Planet Fitness vs. the lunkheads: Why is a health club trying to alienate people who love to work out?

Health and medicine explained.
May 9 2011 6:45 AM

Gym Rat Control

Why is the Planet Fitness chain of health clubs trying to alienate people who love to work out?

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Although it seems paradoxical—like setting up an all-you-can-eat buffet with a "No Fatties Allowed" sign—there's a lot of money in tailoring a fitness club to people who don't actually want to work out. The percentage of Americans who belong to some sort of health club has been holding at 15 percent for years, according to Stuart Goldman, managing editor of Club Industry, a magazine for fitness-business professionals. That's left companies looking for new ways to tap into the doughy majority and capitalize on casual exercisers.

Planet Fitness isn't the only chain that's working this angle. Many others have lowered prices, scrapped long-term contracts, and ramped up their programs for children, who comprise one of the fastest-growing demographics in the business. Another industry trend: Cordoning off the weightlifting areas from the cardiovascular machines. If you're not going to kick the lunks out altogether, you might as well hide them in the back.

"Planet Fitness is run by smart businessmen," says Meredith Poppler, vice president of industry growth at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "There are thousands of average Jane's and Joe's for every big lifter. Many of those Janes and Joes are intimidated by grunting and 50-pound dumbbells. So, they decided to cater to the thousands at the expense of a smaller segment. It seems to be working quite nicely for them."

So it does, but should we take the success of special-interest gyms like Planet Fitness as a welcome shift in the culture of exercise? Or could it represent a sad departure from the one-size-fits-all health clubs of old?

We've already seen how the echo chamber of Internet news helps us to ignore any opinions or facts that we don't want to hear. What if something analogous were to happen in the fitness world? Imagine if every group had its own place to work out—a gym for muscleheads, a gym for fatsos, a gym for vegans, a gym for Slate readers. The pursuit of health might succumb to its own form of groupthink.

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Sure, no one likes it when a loud, aggressive dude is intimidating people in the weight room. But there may be something to learn from living (and lifting) in the sweaty melting pot of American exercise. Even the most odoriferous lunk might have something to teach us, after all—whether it's a reminder of what we're trying to avoid, or a reassurance that it's possible to max out. Ultimately we all have to share the same planet. Sharing the gym might be a good place to start.

Luke O'Neil is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.

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