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Everything to lose: Gym only accepts overweight members

Forget fitness tests or expensive workout gear. The only thing you need to join this gym is an extra 50 pounds on your frame.

Downsize Fitness, with clubs in Dallas and Chicago, is only for the overweight and obese.

The idea is to reduce the self-consciousness many overweight people feel at a regular gym, giving members the chance to work out in a comfortable setting with people who look like them.

Here, members won’t encounter mirrors on the walls, nor will they find a surplus of Spandex-clad, hard-bodied exercisers judging them for the extra weight on their midsections or intimidating them with six-pack abs.

“It is frustrating because you don’t feel like you fit in, and sometimes you feel like people are looking at you,” Lauren Hasson, a member of the Dallas club who joined at 271 pounds, told TODAY.

As she lost weight while exercising alongside fellow overweight gymgoers, she also lost her anxiety about  exercising in public. 

“This place is different here because you get the support, you don’t just get the workout,” she said.

All members work with a trainer who guides them through workouts and helps monitor their diets, according to the club’s website. Trainers watch members’ heart rates, and fitness classes are tailored to physical limits. Even the equipment is different: treadmills are wider, for instance.

Downsize Fitness is part of a growing trend of gyms and workouts that cater to the plus-sized, ranging from Buddha Body Yoga in New York City to Square One fitness club in Omaha, Neb., founded by a couple who appeared on the weight-loss reality TV show "The Biggest Loser."

While the trainers look fit, it wasn’t always that way for one of them. Krisanne Hale, a trainer at the Dallas location, reached 238 pounds after having twins in January, 2011. 

“It’s safe,” she told TODAY of the club. “It’s just safe and it’s comfortable and it’s nobody looking in. We’re just all here together.” 

That camaraderie is appealing to new member Forest McKinney, who was 472 pounds when he enrolled at the Dallas club.

“I liked it because I knew where everybody else was going to be in my class and that I was going to fit in and not be pushed so hard to compete against people that are more capable than me right now,” he told TODAY.

The clubs focus on resistance training, cardio training, flexibility and balance, the company’s website says. Some members must submit a health questionnaire or get their doctor’s permission to exercise. 

Owner Francis Wisniewski was inspired to open the clubs after he lost 60 pounds and realized that he wasn’t the only overweight person to feel uncomfortable at a typical gym, according to the company’s website.

Don’t worry that you will have to surrender your membership if you slim down; members can stay even after dropping the weight, an inspiration to newcomers.

Though there are only two locations, the idea could have broad appeal: Two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

For Hasson, stumbling upon Downsize Fitness as she was going to pick up a fast-food meal has made a huge difference.

“I found this gym because I was driving by to go to Chick-fil-A for dinner,” she said. “Literally, driving to Chick-fil-A saved my life.”

Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. 

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