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How to Attract Clients With Obesity

The fitness industry is, by its own admission, good at “getting fit people fitter.” But with marketing materials rife with lithe, blond 20-somethings in revealing, brand-name yoga gear, it’s not surprising that people who are overweight and deconditioned find it hard to buy into the very fitness services that could help them shed pounds for good.

In 2009–2010, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and almost 17% of youth were obese (Ogden et al. 2012). Clearly, this group has the potential to become a significant clientele for fitness professionals. However, for many fuller-figured individuals, the idea of going to a fitness facility is overwhelming. Unfortunately, our images and headlines hurt us as an industry, says Boulder, Colorado–based marketing and sales expert Debra Atkinson, MS. In industry marketing materials, “we feature the already fit, which is intimidating. We feature tight clothes, the room full of toned, flawless-skinned individuals working with teeth-whitened, slender professionals.”

Going against this trend, however, are a handful of business owners skilled at marketing to, and profiting from, the relatively untapped niche of overweight and obese individuals. This article reveals how these fitness entrepreneurs consistently attract and retain curvier customers through size-savvy external marketing and service systems. If you’ve ever wondered how best to inspire to fitness this underserved yet populous market, here are practical strategies for attracting plus-size customers—and boosting your bottom line.

Plus-Size Success

Why should you make an effort to accommodate larger clients? Because the field needs good, innovative leaders, says Atkinson, who is also the founder of Voice For Fitness, a consulting business for fitness professionals. Currently there are not enough knowledgeable professionals catering to this population.

There are, however, a number of dedicated pioneers showing the way. Just ask The Biggest Loser contestant-turned-gym-owner Marty Wolff. Wolff had struggled with obesity his entire life. That all changed when he appeared on the reality weight loss show, The Biggest Loser. He lost 146 pounds and also met fellow contestant Amy, who is now his wife.

After the show was over, both Wolff and his wife became certified personal trainers. In 2012 they opened Square One Health Club in Omaha, Nebraska, which caters exclusively to overweight and obese members. “Square One is the product of the experiences we obtained on The Biggest Loser, combined with a community-centric approach to weight management,” reports Wolff.

Entrepreneur Kishan Shah has a similar story. Once weighing over 400 pounds, Shah successfully lost over half his weight
through self-researched diet and exercise modifications. Today, he is the healthy and fit Chicago-based CEO of Downsize Fitness, a chain that requires all new members to be at least 50 pounds over-weight to join.

The Downsize approach is working: The business has grown to five locations in less than 2 years and is poised to open more locations soon. To be successfully size-friendly, “there has to be a relentless focus on the customer and how the client relates to the nutritional and emotional changes he or she must undertake,” Shah explains.

In contrast to these brick-and-mortar-studio success stories are the outdoor boot camp classes and adventure activities offered by Body ExchangeTM in Vancouver, British Columbia, which also caters exclusively to curvier customers. “We offer boot camps adaptable to our participants, and from day one we have received great interest from the community and the media,” reports founder and CEO Louise Green. “As a result, the business has expanded into six [Canadian] territories through a licensed business opportunity.”

Notwithstanding potential profits, all experts interviewed for this article had a consistent cautionary message: Don’t do it just for the money. Either market to plus-sized clients or don’t, but do it sincerely, and don’t do it halfway. This is a special market with special needs that run deep.

A Missed Opportunity?

Despite these success stories, examples of businesses that appeal to overweight clients are not the norm. “I find it frustrating that the fitness industry is still missing the mark with the overweight client,” says Rochelle Rice, MA, an industry veteran and obesity expert who writes and speaks extensively on how best to help overweight individuals achieve fitness success. Rice, who lives in New York City, is also the author of Real Fitness for Real Women (Warner 2001) and The Overweight Client: Size-Sensitive Training, Programs, and Environments (Desert Southwest Fitness 2008).

She notes that some brand-name gyms have no desire to accommodate over-weight people, “and that is fine,” she says. Although she hopes for change, she adds, “I don’t believe all fitness professionals have to cater to the plus-size population. If it’s not for you, step out and refer the obese client to a trainer who may be more size-sensitive. You will do yourself and the client a huge favor by being honest.”

Defining Obesity

For exercise entrepreneurs who do authentically want to work with over-weight and obese people, it’s important to understand the complexity of obesity as well as the science of exercise, says Green. Here are a few facts to know.

Obesity is a serious, common and complex disease. “This clientele does see incredible results in better cardio, mobility and strength [with exercise], but if the scale is your main point of measurement, it definitely takes time,” says Green. “We are working to undo a lifetime of behavioral, psychological, social, economical and cultural traits that contribute to obesity.”

Sadly, being overweight and/or obese can have serious consequences. It substantially raises the risk of morbidity from many diseases and conditions, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis and certain cancers (NIH 1998).

Body mass index is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women. Technically, the disease of “overweight” is defined by a BMI of 25–29.9 and “obesity” by a BMI of
30 or greater (NIH 1998). (Your clients can use the BMI calculator on www.choosemyplate.gov.) A BMI of 18.5–24.9 indicates a “normal” weight range (CDC 2011). Obese individuals face mortality rates that are generally 50%–100% above those of people with BMIs of 20–25 (NIH 1998).

Note, however, that BMI alone is not the only (and in certain circumstances, not even an accurate) predictor of comorbidity or mortality risk. Someone can, for example, be fuller figured and still be very fit, notes Green, who is herself a size 16. Green—a personal trainer who runs half marathons and trains alongside high-level athletes—urges fitness pros never to make judgments based solely on size. “There are Olympians in plus-size bodies at the highest level of athleticism,” she says. “I recommend really talking to each individual and getting to know [people] before making any assumptions about physical ability.”

Neuroimaging Studies: Implications for Fitness Marketing

Marketing messages showing fit gym-goers, scantily clad and grunting through a super-intense sweat session, are unlikely to motivate obese people to sign up for your services, say our experts. And interestingly, new research shows why. Recent data shows that larger individuals may literally perceive food and exercise differently than people of normal weight. Research comparing physiological activity in the brains of larger versus leaner individuals, as measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology (i.e., through neuroimaging studies), has highlighted these differences. Stoeckel et al. (2008) demonstrated that obese individuals who viewed pictures of food usually developed increased activity in the “reward centers” of the brain, relative to normal-weight control subjects.

The authors of another neuroimaging study found that, in obese individuals, activation of reward and attention-oriented parts of the brain in response to food cues predicted less success in a weight loss program and potentially poorer long-term adherence to the plan (Murdaugh et al. 2012). They concluded that “in obese individuals who were least successful in losing weight during the [treatment program], we found greater pre-treatment activation to high-calorie food versus control pictures in brain regions implicated in reward-system processes.”

Similar neuroimaging methods have recently been used to study individual perceptions of exercise imagery. In a 2013 study, obese and nonobese subjects were shown images depicting physical activity and images of sedentary behavior, and then researchers compared the subjects’ fMRI brain scans (Jackson, Gao & Chen 2013). When “workout” pictures were displayed, the brains of overweight women showed increased activity in areas of the brain associated with negative emotions and a relatively blunted response in the brain’s “reward centers.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, leaner women’s brains
typically displayed the inverse reactions.

Research has also shown that over-weight and obese teenagers have a more negative view of physical activity than their normal-weight counterparts (Deforche, De Bourdeaudhuij & Tanghe 2006). The more negative attitude has also been noted in obese white women aged 50
and over (Leone & Ward 2013).

So what’s the take-home message? Exercise interventions for fuller-figured clients “may be improved by focusing on exercise enjoyment and the benefits of exercise that are independent of weight loss,” concluded the authors of the latter study. Read on to learn how to create that
type of focus.

External Marketing for Overweight Clients

Exercise entrepreneurs who want to attract plus-size patrons must be savvy about the types of photos and tag lines they use on marketing collateral, say our experts. So what are their top tips?

Get beyond weight loss. “I get it— weight loss sells, but many people just want to feel better and be part of a community,” says Rice. Moreover, she adds, even clients who want to lose weight may not succeed, and fitness professionals should be comfortable with this reality. Instead, remember that this audience is typically motivated by health, says Green. Marketing messages such as “Bikini season is coming!” don’t resonate with a plus-size clientele, who may perceive them as fearmongering and find them demotivating, says Rice.

Accentuate enjoyment and health.
Opt for ideas like “Gain more confidence in life,” “Play with your kids or grandkids more easily,” “Experience better sleep or lower blood pressure” or “Reduce the need for medications.” Emphasize community, note that your program or facility is size-friendly, and imply that the prospective customer won’t be the only bigger person in the room.

Remember that an obese person’s “deepest fears of failure are getting left behind, being the largest body in the room or being physically overwhelmed,” says Green. “Come up with creative ways to address [these fears].”

Engineer empowering visuals. On your website and in marketing collateral, ditch the supposedly aspirational photos of superfit, sexy young models. Instead, use flattering images of plus-size trainees being active in ways that imply they are strong, able and confident. Do not necessarily send the message that they need to lose weight, adds Atkinson. “Health behaviors come first.”

“I have created all my own stock photography and marketing messages, and I know that appropriate imagery works,” notes Green. “People want to see a representation of themselves.”

Select size-sensitive sayings. Be thoughtful about the language and tone you use in advertisements, headlines and testimonials, says Atkinson. “Avoid the word ‘obese’; this is not a great word to use to entice people,” says Green. “I only use ‘obese’ when I am working with medical or health professionals.”

What does work? Choose words that focus on the body’s function and abilities, not weight loss, says Rice. For example, she recommends using “as your body changes shape” or “as you change your body’s shape” instead of “as you lose weight”; “healing the body” instead of “combat obesity”; and “movement” instead of “exercise.” She advises against using hardcore fitness jargon like “get ripped.”

Network with the plus-size community. “As a trainer, you need to have your own size-friendly team of healthcare professionals who can not only help you support your clients but also support you,” says Rice. (Check out www.SizeDiversityandHealth.org for size-friendly health professionals.) “Try networking with your local Weight Watchers® chapter leader, registered dietitians, a local hospital with a bariatric program, and so on,” says Wolff.

Client referrals can also come from businesses with a focus other than wellness. “There is a whole industry of plus-size everything out there,” says Rice. This includes plus-size clothing, activewear, communities, dating circles and fashion shows. Among other things, fitness professionals interested in appealing to overweight clients should blog on plus-size-centric websites and attend events geared to curvier customers, she adds.

Retention Strategies for Overweight Clients

You got them in your door; now what? If you want to work with this demographic, you have to make sure you’re ready for plus-size customers once they sign up for your services, says Atkinson. Here’s how to get it right.

Cultivate a size-positive culture. Being around supportive, like-minded people is an essential and attractive part of an obese person’s wellness journey, say all of our experts. This idea finds support in formal research, which indicates that social support is a key facilitator in positive lifestyle change, motivation and perseverance (Russell et al. 2013).

Wolff agrees that overweight individuals want to exercise in a culture and environment in which they feel respected and comfortable, and where they are not alone in being big. He says that in hindsight, the “special sauce” on The Biggest Loser was being part of a like-minded community—a culture he has made special efforts to replicate at his Square One studio. “We feel we are more than just a gym; we are a social movement, and that is how we treat everything we do,” he explains. To help, Wolff’s facility offers small-group camaraderie-boosting meetings that promote accountability; members support each other and share nutritional guidance.

Enlist professional backup. Excess weight is often a side effect of deeper issues that go beyond food, Green notes. Shah agrees: “No one gets to be 400 pounds because they missed a few gym sessions.” With this in mind, consider inviting outside experts (such as a registered dietitian or a licensed psychologist) to give in-depth presentations on topics you are unqualified to address. At a minimum, be prepared to refer clients to professional help if you notice red-flag behaviors or statements. “If
your clients talk to you about emotional eating [or] binge eating, refer them to a licensed therapist,” says Wolff.

Offer private programs. Unlike the exercise entrepreneurs featured in this article, independent trainers and existing “mass market” clubs are likely unable to retrofit their entire business models to appeal exclusively to plus-size clients. In these cases, exclusive programs may be a solid solution.

Create group exercise classes specifically for overweight participants, and/or make sure your staff knows which classes on your existing group exercise schedule would best suit a beginning overweight client, says Rice. “Give permission to the client to observe any class. The client will be able to decide if he or she can do the class or not,” says Rice, who is also the creator and star of the group-exercise-for plus-sizes DVD series, Healthy Not Skinny.

Group exercise classes aimed at over-weight clients should avoid fast, complicated choreography and should not require clients to get down onto and up from the floor, she adds.

Choose clothing carefully. It’s important to avoid skintight clothes designed to show off your body when working with overweight trainees, say all our experts. “A wise [mentor] told me 30 years ago that the best thing we could do was to wear grey sweats when training clients,” says Atkinson. “It’s not about you. You should look clean, neat and groomed. But your role is to promote the wellness of your customers, not promote your own presence.”

You don’t need to reveal all of your flesh or your midriff to show you’re fit, says Rice. “Be respectful.”

Examine your exercise area and equipment. Think about how a plus-size client will interact with the physical training environment and equipment you provide. Make sure there is enough space for the client to walk between workout machines, says Rice. When possible, keep the exercise space mirror-free, adds Atkinson. “Mirrors add too much opportunity for comparison, for negative self-feedback and the wrong focus.” Green keeps it simple, primarily using tubing and outdoor venues for her company’s boot camp experiences.

Many weight and cardio machines have an upper weight limit for users. So, if you work in a club or studio, “do not start a program for the morbidly obese unless you have double-checked that your scales and equipment can accommodate up to 500 pounds,” adds Wolff. “Otherwise, it could lead to a very embarrassing situation for you and your clients.”

Consider nonexercise spaces. Think about the nonexercise areas and equipment in your business. In the sitting area, for example, choose chairs or furniture— with no arms—that are sturdy enough and high enough to hold a fuller body.
Finally, provide some privacy. Shah’s Downsize Fitness has addressed this concern by frosting windows so that passersby cannot see into the workout area.

Offer opportunities for success.
Compared with “mainstream” clients, obese customers are “an apprehensive audience, and often it can take only one negative experience for them to throw in the towel. Every experience has to be a positive one, especially in the beginning, to keep this client in action,” says Green.

Rice agrees that it’s important to start with moves your larger customers can master. “You want the client to feel confident during a session and to think, “That was it? I can do that!” she adds.

To support this confidence, focus on progression, not regression, says Green. In other words, say, “‘Here is the exercise. If you feel you have mastered this and want to take it the next level, you can do this variation,’” says Green. “Don’t say, ‘Here is the exercise, and if you can’t do this, then you can regress to this option.’”

Compassion for Curves

“I see the obese population as a group with unique needs,” concludes Green. “Of course, there is the exception to the rule where you have a very athletic plus-size individual, full of confidence, who would fit into a mainstream program without any issue, but generally people in this group feel intimidated by regular programming and typical gym environments.”

Fitness professionals who want to work with overweight and obese clients should remember that, for this type of trainee, progress is not linear, says Shah. “There will be days that are great; there will be days that are awful.” But for exercise

entrepreneurs truly committed to serving this underserved population, the rewards can go beyond just profits—because when you make special considerations for over-weight trainees, you are truly poised to Inspire the whole World to Fitness.

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