Should Australia have overweight-only gyms?
It is the paradox that sometimes the solution to the problem is the problem itself.
When Kishan Shah weighed 180 kilograms, he wanted to lose weight but was too ashamed to step foot inside the very place that would help him to achieve that.
“The idea of setting foot in a gym terrified me,” he wrote in an article. “I worried about the judging stares, the confined locker rooms, and the sneers directed at a significantly overweight man struggling to use traditional fitness equipment and execute basic exercises.”
His shame reached breaking point when he was in a specialist larger men’s store and the assistant’s tape measure couldn’t fit around his 158cm waist (the average Australian man’s waist size is 98cm, 4cm more than what is considered healthy). Humiliated, he left the shop with tears streaming down his face and the deep desire to change the course of his life.
He put one foot in front of the other – literally, walking outdoors and researching nutrition, filling his mind with knowledge and his body with a diet of grilled chicken, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein shakes.
After losing his first 45 kilograms, Kishan set foot inside a gym for the first time and, despite feeling nervous and intimidated, put his head down and stepped onto the elliptical machine.
Eight years of slow, hard work and another 45 kilograms later, Kishan left his role at investment banking giant Goldman Sachs and joined the world’s first overweight-only gym, Downsize Fitness.
Formerly the president of the gym, which has locations in four different American cities, Kishan argued that overweight people should have their own gyms.
“This kind of ‘exclusive’ gym is absolutely necessary to help those with significant weight loss goals live healthier, happier lives,” Kishan said.
Most overweight people cannot do the same exercises or classes in gyms that are designed, as the founder of Downsize, Francis Wisniewski, said, “for fit people to stay fit, not for fat people to get fit”.
“‘Getting in shape,’ for a person with more than 50 pounds (22.5kg) of weight to lose, is a dramatically different journey than it is for someone trying to lose five or 10 pounds (4.5kg),” Kishan said.
This is significant, given one recent study found that watching others in distress – A.K.A Biggest Loser-style – as they try to lose weight, does not motivate people who need to lose weight to exercise.
“People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is,” said lead researcher Tanya Berry, PhD, Canada’s Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “That it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”
Kishan argued that an environment that is nurturing instead of intimidating and where specially trained staff can cater to specific needs and educate their members is more likely to help people to start a health journey that will last a lifetime.
“In my opinion, the overweight population would benefit from customised help — not criticism,” Kishan said. “Through a supportive atmosphere, customised programming, and long-term sustainable approaches, overweight-only gyms can provide real results instead of the short-term fixes which have been failing millions.”
SHOULD AUSTRALIA HAVE OVERWEIGHT-ONLY GYMS?
Our overweight and obesity rate has risen to 63 per cent of all adults (10 per cent more than it was 20 years ago) and about 54 per cent of gym members –fat or fit – rarely turn up. While there are exercise physiologists who specialise in helping obese people, there are no specific gyms.
Is it time to consider taking a different approach or is this just a form of segregation likely to create more stigma?
Amanda Salis, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s Institute of Obesity, Nutrition & Exercise
“Anything that leads to more people engaging in more exercise will have excellent health outcomes, so a strategy such as this is great if it leads to more exercise,” says Salis.
“Just as there are a variety of exercise options for people to choose from and to get involved in, this idea will likely lead to more options for more people, so I can see it having an important place in the market and in health promotion. ”
Libby Babet, owner of Agoga and BUF
“I don’t think segregation is a good idea, but there’s nothing more motivating than training with people who are on the same journey as you,” she says. “There are gyms specifically for athletes, women only, new mums, triathletes, kids, gymnasts, bodybuilders and team sport athletes, there are footy clubs and rehab studios, why shouldn’t there be a place where those on a serious weight loss journey know they will find comrades on the same journey they’re on?
“It’s actually really difficult for a regular gym to cater properly to very overweight people. Even if the facilities and trainers are spot on for their needs and the community welcomes them with open arms, it’s still hard to show up to a session full of super fit and ripped people when, quite frankly, you’re not there yet.”
Rob Deutsch, founder, F45
“The reality is, so long as extremely obese humans are moving, it is a positive step,” Deutsch says. “The ability to program specific movements for those that are extremely overweight makes perfect sense, but great trainers should be able to progress and regress all exercises to suit any individual anyway.”
Michael Cunico, national fitness manager at Fitness First
“Different people have different journeys, regardless of their starting size or training goal; whether that is one on one with a trainer, in a small, specialised studio or in a large commercial gym,” Cunico points out.
“Quick fixes are just that and are rarely, if ever, suitable for anyone whether they are overweight or not. Long term behaviour change requires patience and a culmination of multiple small changes over time, and this is relevant for anyone looking to achieve a health related goal.”
Veronica Wallington, co-owner P.E Dept
“I don’t have an opinion for or against overweight only gyms. I do think that a good gym should be able and welcoming to accommodate anyone of any size,” Wallington says. “No gym or trainer should discriminate against someone for their size, as this is the whole purpose of their job. A gym should be a place of sanctuary, a place of personal wellbeing and achievement, for anyone no matter their size or shape. A good trainer too should be able to help and accommodate for anyone no matter their size or shape. This is the very lowest standard of service that a gym/trainer should be able to provide…
“If overweight only gyms provide a healthy and encouraging environment for people to get healthier and happier than I support them, but I don’t believe that over weight people should only be limited to such gyms, and I would hope the fitness community are more welcoming than that.”
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