Getting Beyond Thin
As Betty Kroeker learned, there is so much more to life than a dress size.
By Marianne Jones
Betty Kroeker loves to tell people what she does for a living. The size-24 Canadian gets a big kick out of watching their eyes widen when she reveals she's a top-level fitness instructor.
"My appearance doesn't fit most people's idea of what an aerobics instructor looks like," she says. "But the idea perpetuated by the media - that the perfect body must be thin - creates prisons in our minds that drive us either to develop eating disorders or to give up."
Kroeker, 48, has taught aerobics for more than nine years. In addition to leading eight fitness classes each week, she's a personal trainer and gives motivational talks to health and weight-management organisations.
She could be the poster girl for emerging research suggesting it's better to be fat and fit than thin and sedentary for overall health and longevity.
Indeed, a study published in 1999 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that unfit lean men had a higher risk of dying prematurely than men who were fit and obese.
A similar study of women published in the Obesity Research journal in June 2002 had much the same results. The study's authors concluded that "low cardiorespiratory fitness is a stronger predictor than body mass index of mortality in women."
Kroeker is an inspiration for the countless people who are too ashamed of their weight to take that first step towards physical activity. She wants them to know what a transforming experience being fit can be.
Everything about Kroeker exudes enthusiasm and energy. It's hard to believe that 12 years ago, at nearly 130 kilos (285 lbs), she felt depressed and defeated by her size. She was unable to get out of bed or climb stairs without getting shooting pains up her legs or becoming red-faced and breathless. She stayed being when her husband and children went for walks.
With a family history of weight problems, Kroeker has never been svelte. But after her third child, her weight started spiralling out of control. She was miserable. Then, in June 1995, Kroeker ran into an old friend who had lost 18 kilos (40 lbs) through aerobics training. That summer Kroeker struggled to find the courage to join an exercise group.
In September the same friend told her about an aerobics class for larger women - there was one opening left. That was the push she needed. But there were still a few hurdles to overcome: One was exposing her less-than-firm body. "I learned they don't make work-out clothes for big women," she says. "All I found was a pea-green tracksuit that made me look like the Jolly Green Giant."
And actually getting to that first class was tough. Kroeker sat in the car park for ten minutes, telling herself that if the instructor looked like Barbie in a G-string, she was out of there. "I felt that I had no right to be there, that an alarm would go off as soon as I walked through the door."
Her fears that all the "athletic" people in the class would ridicule her were put to rest. "Everyone in the room looked like me," she says. Even the instructor, Lisa Moore, was a large woman who immediately made everyone feel at ease.
Not being used to that much physical activity, Kroeker found the first class difficult - "The first ten minutes, I thought I was going to die" - but she managed to get through it. And it marked a turning point for her. "By the time I got home that night, I felt I had accomplished something major - and not just the physical part," she says. The biggest battle had been the one in her head, to go for it despite her fears of failure or ridicule.
It wasn't long before Kroeker was hooked. She enjoyed moving to the music and grew more confident as she lost weight and gained strength and energy. After attending the classes for a year, she lost 18 kilos (40 lbs), her cardiovascular endurance improved, her resting heart rate dropped from the mid- to high-70s to a healthier 69, and she was sleeping better. "I got my life back," she says.
Moore suggested Kroeker become a fitness instructor herself. Kroeker laughed the idea off. But with the gentle prodding of her husband and Moore, she decided to pursue it.
In no time Kroeker was loving every minute of it. She passed the course and was soon leading ten-minute spots in Moore's introductory class. Participants were encouraged by her example and enjoyed her lively routines.
Before long, she was teaching five mornings a week - moderate floor and step aerobic as well as an introductory class. At first, not everyone took her seriously as a fitness leader. "One time I was filling in for another instructor. One man took a look at me and sneered, 'We're used to a high-intensity work-out in this class.'"
"I said, 'You got it!' and gave them my toughest routines. After that no-one questioned my ability to set the pace."
Kroeker didn't stop there. She added weight training to her repertoire and was in greater demand as an instructor. Larger women who used to be too intimidated by their weight to go to a gym were clamouring for her class.
But Kroeker wanted to reach more overweight and unfit people who were too embarrassed to join a gym - by bringing the exercise classes to them. She enrolled in a course to become a personal trainer.
She also enrolled in another programme to become a lifestyle and weight-management consultant, which would allow her to offer group and individual counselling sessions on fitness and nutrition issues.
Kroeker still strives to manage her weight and pay attention to her diet. But at the same time, she refuses to be obsessed about weight or to measure her value by dress size. "So many people spend their lives waiting," she says. "They tell themselves they'll start living when they lose all their excess weight. They imagine life will be perfect when they're thin.. You know what? It won't. Life will still have its problems - whether we're thin or fat."
Those who know Kroeker agree - she is one person who will never put life on hold again.
Do we put too much emphasis on size?