Niche gyms cater to biggest losers

Square One opened in January and has about 50 members so far. Marty Wolff, former contestant on “The Biggest Loser,” is the owner. He heads small group training sessions.


By Katy Healey

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Niche gyms like Square One Health Club are increasingly common, said Meredith Poppler of the International Health, Raquet and Sportsclub Association.

Curves, the fitness chain that caters to women, popularized the trend. There are multiple locations in Nebraska and Iowa.

Some mainstream gyms are carving out spots for niches.

Urban Active in northwest Omaha, for example, dedicates a cardio room to its female clientele.

The resistance-machine seats are too small, the cardio equipment too foreign, the employees too thin.

Weight rooms and cardio classes are meant to draw people in, but if you have a lot of weight to lose, they might scare you off.

“Gyms try to appeal to the masses,” said personal trainer Marty Wolff. “When you appeal to the masses, you push away certain populations.”

Particularly, the very obese.

Wolff, a former contestant on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” knows that all too well. In 2006, he lost more than 140 pounds alongside his now-wife Amy on the reality show. Now he’s helping others do the same in a place he hopes they feel more comfortable.

Wolff in January opened Square One Health Club near 132nd Street and Industrial Road for “people of size” — those with at least 50 pounds to lose. Though he said he would never turn away an in-shape person, his gym is “obesity-centric.” Most clients need to drop 100 pounds or more.

“When you have that much weight to lose, you’re looking at major behavioral changes,” said Jennifer Huberty, a professor of physical activity and health promotion at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Any program that gets people to exercise regularly, she said, is a step in the right direction.

She cautioned, though, that those who want to lose weight must find a way to maintain it. Research shows that only 5 percent of people who lose weight are successful at maintaining it.

Square One has 50 members so far. Many are clients Wolff plucked from “The Biggest Loser” audition line in 2009.

He leads 25 or so classes each week, using stationary bikes, treadmills, aerobic boxes and jump ropes. Strength exercises often use members’ own body weight.

Circuit classes are limited to 10 people, while other classes are limited to six for those who want more one-on-one time.

Wolff modifies moves, if necessary. Instead of jump roping, clients with joint problems quickly rise to their tip-toes and return to the floor. Those who aren’t comfortable on their hands and knees do push-ups against a wall.

Kevin Riley, 38, weighed more than 500 pounds when he started working out with Wolff last spring. He joined Square One when it opened in January.

At his heaviest, Riley said, he could almost feel himself dying. During family gatherings, he’d sit on the sideline as nephews played touch football.

Now he plays, too. He can hike in Colorado on family vacations. He walked a 5K race in October.

As each week passes, he modifies fewer and fewer exercises.

“It’s a long road to run, but I’m on my way there,” he said. He’s lost 150 pounds so far.

Huberty said fitness programs like this can work in the long-term if members change for the right reasons — for their health, not just for weight loss, she said. That’s when it sticks.

It’s also important that gyms targeting obese people are mindful of their physical limitations. Those with health concerns, such as chest pain or orthopedic issues, must receive a doctor’s consent before they join Square One.

Wolff said some who have started working out with him have quit. He estimated about 75 percent of people who join end up staying.

Wolff credits the support among members. They text each other when they don’t show up for class and turn to the gym’s private Facebook page for encouragement. Every day starts with a “positivity post.” Members make note of small successes, like skipping the brownies at work or going for a walk over their lunch break.

Wolff said he knows just how important that is from personal experience.

“When I was young, I always wanted to go to a ‘fat camp.’ It was really a desire to be around people who are like me,” he said. “The more I started diving head first into this profession, it became really obvious to me that my desire as a kid was in other people as well.”

“It can be pretty lonely. You think you’re the only one going through it.”

Especially when everyone else seems to be in better shape, and you’re “on a solo mission,” Riley said. Studies show you’re more likely to maintain an exercise routine if you work out with a friend. At Square One, Riley said, everyone is your friend.

“Everyone here is big or they were at one time,” he said. “Instead of being the one person who’s different, you’re with people who are going through the same thing.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1071, [email protected]

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