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Plus-size exercisers find comfort in gym class for obese

Orlando Sentinel (FL)


ORLANDO, Fla. _ Gyms can be intimidating. All those beautiful people, hard-core exercisers, pushy salespeople and that complicated equipment can send the average mortal running right back to the couch. But for those who bring with them an extra 100 pounds, gyms are downright terrifying.

"I don't want to be in a gym where everyone is in significantly better shape," said Ron Lynch, a 59-year-old insurance executive. "I'm embarrassed."

Recognizing that gym aversion is common among those who can most benefit from regular exercise, trainer Rosemarie "Bud" Seaman, has created a gym for the heavyset. At her Ultimate Fitness, all machines are designed to handle at least 350 pounds. Her massage table can hold up to 700 pounds. And, she offers gym classes exclusively for plus-size participants.

"These are people who had trouble coming into a gym; they felt shame and guilt," she said. "They were so fearful of what others might say, or that others would stare."

Lynch, who has been attending Seaman's class for a year, tried traditional gyms. "In spin class or zumba, I couldn't keep up. That made me not want to come back," said Lynch, who once weighed 330 pounds.

He also had trouble fitting into the equipment and had to force himself between the handles. "I was afraid people would see me not fitting."

At Seaman's gym, Lynch not only fits in, but he also fits.

"When they can't get into a machine or worry that the (treadmill) belt will break, that just feeds into the whole problem," said Seaman.

Although one in four Americans is obese, few gyms offer programs specifically for this population, said Justin Hazlett. He worked for the nation's top big-box gyms before helping to launch a "gym for the fat not fit."

Downsize Fitness opened in Chicago in 2011, and a second location opened in Dallas last fall. Members must need to lose 50 pounds or more to join.

To make the cut for Ultimate Fitness' exercise class, clients must be obese or morbidly obese. "Most clients need to lose 50 to 150 pounds," Seaman said.

Clinically, individuals are considered overweight if their body-mass index is 25 to 30, obese if their BMI is 30 or greater, and morbidly obese when BMI reaches 40 or more.

Seaman records clients' body composition and weight weekly. At each class, participants do 30 minutes of cardio work and 30 minutes of weight training.

"I think the class is amazing," said Sharon Krzyzanowski, clinical coordinator for the bariatric-surgery program at Florida Hospital Celebration, where she counsels obese patients about their lifestyles. "I love the concept. It puts people on the same level."

Krzyzanowski hadn't before heard of a gym dedicated to the obese, but she's familiar with gym resistance.

"Three out of four patients I see at the center avoid the gym," she said. "They feel embarrassed in front of others, particularly those women in tight little outfits and men in muscle shirts."

Add to that the worry that they can't do what others do because they quickly get short of breath or have joint pain, and they stay away, she said.

That's a shame because exercise is especially important for this population. "It can help boost metabolism, aid and help maintain weight loss, and lift depression," she said.

Heather O'Brien, a 50-year-old real-estate developer from Winter Park, Fla., likes Ultimate Fitness' comfortable, small environment and the bonding that happens in her class.

"You don't have to worry about looking like you're not in shape," she said. "We're all working on the same weight-loss goals. I don't feel I stick out, and I feel I'm being supported."

Part of what motivates her to get up in time for the 6 a.m. class three times a week is the bonding. The group talks a lot about the emotional ups and downs of being obese.

"It's like group therapy," Lynch said.

"I like being with others who struggle with the same issues I do, the challenges that go along with having to lose 100-plus pounds," said Lynch, who, since starting the class, has watched his weight go from a high of 330 pounds to his weight today of 270.

Though his ideal weight is around 165 pounds, Lynch who is 5 feet 10 inches tall, would "be a happy man" if he weighed 200.

O'Brien had been working with Seaman off and on for three years but got serious about losing weight in January. Since then, she has lost "close to 10 pounds." She'd like to lose 50.

"My body is changing," said O'Brien. "I'm tighter and stronger and have more motivation and energy. When that happens, the weight loss comes even faster."

"It's easy to get overwhelmed," Lynch said. "You think, 'Oh my God, I have to lose 100 pounds' and want to give up instead of taking it one step at a time. That's where Bud and the others help."

Today, Lynch also feels stronger and has more energy and better mental focus. It's easier for him to get out of the car and get on the floor to play with his granddaughter.

His blood pressure and blood sugar are down, said Lynch, who has hypertension and diabetes. But the best part, he said, "I am stepping back into having an enjoyable life."


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