Downsize Fitness: Overweight Members Only

I talk with the folks of Downsize Fitness, a gym for people with at least 50 pounds to lose.

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Getting my patients involved in regular fitness routines can be quite challenging, especially for patients who are very overweight. So I got very excited when one of my patients said she was considering a new boot camp class, which is run by a company called Downsize Fitness and specifically geared toward plus-size individuals. Coincidentally, I had just read about a gym of the same name, which caters to individuals who have 50 or more pounds to lose. I was definitely intrigued and decided to learn more.

I spoke with the CEO of Downsize Fitness, Kishan Shah, who is extremely inspirational in his own right. Shah has a family history of diabetes and heart disease and once weighed about 400 pounds. Over the last eight years, he's been able to lose half his body weight by eating a well-balanced diet and exercising. He joined Downsize Fitness to share his passion with others.

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Presently, there are two full Downsize Fitness gym locations – one in Chicago and the other in Dallas. Two more will open soon in Naperville, Ill., and in Fort Worth, Texas. There's also a boot camp class that launched in March, which is taught out of a New York yoga studio by Julie Longmuir.

Shah stated something I'm sure my obese patients would agree on: "There is fear of ridicule and lack of support in most gyms for the obese." But Downsize Fitness is different, he says, and will help, "empower them for their journey." Shah stressed that Downsize Fitness is more than a gym; It's a community that provides private and semi private training sessions, nutrition counseling and fitness classes such as Zumba, yoga and Pilates. (Note that all members who enroll at the gym need medical clearance.)

I loved hearing that even the fitness machines are designed for people who are obese, with modifications such as larger and more cushioned seats. There's also equipment specifically for individuals with bad backs and knees, such as sit-down ellipticals, which allow them to cardio exercise without straining problematic areas. Plus, the majority of the trainers who work there have lost 60 to 70 pounds themselves and can therefore relate to their clientele.

I did wonder what happens to the clients who successfully lose weight and are no longer are 50 pounds over – are they ousted from the gym? (I pictured them Survivor-style, snuffed torch and leaving off the island.) Thankfully, that's not what happens. "Successful members mentor the newer members, serving as daily inspiration and keeping the community cohesive," Shah said. They even have before and after pictures displayed in the gym. I bet this keeps the members who lost weight accountable and successful for the long haul.

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I was thrilled to see that Downsize employs registered dietitians at their locations – I'm an RD myself, after all. Jennifer Vimbor, the nutritionist at the Chicago location, told me, "We encourage a 'no diet' approach, focusing on realistic, individual goals and provide nutrition and lifestyle classes and cooking demos. The gym is a community where we all work together – clients, nutritionists and trainers."

Longmuir is another inspiration, as she's lost 80 pounds herself. I asked Longmuir, whose energy seemed contagious, what she recommends to her clients as they begin an exercise routine. "Keep it simple. Be consistent and don't overdo it," she said. "Building this new healthy habit takes time, patience and determination. Part of your journey is figuring out what is right for you, and finding a support system can help you."

Two of my patients who are sisters, Gina and Gemma, tried Longmuir's class. "I loved the fact that she herself was once overweight and understands how intimidating and difficult it is for someone who is overweight to exercise – especially going to a gym and doing group exercises," Gina said. Gemma's thoughts? "The class was approachable, doable and really fun. It can be very intimidating to try a new class, and here it was just the opposite."

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I'll continue pushing my obese patients to exercise, even if it means they're going to a gym or a class where members are thinner than they are. I'll encourage them to take it slow and do what they are comfortable with, and to perhaps try a beginner yoga class, walking routine or swimming. I do wish that more Downsize gyms or classes designed specifically for obese people would start popping up in all cities as communities that aren't so intimidating. But in the meantime, I guess I should also be happy that Downsize is offering live virtual group classes through Google starting July 15th; That might be the perfect start for many.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.