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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health, we'll hear about help for a colicky baby. We'll go first though to the gym. For a lot of us, the gym can be intimidating. For overweight people it can be downright scary. Enter: Downsize Fitness, a gym that caters to people with 50 pounds or more to lose.

Lauren Silverman, of member station KERA, explores the idea behind gyms.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: Kendall Schrantz used to be a chronic gym quitter. Now she makes a two-hour commute three times a week, to get to one very special gym.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good job. Keep moving.

KENDALL SCHRANTZ: It's worth every single penny I paid for gas. It's worth the time I spend on the road, the miles - totally worth it.

SILVERMAN: Schrantz, who's 24, has struggled with her weight since second grade. She used to take her lunch money straight to the school vending machine for Cool Ranch Doritos and Skittles. She never felt comfortable in regular gyms.

SCHRANTZ: The looks you get from other people. My thought on that is, why are you looking at me when I got off of the couch, I got off of my bed and I'm actually doing something about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

SCHRANTZ: Sorry.

SILVERMAN: Schrantz breaks down and members come over to comfort her. They know what she's going through. That shared experience is at the core of Downsize Fitness. To join one of the four gyms across the country, you have to have a BMI of 35. Thirty is considered obese.

CEO Kishan Shaw says regular gyms aren't equipped to deal with people struggling with obesity.

KISHAN SHAW: Most people with more than 50 pounds of weight to lose will say, I need to lose weight before I go to a gym. So for me, I was 400 pounds and I lost 75 pounds before I went to a gym because I was too intimidated by dealing with gyms and going there and having those stares and everything.

SILVERMAN: Shah carries a photo with him from when he weighed 400 pounds and had a waist measuring more than five feet around. Today, he's half that weight and he, like other Downsize members, isn't your stereotypical gym rat.

SHAW: It's not about looks. It's about being able to get up off the floor, being able to keep up with your kids, fitting into an airplane seat, you know, really being able to be around for your grandkids.

SILVERMAN: So instead of aiming for six-pack abs, trainers emphasize functional fitness in small classes. Today, members side shuffle across the floor, pumping their arms before moving on to lunges.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nice. You two up here, are you remembering to breathe? Form is more important than speed here.

SILVERMAN: At Downsize, it's not only the exercises that are modified, it's the equipment too. The stationary bikes, ellipticals, treadmills, all are specially designed for heavier people. The windows are tinted for extra privacy. There are classes on nutrition and striking before and after photos up on the wall. But can banning skinny people really help members drop pounds?

AUSTIN BALDWIN: Yes, but it's more complicated than that.

SILVERMAN: Austin Baldwin is an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He researches what motivates people to exercise. And he points to a 2012 study that looked at what he calls physique anxiety among overweight people.

BALDWIN: So for those who have high levels of physique anxiety, they preferred to be around others who were also overweight and obese. Whereas people with low levels of this physique anxiety actually preferred the opposite, right? They preferred to be around people who were more fit.

SILVERMAN: The study should that most people who are overweight feel more comfortable working out with people who are also overweight. And there's another feature Baldwin says may help gyms like Downsize. They're not weight-loss farms. Once you've dropped 50 pounds, you're not kicked out. In fact, the majority of trainers are former members who've graduated. That means you build community.

BALDWIN: So you're setting up a support network which we know to be important in changing behaviors, both in terms of tangible things and providing information, important skills and so on, as well as emotional support.

SILVERMAN: Of course, not everyone likes the idea of overweight gyms.

GOLDA PORETSKY: I would not go to a place called Downsize Fitness.

SILVERMAN: Golda Poretsky a plus-sized Holistic Health Coach in New York. She says any gym that boasts total pounds lost - 5,000 so far at Downsizes across the country - is selling a familiar message: Fat is bad.

PORETSKY: For me, it's more of the same. You know, it's just, oh, we can hide out while we lose weight and become societally acceptable. Like, that doesn't appeal to me in the least.

SILVERMAN: For her, the goal isn't to lose weight, it's to be healthy at whatever size you are. But for the people who are determined to shed pounds, Downsize is another option. There are now two in Illinois, two in Texas and remote classes online.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You can do it. You're almost there. Come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND CLAPPING)

LAURA SILVERMAN, BYLINE: In the Fort Worth gym, 24-year-old Kendall Schrantz is determined to lose fifty pounds. She's already seeing results - a few inches off her waist - and she's discovered a new passion.

SCHRANTZ: I love running. It's so fun.

SILVERMAN: And that's the goal for these gyms - making fitness gratifying instead of degrading.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good job group, Ruth. Get some water and we'll stretch it out.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas.

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