Pinched Americans stay on treadmill, but seek deals

Thu Jan 8, 2009 6:19pm EST
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By Lilla Zuill

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Americans squeezed by the economic crisis are still forking out money for gym memberships and dieting centers but health clubs are having to hold down their fees to keep customers coming in.

The Equinox Fitness chain of upscale health clubs on the east and west U.S. coasts saw a 13 percent year-on-year jump in those working out the first Monday of the new year, and analysts at Stifel Nicolaus estimated that overall health club memberships would rise more than 4 percent this year.

"That is a reflection on how (people) have a desire to, in this stressful environment, live a healthy, balanced life," Equinox Chief Executive Harvey Spevak said, adding that members had cut spending on luxurious spa treatments.

But Spevak noted Equinox experienced what he called a "softening" in new health club memberships since the autumn and froze its rates for 2009, holding prices steady for the first time in its 18-year history.

Many people are taking advantage of special deals. Jason Mareydt, who joined the New York Health & Racquet Club upon moving to New York from Detroit late last year, which offered a no-commitment, no joining-fee promotion.

Mareydt, on his way into the club for a free weights workout, said that and the discount he receives through his employer clinched the deal.

Still it is a tough environment for some health-club operators. Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December for the second time in 17 months.

At a time of recession and rising unemployment, there is a growing focus on low-cost options.   Continued...