13 Jul 2020 World leisure: news, training & property
Sign up for FREE ezine

Health Club Management
2013 issue 6

View issue contents

Leisure Management - A big welcome

Plus-size fitness

A big welcome

For some overweight people, going to a gym or exercise class is a daunting prospect. Kath Hudson talks to gym operators specifically targeting plus-size customers with a welcoming, tailored package

Kath Hudson
Niche, plus-size programmes are on the rise Photo: shutterstock/Peter Bernik

In the US and the UK, 60 per cent of people are either overweight or obese. Obesity causes many health issues including some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stress and depression. Some experts say obesity is responsible for more ill health than smoking.

Although this is a hard market for the fitness industry to reach, we are now seeing concerted efforts to meet the needs of overweight consumers. “The opening of gyms specific to plus-size people in the US is indicative of a wider change within the sector – a move towards adapting to the needs and demands of consumers and offering increasingly niche fitness facilities and programmes,” says CEO of ukactive David Stalker.

He continues: “A cultural shift has begun in the sector towards viewing people in a holistic way, and looking at the causes of an individual being overweight rather than just treating the consequences. We need to continue to build on this, through further innovation and collaboration, to reach the large percentage of the population who remain inactive.”

In the UK, we’re starting to see a change in the sort of programmes being offered. LA Fitness has partnered with Weight Watchers to link physical activity and nutrition, for example, while Nuffield Health launched a comprehensive nutritional programme in January 2013 covering everything from digestive health, through blood sugar management, to energy and stress consultations. Groups such as Nordic Walking also tie up with local healthcare providers to deliver programmes for the management of obesity and related conditions. Meanwhile Curves and Gymophobics target their marketing at women who want to get more active, but who previously may not have felt comfortable using a gym.

Complementing these efforts, the ukactive Research Institute is currently working with fitness centres across the country to build an evidence base for delivering physical activity counselling to people who may be overweight and suffering from chronic health problems, to help them make positive lifestyle changes. There’s also a rise in niche qualifications in areas such as weight management, nutrition and psychology.

Many of the successful plus-size offerings are run by people who have successfully lost weight themselves, and so understand the challenges and the fears that overweight people have about entering gyms and starting to exercise. To cover fitness alone is not enough; most providers also look at nutrition, and give counselling support too.

Here we take a look at a selection of fitness operations that have been designed specifically for overweight customers.

Body Exchange Canada

FOUNDER: Louise Green

I set up Body Exchange in Vancouver in 2008, as a lifestyle change, after having a baby. Previously I was working as a talent agent in the film industry. It was stressful and involved long hours, and I didn’t think it would mix well with motherhood.

While pregnant I gained around 45lbs, but I was still passionate about working in fitness, so I decided to target upper-size people. I did some market research and found there was nothing dedicated to this group of people in Canada. It immediately attracted a lot of media interest, so I realised it was very timely.

No-one is banned, but the language and imagery of our marketing material is targeted at upper-size people. To market the business, we’ve looked at the lifestyle patterns of our target client and have gone to them, as they won’t come to us. I call places like Weight Watchers clubs “watering holes”, as here you find larger people who are motivated to change. Doctors also refer people to us.

The programme is bootcamp-style, using equipment like resistance bands, BOSU balls and agility ladders, and is run in community-based locations. Exercise takes place either one-to-one or in classes, which vary in size from five to 25 participants. We don’t run sessions in health clubs because our customers wouldn’t enter the buildings; they take place in community halls or outdoors. Body Exchange also offers an online, customisable nutrition programme, as well as goal-setting and lifestyle coaching.

We offer a programme based on two or three days a week. To start with, people are fearful they won’t keep it up – people come with a lot of fear and lack of trust in themselves. But the sense of community in the group really builds motivation. Our customers organise hikes and snow-shoeing in the mountains together. For those who buy into our offering, retention is really good.

Some people lose huge amounts of weight and transform their bodies, while others come off their medication and are now no longer pre-diabetic. Others become more fit but don’t lose weight, because they can’t control their eating – I think we’re dealing with a lot of emotional eating. Very often obesity is just a symptom of a deeper problem. Eating is the biggest struggle for most.

I have now licensed the business, so it operates in six different communities in Vancouver, but I want to make Body Exchange a national company through licensing. Alberta, Calgary and Ontario are the first cities I want to target and, as I’m originally from the UK, I’d like to take it there.


Green has now licensed the concept

Green says her clients prefer to avoid gyms
Square One - United States

FOUNDER: Marty Wolff

Ilived 25 years of my life morbidly obese and learned many bad habits, but I always wanted something else. When I appeared on The Biggest Loser, I found my place – as well as meeting my wife.

After leaving the show 146lbs lighter, I did a lot of public speaking, which culminated in launching Square One in Omaha, US, last year. It’s a club of like-minded, larger people. Most are morbidly obese and we use a mixture of exercise, therapy, dieting and mentoring on how to tackle obstacles to help members control their triggers and cravings. Most of them have no clue about the fight they are fighting, or how to defend themselves, so we help them to build strategies.

The programme is based on a mix of research and my own experience. For example, one thing obese people tend to suffer with is an ‘all or nothing’ mentality: they think that, if they break the pattern by eating a cookie, they might as well give up that day. I compare this to spending money. If you buy one thing you haven’t planned, you don’t have to go and empty the bank account.

Many people see incredible results with weight loss, but some people simply can’t get past the emotional eating and fail to lose weight. Working out is the easiest habit to grasp, because I can watch them, but I can’t watch them when they’re at the fridge at home.

But even when people are obese, or morbidly obese, exercising can make a huge difference. Losing 8–10lbs could mean reducing or coming off blood pressure and cholesterol medication.

Recruiting members is one of the things we’re still learning how to do. The difficult part is working out how to approach people and we’re experimenting with that – targeted advertising on Facebook, for example, for those who have ‘liked’ The Biggest Loser and Weight Watchers. When compared to the industry standard, we do a really good job at retaining people. This is because we’ve created a community of people.

Square One offers packages starting at US$60 and rising to US$300 a month. Whether in the gym or in classes, PT or small group training, people always have to work under the guidance of a trainer.

Going forward we plan to franchise, initially in the mid-west of the US.


Square One sees a high rate of retention
Buddha Body Yoga - United States

FOUNDER: Michael Hayes

I was tired of being the biggest person in my yoga class, so in 1996 I embarked on a Sivananda yoga teacher-training course in Barbados. After this, I developed my own practice and worked privately with another teacher, discovering how to get my body into the yoga postures.

Buddha Body Yoga grew out of this experimentation and is the only yoga offering I know of that caters exclusively for plus-size people. Although with my skills I could teach regular yoga, I find larger people more interesting and challenging to work with. Millions of teachers work with the slender, strong and fit, but only a handful work with big people.

I run seven classes a week at our New York studio and am just negotiating new space so I can expand my class size. Finding clients is not necessarily easy though: word of mouth and media coverage seem to be the best way, but many plus-size people remain scared to come to classes. I’ve had people register and not turn up, or arrive five minutes late but then refuse to join the class.

Once people start coming, however, retention is good because I make it fun – it’s a community with lots of jokes and playing with postures. It’s not serious like many other yoga classes can be.

Some people come because they want to lose weight, some want to be more flexible, some want to experience yoga and others like the feeling of movement. If I can stop someone hobbling, or help them move and sit more comfortably, I consider that a success.

I’d like to take the concept across the US and around the world with teacher-training. I’ve set up a certified five-day yoga teacher-training programme for working with big people, which is open to qualified yoga teachers.


Classes are taught in a light-hearted way

Originally published in Health Club Management 2013 issue 6

Published by The Leisure Media Company Ltd Portmill House, Portmill Lane, Hitchin, Herts SG5 1DJ. Tel: +44 (0)1462 431385 | Contact us | About us | © Cybertrek Ltd