Gyms are losing ground

NEW YORK – Is the gym passe?

It used to feel worthwhile to commit to an annual membership at an everything-and-the-kitchen sink gym featuring high-spirited classes, top-of-the-line cardio machines and weights.

But these days, the idea of a full-service gym is as stale as yesterday’s sweat-soaked towel. Up to 45 per cent of fitness-club members quit going in any given year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

For all their ads promising to stir motivation, gyms have failed to do so.

“Up until the last six years, it’s been relatively easy to sell memberships, and to replace people going out the back door with people coming through the front door,” said Michael Scott Scudder, a consultant who advises health clubs and conducts up to 15 industry surveys annually.

“Not so anymore. We’ve come to a point that we can’t sell enough membership in the industry to cover the attrition rate.”

Blame the gym’s now-ubiquitous flat-screen TVs and the fact that iPods are de rigueur, said Jonathan Fields, a marketing consultant in Manhattan who has helped found personal-training gyms and yoga studios.

“Now everybody’s plugged in,” Fields said. “In the 70s, they came for community. Now they come in and disassociate themselves from everyone in the club. It’s killing the health club.”

Kitchen-sink gyms also face pressure from operations like Planet Fitness, a chain founded in 1992 that offers Cybex treadmills and weight machines, but which does not have Zumba classes or perks like towels – and charges $10 a month.

Today’s consumers wonder why they should pay more for a so-called big-box gym when they can get the laissez-faire approach for less.

Michael Grondahl, the chief executive of Planet Fitness, who recently eliminated personal training at his 406 franchises, does not believe that he is in the motivation business.

A staff trainer still offers 30-minute sessions for groups of five, but Grondahl said he does nothing to keep members coming.

“I can’t keep you motivated to do something you don’t want to,” he said.

Rich Boggs, a creator of the original step and the chief executive of Body Training Systems, which licenses group fitness classes to 700 clubs nationwide, said this hands-off model won’t work for people who aren’t self-starters (which is to say: most of us).

“You can’t get the cheapest and the best at the same time, unless you know precisely what you want to do, you’re Equipment Guy and you don’t need any help,” he said.

But that is a fair description of Chanie Raykoff, a special educator who works out at Blink Fitness, a low-price spin off of the cushy Equinox.

“I like to get in and out,” said Raykoff, at the NoHo branch on a recent Tuesday evening. “I do weights and cardio. I am not social.”

Indeed, conversation was sparse during an hour-long visit to the gym’s sleek workout floor.

Socializing, however, is key to long-term exercise success, said Terry Blachek, the president of International Consulting, which helps clubs improve member retention.

“We know you’ve got to engage the client,” Blachek said. “It’s got to be a challenge for them. And we know you’ve got to connect the client in a meaningful way to others.”

Blachek has some experience in this: He was the executive vice president at the once-chic fitness chain Crunch in the 1990s, when its novelty group workouts, like the Firefighter and Cycle Karaoke, were the rage.

“Those classes were the claim to fame for Crunch,” he said. “They connected clients to their peers.”

These days, “loyalty has dropped dramatically,” said Casey Conrad, a consultant with 25 years in the fitness industry.

One reason: A decade ago, full-service gyms didn’t offer today’s “unbundled” memberships that let consumers choose what perks to pay for.

Some fitness seekers have been trying an a la carte approach, taking specialized pay-as-you-go classes like those offered by the stationary-cycling competitors Flywheel Sports and SoulCycle, or Core Fusion at the Exhale Spa, rather than committing to a gym membership.

“You can do whatever suits your fancy when it does,” said Jessica Underhill, a personal trainer who writes the blog Fit Chick in the City, referring to the pay-per-class approach.

She tried so many studio classes in 2010 that she thought she had “exercise ADD” but came to favor the Bar Method, a body-sculpting class held at studios from Manhattan to Marina del Rey, California, because, she said, instructors rattle off names as they offer corrections and make her feel as if she is a part of something.

“They acknowledge that you are a consumer and are friendly at the same time,” Underhill said. “It doesn’t feel stale or super crisp and clean. It’s about connection.”

And no one is going to turn into a lifer akin to Jack LaLanne, the fitness pioneer who died recently, without a reason to work past the aches and drudgery of exercise.

“There’s no question that the social element is a huge, huge piece to getting participation,” Conrad said. “I travel a lot, and when I miss yoga class, they are like, ‘Casey, where have you been?”’

Nancy Pusateri, 40, a small-business owner from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who has attended small-group training offered by a company called OrangeTheory for about a year, said she finds paying per class more motivating than a monthly membership.

“I go because I want to go, not because I’ve paid for it or feel obligated,” she said, adding, “I love that I’m only competing against myself.”

Many, even go-getters, see their results levelling off at the gym, historically, “People who take personal training and do group fitness classes are more likely to stick with a gym,” said Tony Santomauro, a fitness consultant with 35 years of industry experience.

But too often health clubs don’t understand they “should be a support system for people,” said Scudder, the health club adviser.

“It’s merely four walls to come in, work out and leave.”

Only a fifth of gym members take part in group fitness on average industry-wide, said Conrad, adding that these days instead of packing in more cardio machines, “good quality health clubs are returning to emphasizing group exercise.”

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