Germany.

With a new group coming consistently, of all body shapes and sizes, and with their help I started being able to better learn how to shape Ü100 into a safe space where larger people could learn how to exercise and build a healthier relationship with fitness, a space where they can feel represented and able to connect with other, likeminded people. Again, we’re all they’re for the same reason, to exercise. However, the focus of Ü100 has always been building capability and learning how to exercise safely and effectively.

As a result, our class has grown from a simple fitness class to a community, where we enjoy each other’s friendship, challenge ourselves and each other to put forth our best efforts, have fun practicing new exercises and even connecting outside of class. The participants of the class often share with me this is the one space where they truly feel safe and represented to exercise, without the underlying pressure they often face in other fitness settings. Even while attending other fitness classes, the Ü100 class has helped them to build the confidence and courage to pursue those other classes and try new modes of exercise and sport. The description for our class

“The course serves as an introductory course for people who are not comfortable in typical gym and workout environments. In this course we create a safe space together and make movement accessible for people who feel excluded from typical fitness and sporting events or simply don’t feel in the right place. The training is aimed at people who want to exercise appropriately despite their weight. The focus of the training is therefore the joy of movement.”

It’s such a simple description for a course that has grown to be so much more. It is quite humbling and validating to hear from my athletes that they feel safe and included within the course, to hear that it has helped them to build the confidence and courage to try other courses and sports. To have formed such a cohesive community where new people immediately feel included within their first session and to see people who are experiencing the kinds of physical, mental, and social benefits exercise can have. Even more so, it’s a platform for them to feel comfortable and safe in expressing themselves and being who they are in an environment where they can thrive. As a result, Ü100 has grown from just a small handful of people to a large (pun intended) community and I couldn’t be more happy and grateful to see so many people thriving from it.

As I am told by my athletes, as well as through my own research, there is no other classes like Ü100 out there, even being asked if I know of any (I don’t) and have never seen one advertised at any gym or other sports club. It’s honestly surprising to see that Ü100 is one of the only classes as its kind given there is so much potential in this offering to really expand upon and have a positive impact. Having the class as part of an LGBTQ+ sports club really helps to in that building inclusive, safe spaces are already values represented within the club itself, but also with more of a focus on “sport” it comes back to that of capability and effort level rather than for weight loss and aesthetics. By sharing this story of Ü100, I hope that we can build upon this format of fitness in helping people build positive and healthy relationships with exercise and sport that will ultimately accomplish more above and beyond the superficiality of aesthetics.

Photo Credit: David “Dirk” Smith