Tablet Life & Arts

Downsize Fitness aims to make the gym a welcoming place

When Kishan Shah walked into a gym for the first time at 400 pounds, he knew something wasn’t right.

He could “feel” the stares of the already-in-shape members. He felt the shame and ridicule when he got on machines that weren’t designed for people his size. He would even remove his glasses so he couldn’t see the people he knew were watching him.

But Shah, who lives in Chicago, persevered despite feeling like an outcast, and went on to lose 200 pounds. His experience, however, taught him that something had to change when it came to the gym culture. Shah then met Francis Wisniewski — who had his own weight-loss story and shared some of the same experiences — and was soon hired as CEO of Downsize Fitness, a gym exclusively for overweight people that will open its fourth location Monday in Hurst, near Northeast Mall.

“A lot of people who are struggling with their weight will say, ‘I feel like I had to lose weight before I went into the gym,’” Shah said. “I had that feeling when I was 400 pounds; I felt like I needed to lose 75 pounds before I could go into a gym, which is 100 percent counter-intuitive to someone who’s not struggling with their weight.”

People looking to join Downsize Fitness must have 50 pounds or more to lose and a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Clients may be surprised to walk in and not see lots of machines and equipment, staples in most traditional gyms, and learn that the ones they do see are able to support larger clients without being restrictive. Also, support groups focusing on nutrition and lifestyle are part of every membership at Downsize.

“It’s intimidating to walk into a gym, so we want to create a place to inspire a happier, healthier community where people feel safe and comfortable and feel that they can bring about their own health journey,” Shah said. “My own personal story and our founder’s personal story of being shamed and ridiculed at other gyms — I’ve been to hundreds of other gyms in 30 countries and it always felt like that.”

At the core of its philosophy, Downsize Fitness seeks to create a sense of community. Unlike most workout facilities, trainers at Downsize actually participate in the workout along with the clients. Whether it’s cardio, core or strength, the trainer helps make modifications as the need arises and acts to “lead by example.”

“I’ve seen it a hundred times: a personal trainer will tell an overweight person to just walk because ‘when you move, you’ll lose weight,’” Shah said. “The personal trainer would stand next to the treadmill while the client was walking and they would be on their cellphone. I’ve seen it too many times.

“At Downsize, we have coaches who are more engaged, and it’s more than just training. You’re getting someone who is a resource and can help you be successful.”

Classes include small group personal training, yoga, step, “Flirty Girl” and aerobics, among others. One-on-one training is also available on an as-requested basis. Prices range from a per-class fee of $19 each to monthly memberships of $229 per month based on a 12-month contract.

How it all began

Started in Chicago in November 2011 by Wisniewski, Downsize Fitness has helped its members lose more than 5,500 pounds. The second location opened in Dallas last year and has more than 100 members. Over the summer, a third gym opened in Naperville, Ill., outside Chicago.

“It’s like recess with friends,” said Downsize Fort Worth manager/trainer Emily English. “It’s a non-judgmental environment and people can embody the best of who they are without fear of ridicule.”

English, 39, hails from Alabama and lost 60 pounds on her own. A former school teacher, English said she had been“chronically overweight” all her life and realized she wasn’t happy.

“After I finished teaching, I realized I had tried to give so much for other people and I didn’t have much left for myself; I wasn’t taking good enough care of myself to last,” she said. “I reached the end of a decade and decided to make some changes. They were small at first but they had a big impact.”

English said she began exercising in a park that was shaded by trees on either side because she didn’t want people to see her struggle on the outside and reveal she was struggling on the inside.

“I had some personal issues I was going through at the same time and I realized exercise was an outlet,” she said. “We all must learn how to flush our frustrations; some of us try to drown them, and more water to the bowl doesn’t make the water clean. Through exercise, I was able to get rid of that tension and stress and come back refreshed with a cleaner mentality.

“I wish [Downsize] had existed [when I was losing weight] because all the work I had to do, I had to do it on my own — there was a lot of trial and error for me,” she said.

Carrie Eastwood, an Irving resident, heard about the Downsize Dallas location on the radio in January and immediately looked it up on the Internet when she got to work. The 6-foot-2, 36 year-old weighed 418 pounds, down from her original 470, and was looking for a better option for working out.

“I was sold the minute I sat down, literally,” Eastwood said. “It was a relief to be in a chair that actually supported me and that I didn’t have to worry about breaking or anything. I signed up right away.”

That was on a Saturday and by that Monday, Eastwood was doing her first workout.

“It was rough, but I made it through,” she admitted. “By the end of that week, I was staying and doing two workouts back-to-back, and the time would fly by.”

Eastwood said she had tried other gyms, but she either got bored doing the same thing over and over or the machines would pinch her body when she tried to use them.

“I just couldn’t do it, and the way some people looked at me...well, it was discouraging, so I stopped going,” she said.

Since she began at Downsize, Eastwood has lost 92 pounds. She has become certified to teach group exercise and step classes, and in July, started teaching part-time at Downsize on nights and weekends. She will also be teaching at the Fort Worth location.

“I love it,” she said. “When I say this gym has been my sanity, my haven, my savior, I totally mean it. I get so excited just thinking about the family I have there now, I just don’t know where I’d be without it.”

Downsize at Home

Shah said the demand to open locations throughout the world is overwhelming, and though they are seeking local partners to help meet it, it isn’t happening as fast as potential customers would like.

“People always request for us to put a Downsize close to them and we’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of Facebook posts, e-mails, tweets and calls about getting one close to their location,” Shah said. ...We can only go so far right now, so we searched other ideas and came up with Downsize at Home.”

Downsize at Home uses Google Plus Hangouts to “connect” people to a live trainer so they can workout from home with no equipment other than a computer and a web cam.

“This is so much more interesting than pre-recorded content because it’s an actual trainer at one of our gyms and it’s not the same workout over and over again; you’re getting a different workout each time,” Shah said. “It’s a full end-to-end program with structured follow-up to effectively bring that very same experience you can get at our gyms and being able to connect people all throughout the world.”

Classes are at 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday. Trainers from Chicago and Dallas take turns teaching the classes but most of the time, Eastwood teaches the 5:30 p.m. class from the Dallas location on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

There are several members participating in the classes from Boston to Nevada. Participants can pay $9 per class or purchase an unlimited monthly membership for $99 per month and attend as many classes as they’d like.

Members for life

A popular question at Downsize is, “What happens when I lose the weight, do I have to leave the gym?” The answer is a resounding no.

“Once you’ve achieved your goal, typically what we’ve seen is that people are motivated to give back and help others,” English said. “Keep in mind that 75 percent of our trainers have their own weight-loss journeys and success stories, many of whom have experienced success through Downsize Fitness. If they want to become certified trainers on staff, we welcome them and if they decide to go elsewhere, that is fine too. We love to have them.

“People don’t graduate from Downsize, they are members for life.”

Shah said the myth of losing weight is that once a person is done losing, the hard part is over.

“That is a lie,” he said. “I have to think about what I eat and what I do every single day of my life. There are too many people who want a structured program that dictates every single moment of their day, and the reality is that isn’t sustainable for anyone.”

English said she isn’t trying to be the one driving the change for other people, but she will help them if they want to change.

“I am a resource, not a drill sergeant. If someone is ready, they will; if they’re not ready, I won’t make them,” she said. “I am not trying to change anyone; I am trying to help people reach goals they’ve set for themselves. I know how to do it; I’ve done it. I can help them, but I can’t do it for them.

“ Each person has individual goals, and they don’t have to hide on a forested trail to reach them. They can come be around other people who are rowing in the same direction.”