In These Gyms, Nobody Cares How You Look In Yoga Pants
If you want to lift weights or use the treadmill at Downsize Fitness, you have to be at least 50 pounds overweight.
Kendall Schrantz is a fan – and a member.
The 24-year-old has struggled with her weight since she was in the second grade. The looks she got at other gyms made her uncomfortable.
But now she drives more than an hour to Downsize Fitness in Fort Worth three times a week, just to exercise.
"It's worth every single penny I paid for gas," she said. "It's worth the time I spend on the road, the miles."
Downsize, which opened in Chicago, has locations in Fort Worth and Dallas. The gym says it eliminates the self-conscious and alienating atmosphere that may be found at other fitness centers. Exercises and equipment are tailored to larger bodies.
It's one of a number of companies and organizations that are marketing fitness to people who are overweight or obese. It's not a bad business strategy, considering that 69 percent of American adults fit in that category, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Planet Fitness chain touts its "Judgment Free Zones". In Omaha, Neb., Square One promises you won't find "size 2's in sports bras sprinting on treadmills." This gym, started by Marty Wolff, who competed on NBC's "The Biggest Loser," says it is for "people of size." And many YMCA facilities feature photos of the faces and bodies of actual members – "real people" – instead of supermodels or body builders.
Schrantz used to be a chronic gym quitter. She'd sign up, go once and never return. The looks she got at other gyms made her uncomfortable.
"My thought on that is why are you looking at me when I got off of the couch, I got off of my bed and I'm actually doing something about it?" Schrantz said, during an interview at the gym. Still, she says, "It's hard."
As she said that, she began to tear up. Other members of the gym came to comfort her. They put their arms around her while she cried.
Here, members sweat together – and shed tears together.
Kishan Shah is the CEO of Downsize, which has hundreds of members across the U.S. They weigh anywhere from 200 to 700 pounds. Shah used to weigh 400 pounds and have a 62-inch waist. Today, he's half that weight and always finds time for a yoga or cardio class in between business meetings.
Fitness is about a lot more than just looks, Shah says.
"If you ask that person why they want to get healthier, it's not about looks, Shah says. "It's about being able to get up off the floor, being able to keep up with your kids, fitting into an airplane seat, and really being able to be around for your grandkids."
So instead of aiming for six-pack abs, trainers emphasize functional fitness in small classes.
The majority of trainers at Downsize were once considered obese themselves. "This is their passion, not their job," Shah said.
Indeed, everything at Downsize is intended to make the gym a welcoming place for those who are overweight, even the equipment.
The stationary bikes, elliptical machines and treadmills all are designed for larger, heavier people. There is thicker cushioning and wider seats. There are no mirrors, and the windows are tinted so passersby can't see in. And there are striking before-and-after photos of clients on the wall.
That may be good for people who are anxious about what other people think about their appearance, according to Austin Baldwin, an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But that doesn't work for everyone.
"Those who have high levels of physique anxiety, they preferred to be around others who were also overweight and obese," Baldwin says, pointing to a 2012 study. "Whereas people with low levels of physique anxiety actually preferred the opposite. They preferred to be around people who were more fit."
The idea of being surrounded by other plus-sized gym members doesn't bother Golda Poretsky, a holistic health coach in New York. But she says she wouldn't go to a gym called "Downsize Fitness."
Any gym that boasts total pounds lost – 5,000 so far at Downsizes across the country – is selling a familiar message, Poretsky says: Fat is bad.
"The problem is that places like this do well because fat is so stigmatized in our society, and there's all this pressure to lose weight," Poretsky said. "And to me it's more of the same. 'Oh, we can hide out while we lose weight until we become more societally acceptable.' That doesn't appeal to me in the least."
But Poretsky does like the idea of having a strong support community, which Downsize is known for. Trainers often stay in touch with members when they're outside of the gym, with text messages and Facebook posts.
Kendall Schrantz says she's already seeing results – a few inches off her waist. And she's discovered a new passion. "I love to run."
And ultimately, that's the goal for these gyms – to make fitness gratifying instead of degrading.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.
Today in Your Health, we'll hear about help for a colicky baby. We'll go first though to the gym. For a lot of us, the gym can be intimidating. For overweight people it can be downright scary. Enter: Downsize Fitness, a gym that caters to people with 50 pounds or more to lose.
Lauren Silverman, of member station KERA, explores the idea behind gyms.
LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Kendall Schrantz used to be a chronic gym quitter. Now she makes a two-hour commute three times a week, to get to one very special gym.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good job. Keep moving.
KENDALL SCHRANTZ: It's worth every single penny I paid for gas. It's worth the time I spend on the road, the miles - totally worth it.
SILVERMAN: Schrantz, who's 24, has struggled with her weight since second grade. She used to take her lunch money straight to the school vending machine for Cool Ranch Doritos and Skittles. She never felt comfortable in regular gyms.
SCHRANTZ: The looks you get from other people. My thought on that is, why are you looking at me when I got off of the couch, I got off of my bed and I'm actually doing something about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)
SILVERMAN: Schrantz breaks down and members come over to comfort her. They know what she's going through. That shared experience is at the core of Downsize Fitness. To join one of the four gyms across the country, you have to have a BMI of 35. Thirty is considered obese.
CEO Kishan Shaw says regular gyms aren't equipped to deal with people struggling with obesity.
KISHAN SHAW: Most people with more than 50 pounds of weight to lose will say, I need to lose weight before I go to a gym. So for me, I was 400 pounds and I lost 75 pounds before I went to a gym because I was too intimidated by dealing with gyms and going there and having those stares and everything.
SILVERMAN: Shah carries a photo with him from when he weighed 400 pounds and had a waist measuring more than five feet around. Today, he's half that weight and he, like other Downsize members, isn't your stereotypical gym rat.
SHAW: It's not about looks. It's about being able to get up off the floor, being able to keep up with your kids, fitting into an airplane seat, you know, really being able to be around for your grandkids.
SILVERMAN: So instead of aiming for six-pack abs, trainers emphasize functional fitness in small classes. Today, members side shuffle across the floor, pumping their arms before moving on to lunges.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice. You two up here, are you remembering to breathe? Form is more important than speed here.
SILVERMAN: At Downsize, it's not only the exercises that are modified, it's the equipment too. The stationary bikes, ellipticals, treadmills, all are specially designed for heavier people. The windows are tinted for extra privacy. There are classes on nutrition and striking before and after photos up on the wall. But can banning skinny people really help members drop pounds?
AUSTIN BALDWIN: Yes, but it's more complicated than that.
SILVERMAN: Austin Baldwin is an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He researches what motivates people to exercise. And he points to a 2012 study that looked at what he calls physique anxiety among overweight people.
BALDWIN: So for those who have high levels of physique anxiety, they preferred to be around others who were also overweight and obese. Whereas people with low levels of this physique anxiety actually preferred the opposite, right? They preferred to be around people who were more fit.
SILVERMAN: The study should that most people who are overweight feel more comfortable working out with people who are also overweight. And there's another feature Baldwin says may help gyms like Downsize. They're not weight-loss farms. Once you've dropped 50 pounds, you're not kicked out. In fact, the majority of trainers are former members who've graduated. That means you build community.
BALDWIN: So you're setting up a support network which we know to be important in changing behaviors, both in terms of tangible things and providing information, important skills and so on, as well as emotional support.
SILVERMAN: Of course, not everyone likes the idea of overweight gyms.
GOLDA PORETSKY: I would not go to a place called Downsize Fitness.
SILVERMAN: Golda Poretsky a plus-sized Holistic Health Coach in New York. She says any gym that boasts total pounds lost - 5,000 so far at Downsizes across the country - is selling a familiar message: Fat is bad.
PORETSKY: For me, it's more of the same. You know, it's just, oh, we can hide out while we lose weight and become societally acceptable. Like, that doesn't appeal to me in the least.
SILVERMAN: For her, the goal isn't to lose weight, it's to be healthy at whatever size you are. But for the people who are determined to shed pounds, Downsize is another option. There are now two in Illinois, two in Texas and remote classes online.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You can do it. You're almost there. Come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND CLAPPING)
LAURA SILVERMAN, BYLINE: In the Fort Worth gym, 24-year-old Kendall Schrantz is determined to lose fifty pounds. She's already seeing results - a few inches off her waist - and she's discovered a new passion.
SCHRANTZ: I love running. It's so fun.
SILVERMAN: And that's the goal for these gyms - making fitness gratifying instead of degrading.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good job group, Ruth. Get some water and we'll stretch it out.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.