January 28, 2013 / 6:40 PM / 7 years ago

At Downsize Fitness gyms, the slender need not apply

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At Downsize Fitness health clubs, the treadmills are wider, the head trainers are weight-loss veterans and new members must be at least 50 pounds (22.7 kgs) overweight.

It’s all about creating a more welcoming environment to battle the bulge and drop the excess weight.

Francis Wisniewski, a hedge fund manager, started Downsize Fitness in 2011, when he was struggling to lose weight and found himself intimidated by one-size-fits-all gyms.

“I figured if I was uncomfortable, a lot of people must be. Overweight people feel like they’re on display,” said Wisniewski, who has gyms in Dallas and Chicago.

His inspiration came from the hit television reality show “The Biggest Loser.”

“We wanted to make it the ‘Biggest Loser’ in real life,” he said. “Most people would be successful if they could spend 15 weeks just exercising. In real life we have jobs. You go to the gym one hour, five times a week and change your diet.”

The gym provides nutritional counseling, and the equipment is built for heavier people.

“A lot of equipment supports only up to 350 pounds,” he said. “Ours is over 600. And our personal trainers are used to working with overweight people. Two of our head trainers have lost over 100 pounds on their own.”

Wisniewski said people can lose 50 pounds in six-to-12 months of training.

“We didn’t want people who need to drop 20 pounds for a wedding,” he added.

Comfort and camaraderie are what matter to Dave Chiscon, a 38-year-old Chicagoan who joined Downsize Fitness in late August.

“I walked in and people my size were really working out hard,” said Chiscon. “We’re all in the same boat. We’re all moving in the same direction.”

Chiscon, who has lost 30 pounds in four months, said the gym is the highlight of his day.

“I work hard and I burn 1,200 calories,” he said.

Along with his cardio and resistance routines, he’s become a fan of group fitness classes, such as yoga, Pilates and boot camp.

“At other gyms, if I’m doing jumping jacks and my belly flops out of my shirt, I would stop,” he said. “At this gym I don’t care. The woman next to me is doing the same thing.”

Gary Liguori, an expert in exercise science with the American College of Sports Medicine, called Downsize Fitness a unique behavioral approach for getting people active because they don’t have to worry about being self-conscious.

He said historically overweight people have not been successful with exercise and it’s not unusual for them to feel intimidated at gyms.

Editing by Patricia Reaney and Leslie Adler

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