ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Are headsets making you fat?
The annual dropout rate at U.S. health clubs is soaring toward 50 percent, which has triggered a war over the hearts, minds and flabby thighs of Minnesotans.
Experts say the high turnover is because of the use of headsets, which turn people into treadmill zombies with no commitment to working out.
As a result, hundreds of new micro-gyms have sprung up with the antidote: working out as part of an intimate group of friends.
“When you build friendships, it keeps you accountable,” puffed Alyssa Schorr of Woodbury between push-ups in a 2-month-old fitness club in Oakdale. “I feel guilty about not coming.”
In Woodbury alone, 10 clubs have popped up recently. There are new studios for yoga in Blaine, pilates in Shoreview and kettle bells in Roseville.
They all have the same mantra: People need each other, especially for fitness.
Their target is Life Time Fitness, the colossus of Minnesota health clubs, which they attack as being too big, too impersonal.
But Life Time has jumped on the same bandwagon: Its clubs have added as many as 20 clubs-with-a-club, which offer the same kind of social connections.
They are racing to distance themselves from headsets — the emerging hobgoblin of fitness, along with Twinkies, Haagen-Dazs and Big Macs.
“Headsets are one of the downfalls of the modern fitness industry,” said Michael Scudder, CEO of the Fitness Business Council in Sante Fe, N.M.
If health clubs equaled healthy people, Minnesota would be the Jack LaLanne of America.
Minnesota has the most clubs per capita of any state its size or larger, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Spokeswoman Meredith Poppler said the Twin Cities area is awash with fitness centers.
“It’s the craziest market in the world,” said Poppler, partly because the Snap Fitness and Anytime Fitness chains are based here.
When health clubs began to boom in the 1970s, owners had a build-it-and-they-will-come approach.
No one worried about motivation. The target customer was the one-third of the population considered to be self-motivated.
But the clubs were spoiled by their success. “They did so well they began to attract people who didn’t exercise,” Scudder said.
Call them the semi-motivated masses.
“They would say, `I need to have something to take my mind off strain and stress,’ ” Scudder said.
For them, clubs offered distractions. Enter TVs, iPods and headsets.
They were great for the self-motivated, who would walk in, work out and walk out without saying a word to anyone.
For the semi-motivated, they were a disaster. The gelatinous masses would wander into the clubs, try to exercise, get tired and quit.
“We never got to the point where we integrated people socially,” Scudder said. About 80 percent of club members want some kind of social interaction, he said.
For the past decade, the annual dropout rate for all American clubs climbed slowly to about one-third. Then the recession hit — and the dropout rate swelled to 45 percent.
“It is not a happy thing to talk about. We have failed in the industry,” Scudder said.
In 2009, the rate spiked to 42 percent at Life Time.
“That was an uncomfortable place for us. We were doing crazy things to sell memberships,” said company founder Bahram Akradi.
Scudder said U.S. membership in health clubs has held steady at about 44 million for the past six years. But the number of facilities is up 12 percent — competing for a stagnant group of members.
Health clubs began to realize what the semi-motivated masses needed was workout buddies.
“Let’s say you know Mary and Sally and John, and you work out right next to them,” said Life Time spokesman Jason Thunstrom. “If I don’t show up, will I let my team down?”
And ideally, the groups would be small enough that instructors called the slackers.
“We should be asking: You joined a month ago and have only been here three times. What are we doing wrong?” Thunstrom said.
Now, managers at Life Time try to find small groups for every new customer.
“Say you tell us you were a swimmer in high school. Well, if we can get you connected with a social network of swimmers, it works,” Thunstrom said. “It’s a place you want to be, rather than a place you have to be.”
The centers now offer up to 20 specialized classes in yoga, cycling, water aerobics, swimming and weightlifting. It’s working — the chain slashed its dropout rate to 36 percent last year. Revenue in the last quarter of 2010 was up 10 percent.
Scudder said that nationwide, the largest and smallest clubs are prospering. The medium-size health clubs — with the least amount of social interaction — are suffering. “The middle is imploding,” he said.
Now, dozens of tiny new competitors are nipping at the treadmill-pounding heels of bigger clubs.
“We actually do know everyone’s name. We call them after class and say thank you for making it to class,” said Julie Gronquist, owner of Balance for Life Fitness Center. She just opened a new location — twice as big — in Arden Hills.
“Coming here is not like going to some huge conglomerate that doesn’t know if you have been there for six years or not,” she said. “You develop relationships. You hear, `How are you? How was your trip? How are your grandchildren?’ “
Ditching the headphones and joining group activities motivates people, Gronquist said.
“It becomes fun. You think, `I like this,’ not, `How many more minutes do I have on the treadmill?”‘ she said.
Many of her customers are obese and feel embarrassed at other clubs, Gronquist said. “When they go to a big club, they have chairs with arms that they can’t even sit in. It’s an unaccepting environment,” Gronquist said.
“When they come here, they see other people who look like themselves. They think, `Wow — if that person can do it, so can I,”‘ she said.
There are no TV sets at Tenacity Fitness and Endurance, the Oakdale club. There, no one works out in headset-oblivion.
“You are all in this together. You experience pain or whatever — together. You can laugh about it, moan about it — together,” said owner Chris Hesse-Withbroe, leading a group of nine on a recent Friday morning.
Hesse-Withbroe, whose veins pop out of her ropy arms, keeps up the chitchat throughout her workouts.
“Did anyone see Iran this morning on TV?” she said. “Oh, Sue, how is your knee today?”
Angi Watt of Stillwater collapsed in laughter after failing to balance on a ball. “This is like a `Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” she said.
“So who would play you, Angi?” Hesse-Withbroe asked.
Watt has been a member since the club opened in January.
“It’s fun. We have fun. We laugh and sweat,” she said.
Patty Blomquist of Woodbury said, “It’s not a Spandex competition.”
“That’s for sure!” laughed Susan Johnson of Lake Elmo, pinching her hips. “I don’t self-motivate. But I am motivated here. It’s been a long time since I felt that way.”
By BOB SHAW
St. Paul Pioneer Press
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