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.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.