Jean Hickey was never a fan of the gym. But since joining Downsize Fitness in September 2012, the teacher from Chicago has regularly worked out four to six days a week – and in four months shed 20 pounds. What caused the change? Hickey credits her new gym, which only accepts overweight members.

“It was the first place where I felt comfortable exercising around others,” Hickey says. “The staff is also really supportive, especially when my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flares up.”

With locations in Chicago and Dallas, Downsize Fitness is one of a small but growing group of gyms catering to an overweight and obese clientele. At Downsize Fitness, new members must have at least 50 pounds to lose, as determined by weigh-ins and BMI assessments for prospective members. Modeled after TV’s “The Biggest Loser,” the gym pairs each client with a personal trainer to lead them through workouts and provide weight-loss advice.

Other overweight-only gyms have less specific guidelines. “Our program is tailored for plus-sized people of all sizes,” explains Louise Green, founder and CEO of the Body Xchange, a chain of six fitness clubs based in Vancouver, Canada. 

A Welcoming Atmosphere

What these gyms have in common is a welcoming, nonjudgmental atmosphere. The workout rooms in Downsize Fitness are designed to create a sense of comfort: The walls don’t have mirrors, and the windows are frosted to prevent passers-by from peeking in.

“Many overweight people can feel self-conscious about their bodies or intimidated in [traditional] gyms, which discourages them from exercising,” explains Brian Housle, an exercise physiologist and fitness director of Duke Diet & Fitness Center at Duke University Health System in Durham, N.C. “So a comfortable environment where they don’t feel like an outsider can be a good thing.”

“I used to try to not draw attention to myself at the gym,” says Hickey. But now she isn’t shy about asking a trainer a question or striking up a conversation. “The other members are going through the same thing, so we’ll share weight-loss tips and exercise advice,” she says. “The atmosphere is really supportive.”

The Right Motivation

Creating this camaraderie is the main reason why Michael Hayes decided to open Buddha Body Yoga, a studio in New York City. “I was tired of being the only big person in my classes,” he explains. “I wanted to have a community where plus-sized people could feel completely comfortable twisting and turning.”