No Skinnies Allowed

Downsize Fitness, the Gym for Overweight Members Only

Downsize Fitness, which requires members to be overweight, plans to make a profit by creating community. By Daniel Gross.

Downsize Fitness, a Chicago-based, overweight-only gym, is upsizing in a hurry. Founded in Chicago in 2011, it now has four outposts in Illinois and Texas. “We have received 50 inbound requests to set up Downsizes all across the world,” said Kishan Shah, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who earlier this year joined Downsize Fitness as chief executive officer. Shah, 27, is half the man he used to be, thanks to a focus on fitness. He once weighed 400 pounds, and has lost more than 200 pounds. “Since November 2011, our members have lost over 5,500 pounds,” he said.

This is not The Biggest Loser or a reality show. Rather, Downsize, which bills itself as the first overweight-only gym, is a business based on a recognition that the vast existing fitness infrastructure wasn’t serving the needs of a large and growing customer base that could benefit from its services. “Gyms are designed for fit people to get more fit, not for fat people to get fit,” said Shah.

Founder Francis Wisniewski, an investment manager who weighed 350 pounds and had long struggled with his weight, got the idea for Downsize Fitness after his business partner bought him a gym membership. He rarely used it. Which isn’t surprising. Overweight people are often intimidated and pushed away by traditional gym industry. Also, most large gym chains really don’t want members to show up frequently – they make more money when they sell memberships that are lightly used. What’s more, the community and social aspects of a gym membership can have an outsized impact on outsized users.

Downsize has combined these three insights into a new business model. To join Downsize, members must have at least 50 pounds of weight to lose. New members typically have a Body Mass Index of 35 (above 30 is considered overweight). The goal is not to build a six-pack or get into shape to run a marathon. “What we do at Downsize is focus on functional fitness – broadly defined as anything that helps you live and meet a healthy life,” said Shah. “The primary consideration people have when joining is not because they’re interested in looking better. It’s generally that they want to be able to get up off the floor, or keep up with their kids, or live to see their grandchildren.”

Membership is structured like a conventional gym. There’s an emphasis on group classes, with pay as you go options ($19 per class), and an all-you-can-eat unlimited plan ($229 a month). General facility access costs $49 per month.

But the similarities end there. Their physical footprint is smaller than a traditional Equinox or Crunch Fitness gym -- between 3,000 to 8,000 square feet. Many gyms are in conspicuous downtown locations and sheathed in clear glass so passersby can watch people working out. Not here. “We have frosted windows that ensure extra privacy,” said Shah. The Dallas outpost is far north of downtown, across the road from the Dallas Galleria.

The machines are tailored and designed for larger people, and all the exercises and classes are modified as well. “The vast majority of our members have back and knee issues, so we have to make sure that they can exercise safely and comfortably,” said Shah.

The other key difference is what happens inside the gym. “The community is really the secret sauce,” said Shah. “Being able to engage people where they are safe, feel comfortable, and also doing events.” Downsize has bi-weekly and monthly weigh-ins, for example. And while many gyms would prefer unlimited-use members not to show up, Shah says his company wants its unlimited-use members to come in four to five times a week. To do so, it offers other services. “Last night we had a support group with about 30 people there.” It offers group nutrition classes. The Chicago outpost has a kickball team. And while it’s not billed as a pick-up joint, Shah says that members regard Downsize as a place to make new friends.

Many of the staffers have experienced dramatic weight-loss experiences themselves. “We have trainers who have lost 100 pounds,” said Shah. And there is a certain evangelical quantity to the business model. People who have struggled with morbid obesity often have a clarifying moment. For Shah, who has a family history of diabetes and heart issues, it was in 2005 in a men’s store to buy a new suit. His waist measured 62 inches. “When the person at the store came around with a five-foot tape, and It didn’t fit, I looked in the mirror and said I had to change,” he said.

The company has expanded slowly in the last two years. It opened in Dallas in 2012, in Naperville (a Chicago suburb) this year, and is set to open soon in Fort Worth. Between them, the four locations have several hundred members and 20 employees.

Shah sees a lot of room for expansion. “We have met with a couple of major insurance companies, and they’re interested in bringing us into their provider network,” he said. Downsize wants to grow by opening gyms under its own name and ownership, rather than selling franchises and licenses. Shah says the firm is in conversations with partners abroad, and is looking for spots in the U.S. In the coming year, “I’m hopeful that we will open eight to ten.”