Kishan Shah is the President of Downsize Fitness, an overweight-only gym that aims to make weight loss fun and provide real results. Kishan has personally lost 200 pounds through diet and exercise. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. Follow him on Twitter or email him at kishan [at] downsizefitness.com.
At my heaviest, I weighed 400 pounds. I felt worse than invisible. I felt like society went out of its way to avoid me. Doors were not held open, eye contact was never made, and it seemed like most people wished I didn’t exist. Consequently, the idea of setting foot in a gym terrified me — I worried about the judging stares, the confined locker rooms, and the sneers directed at a significantly overweight man struggling to use traditional fitness equipment and execute basic exercises.
In 2005, I hit my turning point. It wasn’t the impending amputation of my right foot from diabetic complications that provoked me to change my health routines — it was the embarrassment of shopping for a suit. I was at a store for large men when the tailor’s five-foot tape measure could not fit around my 62-inch waist. I saw the pity in his eyes, the tears in mine, and I promptly exited the store, determined to turn things around.
Eight years later, without the use of surgeries or fad diets, I have lost over 200 pounds. I published my full weight loss story on the Huffington Post and received hundreds of emails and comments. I was even lucky enough to chat with the First Lady herself, Michelle Obama, regarding her Let’s Move initiative. That conversation helped me make the decision to stop focusing solely on my own body and to help others on their own health journeys. I left my Private Equity role at Goldman Sachs and joined Downsize Fitness, the world's first overweight-only gym with locations in Chicago, Naperville, Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City.
In my line of work, I often get asked the question: Why does the world need an overweight-only gym? Over the past eight years, and in the process of losing more than 200 pounds and working out in more than 100 gyms in 30 countries, I have come to believe in three concrete reasons why this kind of “exclusive” gym is absolutely necessary to help those with significant weight loss goals live healthier, happier lives.
Reason Number One: The Intimidation Factor
As Francis Wisniewski, Downsize Fitness’ Founder, points out: "Gyms are made for fit people to stay fit, not for fat people to get fit." This phenomenon manifests in several ways. Many gym-goers are lean and muscular, and heavier people may feel they stick out. Standard classes may be considered too complicated or challenging for someone at the beginning of their fitness journey. Few gym patrons seem willing to help newbies; in fact, many people opt to put on their headphones and drown out the sounds and sights of their fellow club members.
To put it simply, “getting in shape,” for a person with more than 50 pounds of weight to lose, is a dramatically different journey than it is for someone trying to lose five or 10 pounds. People who are entirely new to fitness may find that just climbing a flight of stairs can be a challenge, standard gym equipment is not suited for larger bodies, and even finding workout clothes in the right size isn’t always easy.
Overweight-only gyms can help fitness newbies surmount these challenges in an understanding and supportive environment. By catering exclusively to larger bodies, gyms can offer classes designed for overweight individuals, modify exercises so members can safely conduct movements at their own pace, and invest in exercise equipment that accommodates heavier bodies.
Reason Number Two: Speciallly Trained Staff
Quick fixes grab our attention. The juice cleanse, magic diet pill, 15 minute abs workout, cookie diet, and other alchemy promising that users will lose 100 pounds in 45 days are backed with billions of dollars in advertising. As a society, we tend to value the “hidden diet secrets” rather than the basic fundamentals of health and fitness.
For people who are significantly overweight, these quick fixes are literally impossible to achieve. People with a lot of weight to lose benefit from the support of a fitness team that is specifically trained to understand that losing a significant amount of weight in a healthy way takes time, and that it's important not to attach health and fitness goals to "pounds lost." Rather, health and fitness gains should be measured by whether a person is able to keep up with their kids, finally fits into an airplane seat, feels more energized, or is living a healthier life overall.
An overweight-only gym can dedicate all of its resources to training its staff to respond to the unique needs of overweight patrons and newbies to health and fitness. Client trainings and assessments for fitness, nutrition, and psychological progress can also be tailored to the needs, challenges, and physical characteristics of gym goers in order to ensure success over the long term.
Reason Number Three: Investment in Success
By design, many gyms are financially geared to sell as many memberships as possible and hope overcrowding does not occur. Gyms often make most of their money from two sorts of people: One, absentee members, and two, super-users who pay not only the monthly fee but also for the add-ons such as trainers, classes, and whey smoothies. Some gyms even require that heavier members pay more for their memberships.
The best-case scenario (in terms of financial success) for the traditional 10,000+ square foot gym facility is for a new member to pay an “enrollment fee,” sign a long-term contract, pay the monthly membership fee, and never, ever show up. This is why big-box gyms employ large amounts of salespeople. What new gym goers need is the encouragement to come back again and again — and this is entirely lacking at many "traditional" gyms.
Overweight-only gyms can (and should) break the norm by aligning incentives with success. One of the best ways to do this is by structuring pricing to become cheaper the more times a member attends a semi-private training session or group fitness class. This might sound like a poor business strategy, but in reality these kinds of programs can build brand loyalty for life — which is good for both the gym and the wellbeing of the person who frequents it. Because their patrons have significant health goals that can only be met over the long term, overweight-only gyms are uniquely situated to create environments and incentives for every person embarking on a health journey, and to make those incentives last a lifetime.
Despite the potential health consequences of being overweight, far too many gyms are failing to accommodate the needs of heavier patrons. I’ve seen too many 300+ pound individuals sweating it out on a treadmill while their personal trainer texted away on their cell phone beside them. I myself have had a trainer say to me, “All you need to do is put the fork down and just walk when you’re that fat.”
I believe this kind of mindset is completely ineffective when it comes to cultivating healthy, sustainable habits. In my opinion, the overweight population would benefit from customized help — not criticism. Through a supportive atmosphere, customized programming, and long-term sustainable approaches, overweight-only gyms can provide real results instead of the short-term fixes which have been failing millions. As the American obesity rate reaches 40 percent, it’s time for gyms to start helping those who are struggling instead of shutting them out.
Do you believe overweight-only gyms are a necessary resource, or do they do more harm than good? Share in the comments below!