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Fitness Industry Experts Say Small Gyms, Personal Trainers To Be Hardest Hit From Poor Economy

With the holidays officially over and scales mysteriously weighing five to tens pounds heavier, people, traditionally, are ready to get back in the gym. But with money tight this year some New Year's resolution-makers might not want the extra expense of a fitness club membership. WOSU reports fitness industry experts expect first quarter membership numbers to be below normal.

Eggnog, pecan pie, that third helping of stuffing - it's no wonder that "go to the gym" is typically at the top of many New Year's resolutions lists. But this year, as many people feel the effects of a recession, fitness center and gym owners may not have that new membership feast they count on after the first of the year.

The American Council on Exercise's Pete McCall said fewer people joined gyms in the latter part of 2008 than was projected.

"So everybody's projecting a slower start in January of 2009 as a result," McCall said.

Nicki Anderson is a fitness industry expert and a spokesperson for IDEA Health and Fitness Association. She said most gyms will see some kind of slow down this year, but personal trainers and smaller gyms will be hit the hardest. In Columbus, gym memberships can run as low as $10 a month. But when someone wants a personal trainer the cost can be as much as $400 or $500 a month. Anderson said small gyms and personal trainers, this year, will have to really focus on individual customers if they want to draw in clients and keep their current ones.

"Your leg up is great customer service. When you think of health clubs in general you don't really, customer service doesn't typically come to mind. It's kind of like the DMV, you know, you walk in and you're kind of just a face in a crowd. So I really tell these smaller entities you really have to step up the customer service," Anderson said.

A lone man walks on a high-tech treadmill in the cardio room at Go Fitness in Grandview. The gym's owner Nick Osborne gives a brief tour.

"And this is our cardio room. We don't put as much emphasis on cardio as our competitor, and we explain to our clients why."

Around the corner is the weight room. It looks and sounds pretty typical, but it's not according to Osborne. The weight machines have free-motion cables that allow the user to move around instead of sit and lift a weight. "We also have medicine balls that range from two pounds to 200 pounds; ropes, rubber bands, Olympics rings, monkey bars, all that in the middle of the gym, all that in the middle of the gym. It's not your traditional gym and I think that's one of the reasons we haven't been affected the same way as everyone else has," he said.

Go Fitness's new membership numbers are steady and personal training is up 50 percent. But the reality that some cash strapped members could have to leave at some point is always in the back of Osborne's mind.

"A fear that our members might not be able to afford us at some point happens with all of us. And all that we look at is we gotta give the best service possible so they find ways to value this above the coffees or the drinking or anything else that is I mean, we're all competing for our dollars. And what we have to do is make sure that we're doing everything that we can that creates the value for what we do so they want to keep this as part of their life," Osborne said.

James Gullate owns B.O.S.S. Fitness on North High Street - a personal training studio. Gullate said he's been affected by the recession a little - his enrollment is just steady.

"Generally after Thanksgiving guilt sets in on everybody, and they start realizing that the New Year is coming so they actually get a jump on it before Christmas. We're not seeing that influx to that degree," Gullate said.

Gullate said when the economy is bad, like it is right now, personal trainers are the first to be nixed because of the expense. And while some gyms or personal trainers may have to rethink their fees to keep clients, Gullate said he has not because his were already pretty affordable.

"So during this time that they call a recession, yet again people are finding ways to pay for a good product. And you know, of course, like anything else, if the product is good we'll pay for it. We'll find (the) money," he said.

The fitness industry has made headlines recently with the bankruptcy of Bally Total Fitness and the firms decision to close 19 clubs, including two in Columbus. But executives at other big box gyms like Lifetime Fitness and Lifestyle Family Fitness expect to fare okay.

Geoff Dyer founded Lifestyle Family Fitness. He said he's not sure this year's new member joins will be better than 2008, but Dyer does not expect them to drop off. Five to 10 percent of Lifestyle Family Fitness clients have personal trainers. Dyers said despite the economy people are still using the one-on-one service.

"There's been a little bit of a slow down, but nothing alarming. It's uh, you know, maybe the personal trainers are finding other clients that want to step in and take the place of members that have dropped off," Dyer said.

Dyer said Bally failed because of mismanagement - not the downturn in the economy.

B.O.S.S. Fitness's James Gullate said he's not too worried about losing clients. In his words it's "feast or famine" and he's been thrifty with profits.

"I wouldn't say that we're making a whole lot of money as far as over what we have to pay out. But we're paying our bills, we're all smiling, we all get to go out to eat and we all get to show back up to work the next day. So if we're doing that during these times that they say is so hard then I guess we're doing our job well," Gullate said.