Gone are the days when health clubs wrote stringent rules, required uniform attire for classes and made members sign away several years of their lives for the luxury of sweating in their facilities. Now the customers are kings (and, increasingly, queens) and fitness centers are competing for the privilege of serving them by setting up convenient exercise class schedules, updating equipment and in some cases, doing away with contracts altogether.
As Americans become more aware of health problems caused by obesity and oversedentary lifestyles, the ranks of fitness centers are swelling to include women and -- in some cases, such as Elmwood Fitness Center and the Jewish Community Center -- even youngsters. Most clubs say their membership rolls now are pretty evenly spread among men and women.
"At the moment, women are surpassing the men in terms of exercise being an important part of their lives," says Cliff Bergeron, owner of Downtown Fitness Centers, which has five locations in New Orleans and on the Northshore. "Most of our centers are about 50 percent men and 50 percent women. Ten years ago, it was about 70 percent men and 30 percent women. I think it goes back to women putting forth a whole lot more effort to look better and younger and feel better and younger."
There also is a greater social acceptance that women need the kind of physical workout offered by a gym as well as the fact that the number of women in the workforce is expanding and their levels of stress caused by full schedules and the juggling of professional and family responsibilities.
"Our membership is mixed pretty well between men and women," says Rooney Caldwell, executive director of the YMCA on Lee Circle. "Before it was mostly men, but it's not that way anymore. Women are accepted now to work out on machines. It's more accepted now that men and women work out together."
For the most part, women lean more heavily on exercise classes than men do and less on individual exercise equipment workouts, health club managers say. "We have a major yoga program at the club and although you'll see men in the classes, the women far outnumber the men," says Bill Johnston, manager at the 130-year-old New Orleans Athletic Club. "But then we just installed new NBA basketball backboards and goals and the men are thrilled, but the women could care less."
Of course, it's important to provide the favorite method of exercise for both groups. "The key to success in a club environment, just like any other business, is trying to exceed the members' expectations. It's a balancing beam. You have to know what the members want and also what makes sense for the entire membership."
Other clubs sidestep trying to be an all-inclusive fitness center and specialize, catering to only women like Women's Athletic Club, or only holding classes, like Salvation Studio.
"We don't have equipment, steam rooms or dressing rooms," says Salvation Studio Manager Rusty Roussel. "It's strictly an exercise class place. There're no memberships and no contracts." Unlike other fitness stops, 90 percent of Salvation Studio's customers are women, he says. "There's no other place in the city like it. We've been here over three years and we've found our niche." He attributes the business' success to focusing on excellent instructors who give customers a good workout for their money.
"When you leave, you're not wanting for anything more," he says. "You're getting what you want out of the hour or half-hour class."
For some clubs, what put them above others are the amenities, such as steam rooms, indoor pools, friendly staff, while others try to capture lifetime members by individualizing their workout regimen. In the past, says Downtown Fitness Centers' Bergeron, clubs would find the same people rotating among the health clubs, taking out a contract for a couple of years, then switching to another club, then coming back later.
"The challenge for health clubs is to not rotate members ... instead of bringing in the masses -- the ones who need it most, the ones who are obese, have problems with diabetes or blood pressure, they're the ones that are the hardest to get into the health clubs," Bergeron says. "They are intimidated by the persona a health club exudes. That is the biggest challenge: to be innovative enough to motivate people to get off the sofa."
To keep them involved, Downtown Fitness offers a six-week personal training program in which a customer's progress is tracked and the program changed according to needs, all with the goal of helping the customer realize his individual fitness goal.
"It's a constant training and retraining of my staff," he says. "Most of them are in the health-fitness mindset. Sometimes they lose sight of the beginner ... who needs to have their hand held."
The club also has initiated a month-to-month membership fee in order to draw in people who would like to begin an exercise regimen but have feared being stuck with a contract.
Above all, NOAC's Johnston says, respond to the complaints, requests and desires of club members, whether it has to do with clean locker rooms or larger yoga classes.
"Whatever a club specializes in, no matter what their niche is, by listening and trying to exceed a member's expectations ... you're going to know which way to go," Johnston says.