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's West Loop 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," said Chicago's 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 this year, according to a report by IBISWorld — fitness centers frequently alienate the very people they could help most: the obese.
While health clubs and gyms are increasingly focusing on specific populations, including youth athletes and aging baby boomers, the industry is often perceived to cater mostly to fit, educated and middle- to upper-class clients. Largely ignored is the seemingly obvious niche of sedentary and overweight adults.
Research shows that many workout deterrents apply to overweight and normal-weight people alike, including exercising with the opposite sex, using complicated equipment and boredom. But heavier gymgoers may want or need more emotional support, positive reinforcement and privacy than thinner members. Some research even suggests 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 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
Heavier adults are also more averse to health club salespeople than their thinner counterparts, said study co-author Todd Miller, associate professor of exercise science at George Washington University Medical Center.
Downsize Fitness founder Francis Wisniewski, 38, concurs. "Large clubs make you feel on display," he said. "I've been big my whole life, and small incidents probably make it seem worse than it really is. But at the gym, it's all out there for everyone to see. And I know if I'm feeling it, overweight women feel it worse."
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," said Miller. "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."
Personal trainer Nicki Anderson, owner of Reality Fitness in Naperville, frequently speaks on the importance of customer service at industry conferences and believes some clubs want to be known for having good-looking members.
"The attitude comes from the top," Anderson said. "The staff is taught how to sell supplements and memberships but not how to embrace the people who desperately need their help."
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.
Wisniewski questions whether such measures are effective. "As an overweight person, it's in my head that I'm being judged, whether it's true or not," he said. "So a slogan on the wall isn't going to matter if I'm working next to a 90-pound woman or a bodybuilder."
Meanwhile, many people join a health club with unrealistic expectations. Studies show you can't exercise away a bad diet — proper nutrition needs to be part of the plan — but Miller's research has also found that overweight people believe exercise improves appearance and self-image more than do normal-weight exercisers.
"The challenge is creating a comprehensive program that combines nutritional counseling and exercise and lets people succeed in a relatively short period of time," said industry consultant Rick Caro, president of Management Vision.
As members get more familiar with a health club, their perceptions often change. Debbie Pitstick, 39, of Elburn, said she lost 80 pounds over three years while working out at the Delnor Health and Wellness Center.
Initially, as she walked for 20 minutes on a treadmill, she felt judged. "But while working out, I noticed people who were young and old, incredibly fit and extremely obese," she said. "We were all there for the same reason — to get healthy. As soon as I got that into my head, I realized people are really thinking how great it is an obese person is making the effort."
Wisniewski, a Chicago hedge fund manager and father of three, opened his "Biggest Loser"-style gyms in Chicago and Las Vegas after losing 60 pounds by working with a personal trainer in his own home.
He said he's trying to bring the privacy and comfort of a home gym to a small club, where members can rely on one another for support and motivation, work toward the same goals and learn how to make exercise and good nutrition a regular part of their lives.
At Downsize, where the windows are frosted and members let themselves in using keycards, 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.
Once in the program, clients are expected to come in five days a week; they may attend the classes or do cardio on their own, though members are monitored by personal trainers. Unlike regular health clubs, the equipment, including the elliptical machine and self-propelled treadmill, is built specifically for large bodies.
Should you decided to blow off your workout, Jason Burns, a former college and professional football player, will call, text or email to find out what's going on.
"The hardest thing is getting through the door," said Lawton. The club's first member, she became such a regular that she now works there as an office assistant. "But now I'm moving forward, and there's no way I'm going back."
Wisniewski, meanwhile, said he still has 100 pounds to shed. But he's so committed to his approach to healthy living that he is holding his own "Biggest Loser" 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.
His business will ultimately be a success "if the trainers care about the members, the members care about the trainers and the members care about each other," said Wisniewski. "And if we hit all three goals, it will also be profitable."