If you want nothing more than to work out among the hardest of hard bodies in a sea of treadmills and tiny tank tops, Downsize Fitness isn't the gym for you. In fact, new members need not apply unless they carry at least 50 pounds of excess body weight.
This gym caters to obese people trying to change their lifestyles, not vain people trying to maintain 4 percent body fat.
"If you go to a gym where everyone is running faster than you and lifting more than you," says Francis Wisniewski, Downsize Fitness owner, "you have a hard time coming back the next day."
That was Wisniewski's experience as a 360-pound man trying to shed more than 100 pounds in a sexy, supersized gym. He felt anything but comfortable. When you're sweating and not exactly looking your best, he says, it can make for a very unpleasant experience.
It wasn't until his business partner (Wisniewski runs a hedge fund) hired him a personal trainer that he started to drop the weight. The self-consciousness and intimidation vanished and so did 60 pounds in 14 months.
The businessman in him got to thinking. "If I was that way about gyms, and guys don't have it nearly as bad as women, I knew there had to be other people like me," he says.
Together, with his trainer Chris Gowens, he opened two Downsize Fitness gyms in October, one in Chicago and one in Las Vegas.
The gym on Buffalo Drive could easily go unnoticed. In a small shopping center across from a law office and deli, Downsize Fitness enjoys the same inconspicuousness members hope for while working out.
The heart of the 2,500-square-foot gym is a room that has made no effort to glamorize its look. Mirrors cover the walls and televisions perch above members. Treadmills, stationary bicycles, elliptical machines and workout benches fill one half of the space while heavy ropes, kettle balls, ab rollers and boxing gloves litter the other half.
Only two types of memberships are available. For $300 a month, members have unlimited use of a personal trainer at the gym. For $75 a month, members have access to the facility. Neither require a contract.
The $75 membership appeals to those who strictly want an obese-friendly workout environment. The $300 membership is for people who want or need someone to hold them accountable for their fitness regimen.
These are the members that have given Gowens a renewed interest in training. Before his work with Wisniewski and Downsize Fitness, he trained clients whose goals consisted of trimming those stubborn 15 pounds or carving four-pack abs into six-pack abs or just beginning sentences with "My personal trainer says ... " Once the client reached his or her goal, they went their separate ways and forgot about each other. His work became so redundant that Gowens took a long hiatus from training before Wisniewski came along.
That's when his work turned from predictable to profound.
"I'm adding years to their life," says Gowens, referring to obese clients in general. "I'm not just impacting their life, but the life of their friends and family, too."
With all the health risks that accompany obesity, a trip to the gym for these folks translates to something far more meaningful than a pair of "skinny jeans." The most rewarding part, Gowens says, comes with witnessing clients achieve what they previously perceived as the unachievable.
The gym, which has 10 members, focuses on fostering a community vibe. A dry-erase board posted on a wall behind the exercise equipment specially built for overweight people (with the lowest of impact on knees and ankles) makes every day at Downsize Fitness a competitive one.
Just beneath the quote of the week ("What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson) members can find results of the day. This is where trainers post records for the fastest mile, most pounds dropped, most body fat percentage dropped and most pushups in one minute. The best performing members are identified by a nickname.
Downsize Fitness is running a competition in which the member -- from both gyms combined -- who loses the highest percentage of body weight by June wins $25,000. Somehow, the wall of daily fitness results serves as more inspiration than the cash prize.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 29-year-old Bridget Post, aka IGoHard, had just learned her time for fastest mile got knocked out of first place.
"I have to beat her," she says, her chest still heaving from her workout.
Post works with trainer Nikka Salifu six days a week. They work out a diet plan together and Post even texts Salifu from restaurants for help with the healthiest menu options. Since taking her diet into consideration, Post has lost 8 pounds in three weeks. Before that, she had lost 5 pounds since joining in November. She hopes to shed 65 pounds, a goal she can visualize since joining Downsize.
"I never liked going to the gym because they're so big," she says. "And when you feel a certain way about yourself, and everyone weighs 100 pounds, it feels like everyone is staring at you."
So, what happens when Post drops the remaining 52 pounds? She can stay on at Downsize Fitness, but she'll perform her workouts in a red shirt that signifies a 100 percent weight-loss goal fulfillment. A yellow shirt represents 25 percent, green represents 50 percent and blue represents 75 percent.
"It's like martial arts, people moving their level up," Gowens says. "It's a way of incorporating people who lose all their weight while still keeping everyone comfortable."
Contact feature writer Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.