Health clubs have to hustle

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
January 21, 2000

There’s a new health club muscling its way into town. And it’s just a medicine ball’s throw away from the last big thing that opened its doors here.

The grand opening of Gorilla Sports this weekend ensures that the 140 or so health clubs already listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages have a new competitor with which to contend. Located at 38 E. Grand, Gorilla is just four blocks away from Crunch–which debuted last August at the ground level of the Marina City complex.

Gorilla–which will host an invitation-only party Saturday featuring volleyball star Gabrielle Reece–will have to face the fact that 50 percent of all new health club members quit within the first six months of signing up, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

So what sets Gorilla apart from the Ballys and Women’s Workout Worlds or the tony East Bank Club and the Chicago Athletic Association?

“Chicago’s [clubs] have a lot of pools, running tracks and [basketball] courts,” said Dave Fox, director and founder of Gorilla Sports. “We didn’t see a need for another club that offers those elements. But a lot of the facilities don’t offer the things that are doing really well in California–yoga, Pilates, boxing. We do.”

The health club industry is a $10.6 billion business in the United States. There are 15,125 clubs today, more than double the numbers from 1982. Almost 30 million people have memberships. Illinois alone has about 600 fitness facilities.

Despite the increase in health clubs, Americans continue to grow fatter each year. The percentage of obese Americans has increased from 12 percent in 1991 to 17.9 percent in 1998, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These statistics mirror Illinois’ figures.

And a study by Men’s Fitness magazine ranked Chicago the sixth-fattest city in the nation.

“Joining a health club isn’t going to make you skinny if you don’t go or if you compensate for your exercising by eating more,” said Gina Hammarlund, a registered dietitian and associate professor at the Chicago Medical School’s department of nutrition. “Engineers have made the world a much easier place to live. They have made so many time- and activity-saving inventions that about 800 calories a day have been saved since the 1950s.

“You don’t really think about washing dishes or walking to the store or getting up to change the TV channel as working off calories, but all these activities add up.”

Coincidentally, health clubs began sprouting up around the “Leave It to Beaver” era. Joe Gold started Gold Gyms, and the perennially fit Jack LaLanne got into the exercise business, as well. But the trend seemed to hit an all-time high in the 1980s and even was recorded for posterity in the 1985 film “Perfect.”

In the cheesy drama, John Travolta played a journalist writing about the boom in health clubs, then being called the new singles clubs. The image of a hard-bodied Jamie Lee Curtis in a leotard leading a manic exercise class was an accurate reflection of the time.

Like the twentysomethings featured in the movie, most health club members during that era were under the age of 35. Today, most members are over 35, suggesting that the gym rats have grown up but don’t want to grow out.

“By this time, they want to try something that’s new to them,” said IHRSA spokeswoman Maeve McCaffrey. “So the clubs try to keep up with them by reinventing themselves and catering to consumers’ needs.”

A desire to lure younger members has contributed to the direction newer boutique clubs are taking.

Over at Gorilla–which charges a one-time $75 initiation fee and monthly dues of $69–the menu of classes goes beyond weight training and spinning to include tae kwon do, kickboxing and four types of yoga.

“I thought that by taking some of these elements out to Chicago, we’d be offering Chicagoans an opportunity to experience a different kind of health club,” Fox said. “We want to be an alternative to people who want something a little different from a health club.”

Keeping up with trends definitely is one way to attract people to the gym, according to IHRSA. Keeping them there is another story.

“If [health clubs] can get newcomers to make a habit of working out for the first 21 days–and keep them coming back for 120 days or so–there’s a good chance that they’ve got them,” McCaffrey said. “Clubs are working harder to get clients involved from the beginning. So clubs are trying to have the staff available for the programs that people want.

“But let’s face it. If you’re not willing to make a change, you’re not going to make a change. The facilities could call you every day, offer you the moon and remind you of the classes you signed up for. But ultimately it’s up to the consumer to actually go to the club.”

This was the case for Mary Schwartz, who joined the Lakeshore Athletic Club at the Illinois Center four years ago. Tall and slender, Schwartz wasn’t interested in losing weight but rather in taking preemptive measures to help safeguard her from heart disease, which both of her parents have.

Still, she said, it was a struggle at first to get motivated. “I had to force myself to go in the beginning,” said Schwartz, 37. “You have to make it a part of your daily schedule, which is really difficult to do at first. One thing I did was hire a personal trainer, who helped me set up an exercise program, because I wasn’t sure what to do.

“But after I got over that hump, working out became easy. It became something that I actually missed if I didn’t go.”

That’s what the health club industry is counting on.


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