Tara Lawton says she stopped going to her health club in part because she felt she didn’t fit in. People still seemed to be watching — and silently judging — her 280-pound body.
Next, Lawton stumbled across the Facebook page for Downsize Fitness, a low-key new gym in Chicago’s West Loop designed exclusively for people who want to lose at least 50 pounds. Slender men and women are not even welcome as members; those who change their lifestyle and achieve their goal weight graduate from the health club.
“I sometimes want to cry how much this has changed my life,” said Lawton, 42, of Chicago, who now trains five days a week and has lost 20 pounds since arriving in October. “My body reacts positively to being pushed.”
Although Americans are joining gyms in record numbers — 42.8 million people were health club members this year, according to a report by IBISWorld — fitness centers often alienate people they might more help: the obese.
As health clubs and gyms increasingly focus on specific populations, including young athletes and aging baby boomers, the industry is often seen as catering primarily to fit, educated customers. and middle to upper class. The seemingly obvious niche of sedentary, overweight adults is largely overlooked.
Research shows that many workout deterrents apply to both overweight and normal weight people, including exercising with the opposite sex, using complicated equipment, and being bored. But heavier members may want or need more emotional support, positive reinforcement, and intimacy than thinner members. Some research even suggests that gym members may feel more comfortable working out with people who look like them.
According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, overweight people, for example, feel more embarrassed and intimidated to exercise with young, fit people than people of normal weight.
Heavier adults are also more averse to health club salespeople than their thinner counterparts, said study co-author Todd Miller, an associate professor of exercise science at the George Washington University Medical Center.
Downsize Fitness founder Francis Wisniewski, 38, agrees. “Big clubs make you feel like you’re on display,” he said. “I’ve been fat all my life, and little incidents probably make it look worse than it really is. But at the gym, it’s all there for everyone to see. And I know that if I feel it, overweight women feel it’s worse.”
Fitness advertisements for clubs and equipment have long featured sculpted fitness models with gorgeous bodies. But “at this point most people aren’t buying it,” Miller said. “They know it’s not realistic and don’t think they can achieve it. So the fitness industry is, in a way, their own worst enemy.”
Personal trainer Nicki Anderson, owner of Reality Fitness in Naperville, frequently speaks about the importance of customer service at industry conferences and thinks some clubs want to be known for having beautiful members.
“Attitude comes from the top,” Anderson said. “Staff are taught to sell supplements and subscriptions, but not to welcome people who desperately need their help.”
Some health clubs and YMCA facilities have attempted to change the reputation of the industry by marketing “real people” success stories or focusing on families. Crunch Fitness and Planet Fitness claim to have “no judgment” zones and philosophies.
Wisniewski wonders if such measures are effective. “As an overweight person, it’s in my head that I’m judged whether it’s true or not,” he said. “So a slogan on the wall won’t matter if I’m working next to a 90-pound woman or a bodybuilder.”
Meanwhile, many people join a health club with unrealistic expectations. Studies show you can’t exercise with the wrong diet – good nutrition needs to be part of the plan – but Miller’s research also found that overweight people believe exercise improves appearance and self-image more than people of normal weight.
“The challenge is to create a comprehensive program that combines nutritional advice and exercise and enables people to achieve success in a relatively short period of time,” said industry consultant Rick Caro, president of Management Vision.
As members become familiar with a health club, their perceptions often change. Debbie Pitstick, 39, from Elburn, said she lost 80 pounds in three years while working at the Delnor Health and Wellness Center.
Initially, as she walked for 20 minutes on a treadmill, she felt judged. “But while I was training, I noticed people young and old, incredibly fit and extremely obese,” she said. “We were all there for the same reason – to get healthy. As soon as I understood that, I realized that people were really thinking how great it is for an obese person to put in the effort. “
Wisniewski, a Chicago hedge fund manager and father of three, opened his “Biggest Loser” style gyms in Chicago and Las Vegas after losing 60 pounds while working out with a personal trainer in his own home.
He said he was trying to bring the privacy and comfort of a home gym to a small club, where members can count on each other for support and motivation, working towards the same goals and learn to make exercise and good nutrition a regular part of their lives.
At Downsize, where windows are frosted and members allow themselves to use key cards, consistency and lifestyle changes – especially nutritional ones – are emphasized. Fees are $300 per month for unlimited gym and class access and $25 for a day pass. No one signs a contract; if members decide they are not ready to commit, they can cancel and come back later.
Once enrolled in the program, clients must come five days a week; they can attend classes or do cardio on their own, though members are monitored by personal trainers. Unlike regular health clubs, the equipment, including the elliptical machine and self-propelled treadmill, is designed specifically for larger bodies.
If you decide to take a break from training, Jason Burns, a former college and professional football player, will call, text or email you to find out what’s going on.
“The hardest part is getting through the door,” Lawton said. The first member of the club, she has become such a regular that she now works there as an office assistant. “But now I’m moving forward, and there’s no way I’m going back.”
Wisniewski, meanwhile, said he still has 100 pounds to lose. But he’s so committed to his approach to a healthy lifestyle that he’s hosting his own “Biggest Loser” contest and giving away $25,000 to the Downsize Fitness member who loses the greatest percentage of body fat between Jan. July 1.
His business will ultimately be successful “if trainers care about members, members care about trainers, and members care about each other,” Wisniewski said. “And if we achieve all three goals, it will also be profitable.”
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