Monday, January 11, 2010

Do Virtual Health Clubs Give Real Gyms Reason to Sweat?

“On its face, the trend creates some awkward dynamics: Consider the ad onslaught for an online weight-loss program from NBC's ‘Biggest Loser’ trainer Jillian Michaels, which touts a gym-free program of dieting and exercise to drop pounds. Surely that's unwanted -- not to say cheaper -- competition for, say, the biggest sponsor of the ‘Biggest Loser,’ gym chain 24-Hour Fitness, no? Tony Wells, chief marketing officer at 24-Hour Fitness, thinks otherwise. ‘We don't view it as competitive," he said, adding that ‘Biggest Loser’ has been an ‘incredible partner.’ ‘Fitness isn't just what happens when you're inside a gym.’ The show's executive producer, Mark Koops, concurred, noting robust sales of Ms. Michaels' DVDs throughout the show's six-year run on NBC. ‘There's a larger agenda to the show than just the commercial interests, although those are certainly important,’ he said. ‘We're trying to encourage people to adopt a healthy lifestyle any way we can.’ Analysts, for their part, largely agree, noting that because only 18% of U.S. adults belong to a health club, the online programs may actually be expanding the potential customer pools for health clubs by selling new consumers on a more-active lifestyle. Tom Shaw, who covers publicly traded club chains for Stifel Nicolaus, said the online plays appeal directly to consumers who -- like Ms. Michaels' trainees on ‘Biggest Loser’ -- may be intimidated by crowds of more-fit people in a gym setting. For those who aren't intimidated, Mr. Shaw said, there's a reason countless workout DVDs -- and VHS tapes before them -- haven't hurt the health-club business. ‘There's a social aspect to going to a health club that you can't get through a computer or a television,’ he said.”

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