Eight years ago, Shah weighed 400 pounds.
As he describes it, his weight was the product of a sedentary lifestyle with very little emphasis on exercise or making healthy food choices. He spent years learning how to lose weight through a process he describes as self-guided trial and error.
Although he ultimately shed 205 pounds, Shah, 27, spent a lot of time feeling ashamed of his size at typical gyms. Making obese people feel comfortable enough to take control of their health has become his core mission.
"I can't say there's anything I'm more passionate about," he says.
The Chicago-based company, founded in 2011, has two locations in Illinois (one in Chicago and one in Naperville) and two in Texas (in Dallas and Fort Worth). Downsize caters to people who want to lose 50 pounds or more.
Shah's path to becoming Downsize's president began with a call to its founder, Francis Wisniewski. He shared his story—which, at the time, had been getting some national press—and his deep desire to help others like him, eventually asking for a chance to help grow a company that he wishes existed when he started his journey to lose weight.
The analytical and financial experience he gained previously as a private equity investor at Goldman Sachs, where he focused on software, technology, health care, and financial services has paired well with his passion for helping people lose weight.
And he's not alone. Many of Downsize's recent hires are former members who achieved their weight loss goals and want to help others do the same. "They're literally living before and after photos," Shah says. "Since we've been open, our members have lost a combined 5,500 pounds."
Their enthusiasm for Downsize might have something to do with how it differs from most health clubs—there are fewer machines than you'd expect to see elsewhere and frosted windows to make its members feel more comfortable. Members are encouraged to join group classes, where trainers guide them through functional, bodyweight exercises. "If your BMI is over 35, it's not about doing boot camp-style workouts until you want to cry," he says. "It's about being able to get off the floor, pick something up, and walk a block without feeling like you need to take a break."
Finding the motivation to lose weight was a huge challenge for Shah. Even a family history of obesity-related illnesses didn't faze him. The real wake up call came when he went shopping for a new suit. "I could tell the tailor was avoiding me," he says. "Finally he got out his tape measure to measure my waist and get my size. He pulled out a five-foot tape measure and I had a 62-inch waist at the time. I remember looking in the mirror at that point thinking, 'I have to change.'"
Shah waited until he lost 75 pounds before he felt comfortable enough to join a gym.
"This will sound counterintuitive to someone who's in shape, but I felt like I needed to lose weight before going to the gym. Someone who's constantly battling their weight will have this mentality," he explains. "When I got to 325 pounds I felt like I belonged there, but people wouldn't open doors for me, they would look away, not show me how to use equipment, and brush me off."
Because a vast majority of people who lose more than 30 pounds gain it back, Shah's goal is to grow the business to a couple of hundred locations in the next five years and help clients work towards realistic and sustainable results.
"You see things like 'Six Minute Abs' or 14-day challenges, and I don't think either of those formats work," he says. "It's been almost nine years since I made the decision to get healthier. It's a myth that you can say, 'I'm going to lose 100 pounds and be done.' I don't think you're ever done."
[Image: Flickr user Steve Garner]