New Year’s Resolutions: Fitness Centers

FitnessFiscal budgets are filling out ? and so are waistlines.

But with the economy rebounding, gyms are seeing their memberships do the same. People who have let too much time pass since they last did a series of reverse crunches, swiveled their hips in a Zumba class or hopped on an elliptical trainer will notice the landscape is transformed.

The two biggest adjustments borrow the vernacular of the retail industry: One is the migration from big-box gyms with tens of thousands of square feet and dozens of options to boutique gyms that specialize in a particular type of workout, like Pilates studios and 24-hour gyms. There’s also been a proliferation of small health clubs that are cheaper than personal training, but offer more attention.

Take Art of Strength in West Bloomfield, Mich., which focuses on kettlebell weights. The $30 classes are held in a 3,400-square-foot studio.

“They see themselves as getting results, being held accountable,” owner Michael Knight said. “It’s like a family. You walk into a room, and there’s 16 people. Everyone knows everyone.”

One thing that hasn’t changed? The classic New Year’s resolution to get in shape. It’s the season for gyms to enroll lots of new members, many of whom will disappear by mid-February.

If Jaime White’s clients increased their muscle mass as fast she grew her business, she’d probably be very pleased.

When she opened the Core Sport Pilates Fitness Studio in downtown Plymouth, Mich., she had no staff other than herself and no members. In the three years and four months since, White has hired a dozen trainers and counts an estimated 300 people among her clients, plus she’s expanded to a second location in Plymouth to quadruple her original 700 square feet.

The U.S. is home to 29,750 gyms as of January 2010, up from 15,372 in 2000, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

As people start to get new jobs or feel more secure in the ones they have, they’re willing to spend money on lifestyle extras.

“The fitness industry is what I call a leftover industry,” said Bonnie Knutson, a professor of strategic marketing at Michigan State University. “It’s got to come out of discretionary funds, so if you’re going to be pressurized relative to your budget for food and clothing, mortgage, you’re not going to have money left over.”

Core Sport is a prime example of a boutique gym. It specializes in a certain type of exercise, core strength training, and is more intimate than traditional big-box gyms that offer everything from aerobics classes and weight training to cardio equipment and swimming. Smaller classes ? capped at eight students, with prices starting at $10 ? enable exercisers who can’t afford one-on-one personal training to still get some personal attention.

“Small, boutique-sized gyms is where it’s at,” White said. “It gives you the personal training aspect where you’re getting organized group fitness with a qualified instructor that’s watching you with your form without paying the price of a personal trainer.”

Other gym genres include spinning, kickboxing, Pilates, functional training for specific sports, platform balance, women-only and 24-hour access.

“It appeals to people, simply because our schedules are so hectic these days,” explained Greg Davies, who opened Snap Fitness in Harrison Township, Mich., in November. “You can really pick any time to come in and it lessens the pressure. … It’s pretty effective.”

The hors d’oeuvre platter approach to fitness ? offering a little bit of everything rather than focusing on a single exercise ? still has a place.

“Coming to those studios, you can go today for one hour and not be there again for another month or two,” said Itzi Saar, general manager of the Franklin Athletic Club in Southfield, Mich. “Membership commits you to a year and that’s where I see people not wanting to commit right now. It’s the economy. You never know what’s going to happen in a month or two. … We’re growing now. We definitely had some decline in the last three years.”

The 220,000-square-foot gym ? which offers everything from pole-dancing to boxing ? has 5,700 members who pay $63 to $252 a month, she explained.

“The beauty of our club is we have everything here,” Saar said. “We try to make it a convenience.”

Regardless of what strategy a gym uses to lure exercisers in, the bottom line ? and the line about saggy bottoms ? is the same: Get them in.

“The industry is looking for ways to counteract to the national anxiety or withdrawal from the economy,” Knutson said. “People get bored. Been there, done that. What else is new?”

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.