Tara Lawton says she quit going to her health club in part because she sensed she didn't fit in. People always seemed to be staring at — and silently judging — her 280-pound body.
Then Lawton stumbled on the Facebook page for Downsize Fitness, a discreet new gym in Chicago that's designed exclusively for people who want to lose at least 50 pounds. Svelte men and women aren't even welcome as members; those who do change their lifestyle and hit their target weight graduate from the health club.
"I want to cry sometimes at how it changed my life," says Lawton, 42, who now works out five days a week and has lost 20 pounds since joining in October. "My body is responding positively to being pushed."
Though Americans are joining gyms in record numbers — 42.8 million people had health club memberships last year, according to a report by the market research firm IBISWorld — fitness centers frequently alienate the very people they could help most: the obese.
The industry is often perceived to cater mostly to fit, educated and middle- to upper-class clients. Increasingly, gyms are focusing on specific populations, such as women, young athletes and aging baby boomers. Largely ignored is the seemingly obvious niche of sedentary and overweight adults.
Research shows that many workout deterrents — including exercising with the opposite sex, using complicated equipment and boredom — apply to overweight and normal-weight people alike. But heavier gym-goers may want or need more emotional support, positive reinforcement and privacy than thinner members.
Some studies even suggest that gym members may feel more comfortable working out among people who look like they do. Overweight people, for example, feel more embarrassed and intimidated about exercising around young and fit people than did people of normal weight, according to a 2009 report in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Heavier adults are also more averse to health club salespeople than their thinner counterparts, says study coauthor Todd Miller, an associate professor of exercise science at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Fitness advertisements for clubs and equipment have long featured sculpted fitness models with dream bodies. But, "at this point, most people don't buy it," Miller says. "They know it's not realistic and don't think they can achieve it. So the fitness industry, in a way, is its own worst enemy."
Some health clubs and YMCA facilities have tried to change the industry's reputation by marketing success stories of "real people" or focusing on families. Crunch Fitness and Planet Fitness claim to have "no judgment" zones and philosophies.
Reaching people who are overweight or obese is a top issue in the health club world, says Meredith Poppler, vice president of industry growth for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. "It's talked about all the time."
Health clubs "only get 16% of the population, so we're going to have to do things differently and create clubs that don't just cater to people who are already members of clubs," she says.
That's where Francis Wisniewski comes in. The 38-year-old hedge fund manager and father of three says he always felt uncomfortable putting his large body on display at the gym. Working out next to lean women and bodybuilders, he couldn't help feeling out of place.
"As an overweight person, it's in my head that I'm being judged, whether it's true or not," he said.
Wisniewski finally lost 60 pounds by working out with a personal trainer in his own home. That success inspired him to open Downsize Fitness, with clubs in Chicago and Las Vegas. He says he is planning to open clubs in other cities soon, including a location in Los Angeles by July 1.
At the gym in Chicago's West Loop, the windows are frosted and members let themselves in using keycards. The equipment in the club, including the elliptical machine and self-propelled treadmill, is built specifically for large bodies. Consistency and lifestyle changes, especially nutritional ones, are emphasized.
The fee is $300 a month for unlimited access to the gym and classes and $25 for a day pass. No one signs a contract; if members decide they aren't ready to make the commitment, they can cancel and come back later. But if a member blows off a workout, a trainer will call, text or email to find out what's going on.
Tara Lawton was the club's first member. She's become such a regular that she now works there as an office assistant.
"The hardest thing is getting through the door," she says. "But now I'm moving forward, and there's no way I'm going back."
A similar approach has helped Curves expand from a single gym in Harlingen, Texas, to nearly 10,000 locations around the world over the last two decades. The workout spaces have no mirrors and the exercise equipment is user-friendly to attract women who are wary of being judged by their appearance.
Large commercial gyms may not even realize that their narrow turnstiles and lack of private changing areas are obstacles for people who are overweight. But Katie Mitchell, director of exercise and research for Curves, now based in Waco, Texas, isn't sure that a gym designed solely for people with at least 50 pounds to shed is the right solution.
"I don't know that they should be so specific," she says. "More gyms should create a welcoming environment for people who haven't exercised. Most places are intimidating, and they should have someone who helps people every step of the way."
Wisniewski, meanwhile, has 100 more pounds to lose to reach his weight-loss goal. But he's so committed to his approach to healthful living that he is holding his own "Biggest Loser"-style contest and ponying up $25,000 to the Downsize Fitness member who loses the largest percentage of body fat between Jan. 1 and July 1.