Downsize fitness is back. A gym where everybody knows your name, and your struggle.
For Brianne Angus, it was one nasty comment too many, and one that would change her life.
It had been two years since she’d seen a male colleague, who’d been transferred to another office. During that time, she had ballooned to 297 pounds. When the two bumped into one other, the guy, who used to whistle at and flirt with her, now eyed her with disgust.
Looking her up and down, judgingly, he said, as if he just couldn’t help himself, “I thought the belly was supposed to leave after the baby,” and walked off.
Utterly humiliated, Angus scrambled back to her desk and tried hard not to cry. But there was no reserve of confidence to draw from to feel better. She felt beaten down. On that day, she decided to never let anybody make her feel like that again. She knew change was needed.
“On the outside, I’d handle that kinda stuff with humor, saying, ‘Yep, watch me go eat my burger!’ But really, it hurt. You know you’re overweight. It’s no surprise. It’s a daily, visible struggle.”
Today, the 31-year-old mother of two is general manager (and franchise owner) at Canada’s first Downsize Fitness, located in Ontario. It’s a gym with one unique requirement. Anyone who wants to join this fitness club must be at least 50 pounds overweight according to their personal BMI.
What It Is
Downsize Fitness originally started in Chicago, opening its first franchise in 2011. Founder Francis Wisniewski was 360 pounds at the time, and had battled with his weight his entire life. He wouldn’t go near any gym for fear of ridicule.
Instead, he opened his own … where everyone had to be just like him, overweight. The franchise took off quickly, and now has two locations in Texas (Dallas and Fort Worth) and two in Illinois (Chicago and Naperville). Just this month, Angus opened her location in Ontario, and has attracted some 70 members. All told, the U.S. gyms have lured hundreds of members, ranging in weight from 200 to 700 pounds. And together, this crew is shedding mountains. Combined, U.S. members have shed some 5,500 pounds. Downsize President Kishan Shah, formerly a private equity investor at Goldman Sachs, was 400 pounds when he first joined the gym. Now, he’s half that size.
The Big Idea
The concept, of acceptance and a shared weight-loss journey, is the antithesis of what American viewers see on television shows such as “The Biggest Loser” (I mean, really, just think for a hot second about the play on words there). This decidedly different approach is one that will serve those trying to lose weight better than any such ratings-topper shows.
That’s because it turns out that what people could really use, to help them shed pounds, is encouragement and support, not a drill sergeant.
A recent University of Alberta study found that watching competitors scream, cry, vomit and wince their way through strenuous workouts was more likely to turn viewers off and create negative attitudes toward exercise than to motivate them in their own weight-loss efforts. No matter the study participants’ weight or fitness level, the thoughts they wrote down after watching “The Biggest Loser” clips were more negative than thoughts written down after watching “American Idol” (which also involves a fair bit of sweat).
“People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is,” said lead researcher Tanya Berry, PhD, Canada’s Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “That it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”
How It’s Different
At Downsize Fitness, all classes are low-impact and most personal trainers hired have themselves triumphed over personal weight-loss battles. What’s more, certain locations such as Angus’s also offer access to on-site nutritionists and meal plans. Downside also offers tinted windows, equipment (ellipticals, treadmills and stationary bikes) tailored to the heavyset (thicker cushions, wider seats), and you’d be hard-pressed to find any mirrors. Walls are lined instead with inspiring before-and-after photos of members who’ve, well, downsized significantly. People with heart conditions are required to supply their own Polar heart monitor.
“I like to tell my members, ‘If you are moving, your body is burning,’” says Angus. “And you are miles ahead of the person still stuck on the couch, watching TV. I tell my members, ‘You’re my people.’”
There’s a lot of personal attention doled out as well. Instead of trainers barking at members to push harder, here trainers carry a different tune.
“We’re not having members bounce around and try things that are impossible for where they’re at. It’s more, like, every two minutes, we’re reminding them to drink water or take a break. We grow together.”
There are 15-minute windows between classes to gain feedback from members, and if you don’t show for a few days, expect a check-in call, text or Facebook ping from Angus or one of her colleagues to find out where you’ve been.
“This isn’t ‘Biggest Loser.’ It’s low-impact, designed for fun and effectiveness,” says Angus. “It’s about having fun and getting healthy, not about getting skinny.”
In the spring, she plans to start a members-only softball team.
How Much Does It Cost?
There are two main Downsize Fitness packages, explains Angus. The first, an eight-class bundle with semi-personal training and nutritionist access costs $149 per month; the second, including unlimited classes plus seminars and home video access to classes, costs $229 per month.
Stigma, Real or Imagined?
But is the ridicule that overweight people talk about that they experience at gyms real or imagined? I’ve often found that everyone at the gym around me is focused on their own improvement and too consumed with their own performance and progress to notice others’ forms. But whether the insecurity comes from the inside or surroundings is beside the point, says Angus.
“The reality is that for me, and people like me, gyms presented discomfort,” she says. “If I stepped into one, I’d be pulling at my clothes the whole time, and sure that other people were staring at me. I’d just be uncomfortable,” says Angus, adding that to her, gyms were places fit people went to get more fit. “Society has made overweight people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, wherever they go,” she adds.
How’s It Going?
“Successful!” exclaims Angus, recalling one member who, when she joined, watched her first Zumba class from a chair, and who, just last week, actually participated in and completed her first 45-minute class. “I was so happy for her. I wanted to go and buy pom-poms,” said Angus with infectious pride.
I’ve Lost Weight, Now What?
So, do you quit when you reach your goal and sweat off that excess 50 pounds? No, says Angus, you can stick around and become a mentor for new members and/or become a trainer. In fact, many recent hires are vets of the gym who had reached their fitness goals.
We’ve seen this type of open-arms “come one, come all” encouragement from a few other gyms recently, points out NPR, with Planet Fitness’s “judgment-free zone” and Omaha, Neb.’s Square One gyms swearing members won’t be surrounded by any “size twos sprinting on treadmills.” And have you seen those gorgeous New York City subway ads for the YMCA (Be You. Join the Y.), complete with real people’s smiling, rosy-cheeked faces? Well done, I say. A big first step to paring down America’s obesity epidemic is getting folks into the gym, which of course means making them feel comfortable and welcome.