Fitness for all: Gainesville fitness instructors uplift plus-sized community

For about seven years, Leila Nogueira was out of the fitness scene. Her pregnancies, back injury, busy work life and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic kept her from daily lunges, squats, core exercises and cardio.

Even before, the 31-year-old docketing clerk avoided public fitness studios. The idea of ​​being the only one in the room of her body type and disability has fed the insecurities she faces.

“I really felt like I need to be active – I need to get back and work on my health,” Nogueira said.

Nogueira recognizes the judgment her and plus-sized individuals are vulnerable to within fitness environments for failing to meet the image of what ‘healthy’ or ‘capable’ people look like, making it hard to commit to a workout regime.

“Of course, I can get looks and small comments,” she said. “It can exist and that can really tear a person down.”

The world is beginning to embrace plus-sized beauty in the media and fashion industry. Some Gainesville studios and personal trainers are advocating for inclusivity.

Local studios and personal trainers dismissed the atmosphere of anxiety and pressure that may often penetrate public, commercial gyms.

Nogueira found her inspiration for getting back into fitness with Blanca Fernandez, a 28-year-old physical therapist assistant who turned her work as a personal trainer into a virtual endeavor once the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

With three yoga mats and a car, Fernandez took to teaching fitness in local parks in 2017 to pay off her student loans. Five years later, her work has since expanded into a business tailored to body confidence, Built by Blanca.

Nogueira began her fitness journey at Fernandez’s Zoom class for plus-sized patrons along with Curvy Confidence, an Gainesville-based social organization for plus-sized individuals. Nogueira has credited the organization and Fernandez for making exercise comfortable again.

“That made me feel like, okay, other people that are going through similar problems — that might have the same abilities or disabilities are going to be doing this, too,” Nogueira said.

Although she said that she had to start from square one due to her back injury, Fernandez has since reinvigorated her sense of mobility that has changed Nogueira’s perception of herself.

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“Mentally, she has given me a lot of confidence,” she said. “I felt more comfortable going out more – I felt really good.”

Prone to injury from a life revolved around athletics, Fernandez knows first-hand what it’s like to feel incapable. Having overcome these setbacks, she has since sought to leave an imprint of strength and determination within her students that may share similar sentiments.

“No matter what life throws at you, all you got is yourself. Keep going, keep moving, keep taking care of yourself. And that applied to things I was going through at that time,” Fernandez said.

Outside of personal training, Gainesville’s inclusive fitness community has grown to include other forms of staying active—with one being dance.

Jacqueline Valdez, 49-year-old instructor and owner of Jacqueline Valdez Dance, teaches classes ranging from adult ballet to pole dancing. Living with Sjögren’s syndrome and surviving multiple car accidents, of which she had developed spondylosis, inspired her to begin her business.

“I was told to give up my fitness career,” she said. Not only was she determined to continue bettering her own health issues, but she set out to equally help others fight their battles.

Clients of Valdez attest to what she preaches, who have gained a reinvigorated confidence in both body and mind.

While on a cross-country roadtrip, Natalie Warriner, a 37-year-old dog trainer, was on a search to find a dance studio she was comfortable committing to.

But, the studios Warriner did encounter whilst traveling the country added to her discomfort, flaunting single body types and tight sportswear that discouraged a positive body image. In fact, some of the studios posed health hazards to her as a plus-sized individual.

“It felt a little bit like all the girls who were flexible, a bit skinnier, a bit prettier were focused on because they were going to be competing, and they were going to be the ones representing the studio – to the point that I would often insult myself because no one was watching or helping me,” she said.

As a serendipitous encounter with Gainesville’s inclusive fitness scene, Warriner stumbled upon Jacqueline Valdez Dance during her quest to find pole fitness and aerial silk classes that were best for her.

“By far, she was the least of the clicky places we went to,” she said.

Returning home to Virginia, Warriner and her husband knew they had found the perfect place to relocate to. Valdez’s one-on-one instruction was the attention she needed to truly take care of her body.

Since attending the studio last Fall, Warriner has not only a newfound confidence through her body and health, but her perspective of what fitness should look like has been shaped by the diverse clientele.

“There is this kind of stigma,” she said. “Look at all the competition people — look at the people that go on America’s Got Talent. They’re not really representing normal-sized people, in my opinion. They’re the kind of people that we’re meant to look up to.”

Struggling to feel content in her body, Kimberly Toske, a 34-year-old information technology technician, began pole conditioning and pilates in November 2021. These classes have since become the source of strength she had been looking for entering the studio.

“It’s done wonders for my confidence level. I’ve been wearing shorts more often – tank tops,” she said. “Everybody’s so happy to see you, they don’t care if you make a fool of yourself. It’s just a great environment.”

Sonya Alexander, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom of four, was initially hesitant to begin classes at Valdez’s studio. However, Valdez’ teaching style has shaped her approach to fitness, having long avoided it because of her shyness.

“I absolutely love it,” she said. “She helps you with your body confidence, and at any size you have to have body confidence.”

Contact Jared Teitel @jteitel@alligtaor.org. Follow him on Twitter @jaredteitel.

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