Friday, September 19, 2008

Working Out Kinks In Health Club Rules

“Sometimes the law of unintended consequences applies to the law itself. That’s the case in St. Paul, where a well-meaning, effective law used as a tool to root out prostitution has also curtailed the burgeoning business of unsupervised exercise clubs such as Snap Fitness and Anytime Fitness. The clubs are storefront, barebones workout rooms, with weights, treadmills and other cardiovascular machines. Short on frills but long on hours, most clubs are open 24 hours, with patrons swiping a card to get in. The facilities are often unsupervised, unlike health clubs with fulltime, on-site staffs. This innovative, less expensive way to work out hasn’t been able to work in St. Paul because of an existing ordinance against unsupervised health clubs. This is partly because years ago brothels used to sometimes masquerade as ‘health clubs,’ ‘saunas’ or ‘massage parlors,’ so a ban was imposed as an effective weapon in fighting that blight. But it was never intended to keep out legitimate businesses, and it’s inconsistent with St. Paul’s neighbors. Minneapolis and surrounding suburbs have had unsupervised health clubs open and operate without any evidence of illegal activity. A revised St. Paul ordinance, crafted through collaboration with city safety officials and representatives of the health club industry, is working through the City Council and should reassure concerned citizens and city officials. Among many requirements, the clubs will need to be on street level, be at least 500 square feet and have at least 75 feet of exterior window space visible to the public and police. A minimum number of exercise machines will need to be purchased and present, which would eliminate any doubt about the legitimacy of a club. And video surveillance must be accessible to both health club employees and, upon request, public safety officials. Beyond public safety, rules regarding personal safety should also ease concerns. Each club has ‘panic buttons’ that can be pushed in case of a heart attack or other injury, and patrons working out during unsupervised hours will be required to wear personal alert systems that can alert emergency services. Today’s age of shrinking purchasing power and expanding waistlines make these clubs a welcome addition to workout options. The business model means lower fees, which can encourage exercise among those who can’t afford fully staffed clubs. Given America’s obesity crisis, people at all income levels should be encouraged to get off the couch and get some exercise, at a time that fits their schedule.”

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