Monday, January 19, 2009

Health Clubs Remain Fit In Bad Economy

“When Karla Hopper was laid off from her job as a nurse two months ago, she studied her monthly expenses and made some cuts. As for her health club membership? There was no way she was giving that up. ‘I've been an athlete my whole life, and I like keeping my weight down and staying healthy,’ said Hopper, 31, of Cahokia, glistening with sweat after a workout at Snap Fitness in the Central West End. A few blocks away, Edwin Williams was lifting weights at Sante Fitness & Wellness at the Chase Park Plaza. He, too, is feeling the economic crunch but doesn't plan to give up his membership. ‘For me, it's prevention,’ says Williams, 28, an engineering student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. ‘A fitness club membership is cheaper than medical bills later. I pay $80 a month now compared to hundreds a month down the road.’ A recent consumer survey found that 60 percent of fitness club members nationwide plan to keep their current memberships despite the economic downturn. The survey, conducted jointly by Opinion Research Corporation and Anytime Fitness, a national fitness chain, also found that 23 percent plan to join more affordable gyms while 17 percent will drop their memberships. Local fitness centers are reporting that, while membership is somewhat stagnant — an oddity for the start of a new year — it is not declining. In some cases, it continues to grow. Kara Thompson at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a global trade association that tracks statistics, says that the fitness industry historically has fared well during tough economic times. ‘I think people find value in exercising,’ Thompson says, noting that many Americans see it as an investment in their health, rather than a luxury. Fitness clubs today come in a wide array of price points and range from small, turnkey facilities in strip malls to posh spa-like retreats. And all of them, regardless of price point, are working to recruit and retain members by constantly updating equipment and services to compete in an increasingly competitive market. It's a balancing act, though, because raising fees could cause a drop in membership. Snap Fitness centers have top-of-the-line cardio and circuit training equipment, but no locker rooms, towel service or juice bars. Monthly fees range from $26.21 a month for an individual 18-month membership to $34.95 a month for a pay-as-you-go membership. The later holds special appeal to a lot of people right now because no contract means no penalty for dropping out if you become financially squeezed.”

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