Friday, December 19, 2014

The business of low-cost gyms

I'm not exactly a gym rat, but I am a cold weather wimp, so I spend a fair amount of time certain months of the year indoors on the treadmill. And while I might like to have my own treadmill at home, I'd prefer to pay the gym membership and leave it to the gym to take care of maintaining/repairing the treadmills.

And one of the things that frequent gym-goers deal with is the flood of new members at the start of every new year -- people who've made it a New Year's Resolution to get into shape. As the story goes, gyms get crowded for a couple of weeks before most of the newcomers stop showing up, leaving the place back to the regulars.

Cynics note that gyms feed off this sort of mentality. They lock people into a year-long contract, get twelve months' of revenue, but have to maintain equipment for only a fraction of those members. Here's an article about a sub-species of gyms, the low-cost (i.e., $10/month) ones, and how they supposedly manipulate people into not showing up:

So, how does a place like Planet Fitness attract a clientele that’s earnest enough to sign up for the gym but not dedicated enough to actually go?
Part of it has to do with design: They create gyms that are meant to look like bars. They are designed to make out-of-shape people feel comfortable being there, because the gyms know out-of-shape people are not likely to attend frequently once they sign up. They do that with mirrors and disco music and even massage chairs. Meanwhile, the actual gym part of the gym — the free weights and weight machines — are typically hidden away from the main part of the gym, back in a more intimidating space that those comfortable in the bar-like atmosphere would be less likely to visit. Low-cost gyms don’t actually want the body-builder types — they’d actually go to the gym more frequently — they want those who climb on the treadmill every once in a while. (I can confirm this: In the five or six years I’ve been attending my gym, I’ve visited the weight room twice, and both times, felt like an alien outsider)
This is a strange column. Is there empirical evidence that treadmill users go to the gym less frequently than weightlifters do? (Put aside the possibility that some runners also lift weights, and some lifters also run.) I suppose it's possible to lift most days of the week if you alternate upper and lower body workouts, but I'd think it's easier to run most days of the week. I'm able to run 4-5 days a week without injury (mostly). On the other hand, it is possible to run outside, so maybe the thinking is that many serious runners don't use gyms that much anyway.

I'll admit upfront to being one of those treadmill hogs. Most of the time I stay on for an hour, and if I'm doing my long run on the treadmill, it's more like an hour and a half. (Of course, I do respect the 30 minute limit insofar as if there's a waiting line, which hasn't happened in a couple of years, I get off earlier than I would like.)

Anyway, the subtext of the article seems to be that these low-cost gyms are evil, or at least exploitative, for creating an atmosphere that makes it easy for patrons to blow off visiting, because $10/month is just not enough to make people feel guilty about forfeiting. The assumption is that reluctant gym-goers would care more if they were spending $50/month or more, but if they all started showing up more frequently, the gyms would have to spend more to accommodate everyone - or accept fewer patrons.

I guess that's possible. But the state of the nation's overall fitness, or lack thereof, suggests that nagging people isn't enough to them to overcome whatever it is that makes people not want to work out. Paternalism certainly isn't a workable approach. I'm skeptical that psychological manipulation ("you're spending $50 a month on membership fees; how can you not go work out???") will do much better.

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