You have heard this statement before: Obesity is a growing problem in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, about 12 million kids — ages 2 to 19 — and 75 million adults are obese.
The result? High medical bills — from cardiologist and endocrinologist visits to medications and insulin shots. Not to mention a diminished quality of life and, often, self-esteem issues.
So when we heard about Downsize Fitness, a gym designed to serve only those who are at least 50 pounds overweight, we wondered why no one had come up with this brilliant idea sooner. The credit goes to founder Francis Wisniewski, who modeled his Chicago-based health club after The Biggest Loser television show.
Downsize Fitness is not a place for someone looking to shed a few; you must be 50 or more pounds overweight to join.
Wisniewski enlisted Michael Stout to open a facility in Dallas. “We had one of those meetings where everything just flows together,” says Stout, general manager of Downsize Fitness in Dallas. “My vision and passion matched his. So I picked everything up in Chicago and moved to Dallas, to open this facility.”
Stout, a former collegiate soccer player and athlete, is driven by his love for training kids and adults — instilling confidence in them and seeing little changes make lifelong differences.
“[At Downsize Fitness], the main goal is to reach as many people as possible,” Stout says. “Our mission is to bring health to the obese population. We realize there are a lot of reasons why our members have gone through what they did, and we wanted to create a place that they could reach their goals together.”
More important, the gym offers comfort and privacy to help ensure clients’ success. To the untrained eye, the facility looks like an ordinary gym. But Stout says that all of the machines hold a higher capacity than normal equipment.
“Even our heaviest member, who is 760 pounds, can be on any of the machines with it still functioning properly.” The showers and benches in the locker rooms are also larger. In addition, there are very few mirrors, and the windows are frosted so no one on the outside can look in.
Downsize Fitness is not a place for someone looking to shed a few pounds; you must be 50 or more pounds overweight to join. There’s no minimum age requirement, but to become a member, you must schedule an appointment. The process begins with a one-on-one consultation and weigh-in, during which the staff addresses the person’s past health history.
So what happens when members reach a healthy weight? “They can be a member for as long as they want,” says general manager Michael Stout.
If there’s a need for a doctor’s note, you must provide one before the actual weigh-in process. From there, the Downsize Fitness staff determines what an ideal program looks like. Memberships begin at $50 a month and go all the way up to $800, depending on the services a client wants and needs.
“We use a scale that determines [a person’s] body fat,” Stout says. “The scale addresses how much weight needs to be lost in order to get to a healthy range. Let’s just say it’s a physical number determined by a machine.”
We saw the scale, and it really is complex. If you need to lose 100 pounds, it shows on the screen. If you need to lose 20 pounds, the scale reflects that too. If you fit the latter description, Downsize turns you away, because the program is specifically designed for people who need to lose a lot more weight.
So what happens when members reach a healthy weight? “They can be a member for as long as they want,” Stout says. “We highlight their successes — one person’s success is everybody’s success — because a lot of effort and time is given. When members reach their goal, they become role models for those who are just starting.”
Trainer Kris Anne Hale is one such role model. She lost 125 pounds prior to working at Downsize, so she’s an excellent motivator. “I’m very open with the members,” she says. “We set goals together.” Hale takes a realistic approach and understands slip-ups. “I tell clients to call me anytime, to talk about their struggles.”
Because it’s a huge commitment, members often try to find reasons to drop out. “They look for excuses — some related to us and others more internal,” Stout says. “But the only people who have actually dropped out are the ones that move away.”
“The only people who have actually dropped out are the ones that move away,” Stout says.
Downsize also has a nutritionist on staff, to help members make simple modifications to their daily routine. “The biggest thing is not making it a diet,” Stout says. “We work with members and customize a plan according to their specific likes, dislikes and habits.”
Simply Fit Meals are available for purchase at the gym. Stout wants members to have a quick and easy option for post-workout meals so they are not tempted to eat unhealthy fast food. “But, if they crave a specific kind of fast food, they can work with a nutritionist to find the healthiest option,” he adds.
And the Downsize program works. Member Karen went from 246 pounds to 220 in just a few months. “I feel right at home here,” she says. “I work out two hours a day, five times a week.”
Linda, who joined just four days before our visit, says, “I was always put off by normal gyms because of those tiny girls. After I saw a piece on the news, I decided to check out the gym. So far I just love the support it offers.”
From a strong rapport between members and trainers to group classes and customized fitness plans, Downsize Fitness provides a supportive community alongside a good workout. Right now the Dallas locale has 120 members, but as that number grows, Stout says he will hire more staff.
“The biggest success story is just how many people have walked through the door,” he says. “It takes a lot of will power and courage just to admit that you need a change in your life, and that’s the biggest success story.”