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New Trend: Gyms Banning Slim Clients To Foster Comfort For Overweight Patrons

FOSTER CITY, Calif. (CBS Sacramento) -- A new fitness trend appears to be sweeping the nation - one that expressly excludes those on the more slender side of the scale.

Multiple reports have surfaced recently about gyms that cater exclusively to zaftig clients looking to lose weight in a place free of potential judgment from other, smaller patrons.

Though some all-inclusive gyms have attempted in the past to create a safe haven for anyone interested in exercising - for example, Planet Fitness, a national chain of gyms with a "judgment-free" motto and mentality - some creators of obese-only gyms feel it's not enough.

Fitness facilities throughout the United States and Canada are adopting the obese-only idea in the hopes of removing intimidation from the exercise equation.

One such business is Downsize Fitness, with locations in Las Vegas, Chicago and Dallas. They are self-described as a gym "developed specifically with chronically overweight and obese individuals in mind."

Chris Gowens, co-founder of Downsize Fitness, told CBS Sacramento that he formerly served as the personal trainer of the gym's other founder, and the two talked extensively about his former client's apprehension to go to a public gym.

"Most people can't afford a personal trainer ... and never feel comfortable going to the gym," he said. "The idea [for Downsize Fitness] was borne out of that. We thought it would be a good idea to open a gym tailored to overweight people, to create an environment that's more welcoming and less intimidating."

Other gyms with the same idea include Body Exchange in Vancouver, Square One in Omaha, Neb., and Buddha Body Yoga in New York City.

Shawn Arent, an associate professor for the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies at Rutgers University, told CBS Sacramento that any program with the potential to motivate obese people to pursue a healthier lifestyle is a program worthy of a chance.

"Anything that gets people moving is a good idea at this point, considering what we're dealing with in terms of an obesity epidemic," he said, adding that those put off by the notion of judgmental work-out companions are not alone. "The barrier people are talking about here is social physique anxiety, or nervousness about what others observe and perceive about a person in a certain environment."

He additionally noted that the business model of an obese-specific gym evokes thoughts of the women-only model employed by the Curves franchise.

Not everyone is on board, however.

Lisa Tealer, a board member for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance in Foster City, Calif., said that she has "strong concerns" over a gym that separates overweight and obese people from people of average weights and statures.

"I [worry] about a gym that is basing its business model, services and membership on size discrimination, in this case to average size women," Tealer, a former health club owner herself, told CBS Sacramento. "The health cub I owned was a weight neutral, body positive, health club, where women were not judged based on shape or size of their bodies. We had staff that reflected size diversity and equipment that could be adjusted to accommodate a variety of body sizes."

In regards to other options, Gowens noted that patrons who tried to work out at home said they often found themselves in close proximity with family, friends, significant others or roommates who were sympathetic to their health goals, but ultimately not supportive due to their reluctance to alter their own habits.

And when those clients tried to go to conventional gyms, they did not fare much better.

"Some [of our clients] said that when they went to the gym, they would get to the parking lot and sit there. It was as close as they could go," Gowens recalled. "They felt out-of-place."

He added, "It really motivates everyone [at our gym] to see ... someone else having the same experience."

Tealer agreed that there are potential merits to such a business model, but ultimately feels that it creates a discriminatory environment aimed in the other direction.

"While I commend the attempt to create a judgment-free environment, where fat women feel comfortable, it should not be at the expense of average size women," she said.

Arent additionally pointed out the "reverse discrimination" element of obese-only gyms.

"There's a different societal issue there," he said. "But if it gives [obese people] an exercise program that works for them, I see nothing wrong with that part."

Arent also noted that the quality of the program is just as important as the environment, if not more so.

"It'll be interesting to see where it goes. If someone is that overweight, are they people that enjoy working out in the first place?" he said. "It depends on the qualifications of the staff. It's not just the environment, but also the quality of the programs offered."

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