Michelle McDonald has joined and quit three different gyms.
"I’d go, and it was so crowded I couldn’t even get on the machines," the 44-year-old Scottsdale resident said.
"At another one, I didn’t feel comfortable because I was there to lose weight, not be in a beauty contest. It’s torture enough working out, let alone having to watch bimbos bouncing around in sports bras while I’m covering up in an extra-large sweatshirt."
McDonald eventually hired a personal trainer who helped her shed 18 pounds.
"Now I want to join a gym again," she said. "I have an exercise program that I like and can actually stick to, so I don’t want to spend so much money on my trainer."
But sorting through the sweat to find the perfect gym in the East Valley is becoming more difficult for people like McDonald. To grab their chunk of the increasingly competitive and crowded fitness market, health clubs are closer to posh hotels and spas than to concrete buildings filled with free weights.
"Clubs that are going to stand out in today’s market are clubs that you walk in and go, ‘Wow! What is this?’ " said Bruce Carter, founder of Optimal Fitness Systems International, a consulting firm that specializes in starting gyms.
The latest gym to "wow" the East Valley is Life Time Fitness, which opens its first Arizona facility Friday in Tempe. Beyond the standard weights and exercise machines, the $20 million, 185,000-squarefoot facility has three climbing walls, indoor and outdoor aquatic centers with water slides, free child care, five tennis courts, a restaurant and a salon.
"What’s happened in all the communities we’ve entered is we’ve raised the bar," said Harlan Smith, general manager of the Tempe gym. "So if you’re a consumer in the area and you’re looking for a health and fitness center, it’s going to get better for you. Because to compete with us, the other health and fitness facilities are either going to have to lower their price or keep their pricing the same and upgrade amenities and provide better service. Either way, the consumer wins in the end."
And there are plenty of consumers that the fitness industry is trying to woo. According to American Sports Data, 12 percent of Americans belong to a health club. And in the East Valley, that number is ever higher, as 16 percent of residents carry a gym membership card — that they may or may not use.
"A lot of the big gyms rely on that," said Matt Jarvis, who provides personal training at Fitness for Life in Mesa. "They bank on the fact that they’ll sell more memberships between January and February because people make New Year’s resolutions to get in shape. But they don’t care if you show up or not."
Whether members show up or not, memberships at health clubs continue to grow. Despite the economic downfall that came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, revenue for 17 of the largest clubs — including Bally’s, Gold’s Gym, 24-Hour Fitness and Life Time — increased 14.7 percent in 2002.
But the financial success doesn’t necessarily mean the members are happy. The average retention rate for members is only about 60 percent across the industry, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association. And retaining members is only going to get tougher for East Valley gyms battling Life Time for memberships.
"I’ve heard that Life Time runs a good operation," said Steve Rausch, who runs the LA Fitness operation in Arizona. "But I think people are most interested in convenience. With us having 12 locations, that’s certainly in our favor."
Even though it’s not a household name, Life Time, based in Minnesota, has had success attracting members in new markets. After Life Time entered the Detroit market in January 1999, the facility reached its membership cap of 10,500 in less than a year. And in Tempe, Life Time has already sold 5,000 of its 12,000 memberships.
"I know our club is going to have an effect on memberships at other clubs, and I know some clubs in the area have shut down and done some remodeling and improvements to compete with us," Smith said. "But 65 percent of Americans are overweight and need to exercise, so there are enough customers to go around for everyone."
Still, the competition for the fitness dollar is only going to get more heated. Life Time plans to open a second Valley location in Gilbert in November and a third in Scottsdale toward the end of 2004.
"When they open one in Scottsdale, I’m sure I’ll take a look at it," McDonald said. "But Tempe’s too far. I’d never go because it would be too much of a hassle."
Finding the right fit
Need a gym, but don’t want to wade through mountains of muscle to get to a machine? Or are you looking for a place packed with beach-ready bodies? Here are some tips from East Valley fitness experts to help you find the best gym for you:
• Tour the gyms you’re considering at the time of day you work out so you can see how crowded it is and see the types of people who work out there. You’ll feel more comfortable in a gym that caters to people with the same fitness goals as you.
• During your tour, look for out-of-order signs, duct tape, mildewed carpet and moldy showers. These typically mean that maintenance is not a high priority for management. If a gym is not well-maintained, take a pass.
• Make sure the pros aren’t cons. During your tour, does the floor staff smile at you? Do they make eye contact? Or are they congregated behind the reception desk gossiping about the members? If the staff isn’t friendly at tour time, imagine how they’ll treat you after you’ve signed your contract and forked over your cash.
• Ask about staff training, education and certification. Trainers and group class instructors should be required to hold at least one well-respected certification. Good ones include the American Council on Exercise (ACE), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).
• Read the fine print. Don’t get pressured into joining before you’ve read through your contract. Sometimes, added costs and unreasonable cancellation policies are hidden in the legalese. If you aren’t sure about something, ask. Or bring the contract home with you so you can comb through it without a salesperson breathing down your neck.
• The best gym for you is the one you’re going to use. You probably won’t work out as often if it takes more than 10 minutes to get there. So opt for a location that’s most convenient to work and home.
• Make sure the hours of operation mesh with your schedule and that the classes you’re interested in are offered at a time and day you can take them.