Queen’s researcher examines how larger bodies can find joy in movement

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People in larger bodies often ‘taught to fight against their body’

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A Queen’s University PhD candidate is conducting research into how fitness and physical activity can be made more welcoming and accessible to people living in larger bodies.

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As part of the research, Kasie Murphy, a third-year PhD student in Queen’s University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, wants to hear from Kingston residents who live in large bodies about their experiences with physical activities.

“My topic is on fat activism, with this particular focus on people in larger bodies and how they experience physical activity,” Murphy told the Whig-Standard.

“People in larger bodies are often encouraged to exercise, but when they enter those spaces, they’re taught to fight against their body and that the reason they’re exercising is to change the body they’re living in. It becomes this constant battle. The project that I’m doing is trying to centre this idea that your body can be good in those spaces, regardless of how big it is.”

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Murphy has always been athletic and involved in sports, throughout elementary and high school and as a coach and martial arts instructor.

Tackle football is the main reason that I got into this research,” Murphy said. “I played boys tackle football in high school and as a child for a couple of years, and I loved the fact that as an offensive lineman, you have to be a big player and they really value your size in that role.

Being on girls teams left Murphy feeling like “my body was always something that was so outside of the norm, and like something I should be changing to excel.”

“In tackle football, my body being larger was valued and appreciated,” Murray said. “And then I learned that it could be a good, physically active body regardless of its size.”

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In searching for a PhD project, Murphy realized that a big part of the reason people avoid physical activity is due to body size.

Now, Murphy hopes to facilitate a conversation about how sports, gyms and organized physical activities can be more welcoming to bodies not stereotypically identified as athletic in appearance.

Murphy has interviewed nine physical activity programs across North America whose programs are centred around those living in larger bodies.

“I had a few participants who told me that they would explicitly talk to program organizers and say, ‘I want to enter your program, but I don’t want to focus on weight loss.’ And they would still go in and get trainers that would say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to slim you down here, and this is how we’re going to get rid of that belly fat.’ And that’s not what they wanted.”

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Murphy said that focusing on weight loss as the goal of exercise “leaves out this holistic view of health that, again, goes past physical metrics.”

“Mental health is super important, and the fat stigma that people experience, learning that their bodies are not OK because they’re larger, can cause massive negative mental health outcomes. A lot of that just gets pushed to the side because of this one metric that we focus on.”

While many exercise spaces today try to be inclusive, body inclusivity often gets left out, Murphy believes.

“In physical activity spaces, they assume that you don’t have to be inclusive towards people who are living in larger bodies, because this assumption is that you’ll lose weight by participating in sport,” Murphy said. “So you no longer will be in a larger body. Meanwhile, that’s just not true. A lot of people are physically active and are living in larger bodies, and that’s not going to change.”

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Murphy points out that the benefits of exercise “range extravagantly in excess of weight loss,” including positive outcomes like building community, better mental health and simply finding “joy in movement.”

“That should be the way that we’re approaching this, in terms of trying to get people in larger bodies to actually enjoy (exercise) again. It’s highlighting that you can have joyful movement as the principal reason to be physically active, and that’s totally fine.”

Murphy has prepared a survey for Kingston-area residents so they can provide information on local experiences and what they want to see changed.

“The idea is to actually make change in our community as the starting point, and then also to create some guidebooks and suggestions that other people can uptake in other communities for how to actually address this issue, as opposed to just keeping it within academia.”

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Academically, Murphy is poised to share their research to date at this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Canada’s largest academic gathering, taking place June 12 to 21 in Montreal.

According to a news release, Murphy will share how “discrimination against fat people remains prominent in conventional organized physical activity, often leading people living in large bodies to avoid exercise altogether,” as well as presenting what “fat-centric” programs across North America are doing to create safe community spaces.

Murphy will speak on June 18 during a presentation titled, “An Intersectional Analysis of Fatness.”

“I’m thrilled to be included in this panel of experts and to be even a small part of such a large event featuring outstanding Canadian scholarship,” Murphy said. “The organizers, Kelsey Ioannoni and Ramanpreet Bahar, are very active with their work, so I’m excited to learn from them and the other panellists, as well as share research.”

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Murphy hopes Kingston-area residents will participate in the online survey and help build a body of research that could assist people who may have shied away in the past in finding “joyful movement” in physical activity — forming a positive connection with your body through movement.

While a lot of “fat activism” focuses on the stigma of body size and adjusting social acceptance, feeling good in one’s own body is also an important part of the larger conversation, Murphy said.

I think that coming back into love with your body, and coming back into feeling strong and powerful and good in the way that your body can make you feel, is one of those really important things that physical activity is good at (doing).”

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