The Most Important Gym in America?

The Most Important Gym in America?

The latest proposed solutions to America’s weight problem include multi-year nutrition experiments, mimicking the biology of grizzly bears, and eating more butter

But we don’t need to spend millions of dollars studying single nutrients, nor must we try to replicate the metabolic processes associated with hibernation; and eating more butter is not the answer to our weight problems either (unfortunately). Rather, we already know what we need to do in order to lose weight; eat a well-balanced diet of real foods in modest quantities and engage in regular physical activity. Our longstanding problem isn’t figuring out how to lose weight. It’s actually doing it.
So much of weight loss lies in changing behavior, which is especially challenging when our society (with its junk-food marketing and sedentary jobs) and biology (the body’s natural drive to maintain its current weight) conspires against us. Engaging in healthy behaviors may be even harder for obese individuals who are likely to feel uncomfortable and perhaps stigmatized in the very places that could benefit them most – like the gym. 

Enter Downsize Fitness. It might be the most important gym in the country.

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Downsize is a chain of “gyms” for overweight and obese people only. Members receive intensive weight-loss support in a community where they feel accepted and fit in, both literally and figuratively. 

“Getting in shape is a dramatically different journey for someone who is obese; simply climbing a flight of chairs can be a challenge,” says Downsize CEO Kishan Shah (who has his own compelling weight-loss story). Shah understands firsthand that, “standard gym equipment is not suited for larger bodies, which is why at Downsize, equipment and classes are intentionally designed for overweight and obese users.”
Downsize goes beyond just the physical to ensure the emotional and nutritional challenges that often accompany drastic weight loss are also addressed. You won’t see full-wall mirrors or judgment from other gym-goers here. The gym offers nutritional counseling courses focused on sustained health behavior change for obesity.

Perhaps the most powerful ingredient in the Downsize recipe is the fact that 95% of the gym’s staff has experienced personal weight loss transformations, with prior obesity being a preferred criterion for job-applicants. “We’re highly empathetic to our members. Since we’ve been there before, and since many of us are still on that journey, we make amazing mentors who should be easy to talk to and learn from,” Shah explained. 

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The company’s website boasts that Downsize members have lost thousands of pounds and are less likely to cycle out of membership versus obese users in traditional gyms.  At its core, Downsize removes traditional barriers to entry and touches on multiple dimensions of weight loss; and it does so with a special kind of quality borne out of empathy from staff that know the challenge of weight loss firsthand. This holistic approach makes starting and continuing on what might otherwise be a prohibitive journey more feasible for overweight and obese individuals.
The story of Downsize is especially encouraging because the model is highly replicable. While many gyms are working to create environments that promote inclusivity, they are not going far enough to design comprehensive programs that are built around the unique demands of overweight and obese people. Although an approach like that of Downsize requires additional investment above and beyond a traditional gym, the market for it is huge, with nearly 70% of the American population being overweight or obese. If the Downsize model continues to prove effective for weight loss, one could even envision a world in which health insurance companies begin covering membership fees and doctors write “prescriptions” to enroll in these types of gyms.

You probably won’t find six-packs at Downsize. What you will find is a promising approach to weight loss. The demand is clear – it’s up to the fitness industry to meet it and play an increasingly meaningful role in thwarting one of our country’s greatest public health threats.

Brad Stulberg is a Population Health consultant for a large integrated health care system.  His portfolio of work includes exploring innovative ways to keep people healthy. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

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