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Changing minds (and bodies) at plus-size fitness

Amanda Leith has been on one fitness program after another: "I'm always the last. I'm always the fattest. I always dread having to go back."

This time, she thinks it's going to be different, despite the torrential downpour that's materialized to rain on her enthusiasm.

Ms. Leith is one of a dozen people defying the weather to try Plus Size Fitness, a new program that's trying to break down some of the social and psychological barriers to exercise. Run by Body Exchange Health and Fitness in Vancouver, this is a boot camp that embraces the unfit, the overweight and the exercise-shy. The object is to get people healthier, feeling better about themselves and less self-conscious about working out.

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Louise Green, fitness trainer and owner of Body Exchange, thinks plus-size people are left out of Vancouver's exercise culture.

"This is a really active city," she says. "I don't think it is considered very acceptable to be plus size here."

Now a healthy and fit size 16, Ms. Green says she spent her whole life struggling with feeling heavy and out of shape. Going to the gym simply compounded her discomfort until she found a personal trainer who treated her as a person, not a paycheque.

"I got so tired of feeling bad about being big," she explains. "I knew that when I exercised I instantly felt better about myself. I just needed to do it in an atmosphere that didn't bring my morale down."

Encouraged by how good she was feeling about herself, and suddenly evangelical about exercise, she decided to train as a fitness instructor. In March, she registered Body Exchange and set about researching her target market. But she wasn't prepared for the level of interest she received right across the region. She had offers from people wanting to run franchises before her first class signed up. A second boot camp will start July 7.

Realizing she had found a niche market, Ms. Green started looking for help. But finding plus-sized fitness instructors proved difficult.

"I posted they should be size 10 or over - I was trying to be realistic - but then this long, lanky, beautiful plus-size model showed up, and I decided it wasn't going to work."

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She turned instead to Amanda Nichol, her own personal trainer, who she says changed her life. Ms. Nichol is assisting in the programs and will probably run the second boot camp once it's off the ground. "If it weren't for Amanda," said Ms. Green, "I wouldn't have gone into the fitness industry at all."

Back at the rain-swept high-school playing field, Ms. Leith and the other participants are valiantly pushing up their heart rates. All the exercises are offered in different levels of difficulty, allowing members to set their own comfort level. Ms. Leith is relieved. "For once, I don't feel as though I'm going to die."

The Go-Gos are belting out We Got the Beat from Ms. Green's stereo as the exercisers make their way through squats, skipping and steps. "That's the biggest bang for your buck," she says, while demonstrating how to do an effective lunge. "It'll be Daisy Dukes next week."

Knowing that the challenge at this end of the fitness scale is making sure that members stay with the program, she says the key is keeping everyone's spirits up. "We've got them here; we have to make it as fun as possible," she says. "Exercise probably isn't something they naturally enjoy, and I don't want anyone to leave feeling defeated."

"Let's go out with a bang! Pick up the pace," she shouts, as the group speed-walk widths of the gravel school soccer pitch, high-fiving each other as they pass. Some start running, bending down to touch the ground at the end of each width. Despite the enthusiasm, Ms. Green wants the program to be a gradual introduction to exercise.

"Those of us with weight issues tend to be all-or-nothing people," she explains. "We overeat; we crash diet. We do no physical activity; we hit the gym five nights a week. And then we drop out."

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Fees are low - the boot camp works out to $15 a session - because she's working with a demographic unused to paying for fitness.

Right now, everyone seems to be having a good time. They're in a circle, arms stretched forward, marching in and out. "Imagine you're pushing a shopping cart," suggests Ms. Green, walking forward. "Should I buy it?" She walks back again, shaking her head: "No, I shouldn't."

Ms. Leith is in no such quandary. After two sessions, she signs up for both the boot camp and a running program.

"It feels like Louise and Amanda really care - they're in your corner," she says. "If you don't show up, they are going to call you and check you're okay and keep you motivated. I'm always doubtful about these things - usually I won't keep going. But this time feels different. There's great camaraderie - and it doesn't feel like a chore."

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