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Flurry of fitness chains takes aim at Indianapolis

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At least five companies are scouting locations for dozens of new health clubs in a blitz that could help the city shed its reputation for high rates of obesity.

The fitness club business is booming nationwide, and several chains are betting Hoosiers are among those looking for more convenient opportunities to get in shape.

Lifestyle Family Fitness is looking for as many as 12 locations. LA Fitness has two under construction and is looking for five more. Gold's Gym plans to open its second facility in March and is looking for eight more by 2010. Life Time Fitness also is scouting for sites.

Then there's the YMCA, where Hoosiers have gone to exercise for more than 150 years. The Y has its own expansion plans--for five new locations in the next six years, in Avon, Westfield, Pike Township, Johnson County and downtown.

"Our hope and goal is that we'd have one of the most fit populations in the country, which hasn't been our reputation in the past," said Eric Ellsworth, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis. "The expansion of fitness opportunities might help to turn the tide."

Indianapolis ranks fifth nationwide in the percentage of residents with fitness club memberships, at 21 percent, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportclub Association. From 1995 to 2005, the number of health clubs in Indiana grew 113 percent, to more than 550. About 150 are in Indianapolis.

Nationwide, health clubs generated revenue of $15.9 billion in 2005, up from $7.7 billion in 1995.

Still, there's plenty of room--and need--for more clubs, said Melanie Roberts, fitness center director for the locally based National Institute for Fitness and Sport, which has a facility downtown and manages 36 other fitness centers for companies.

Indiana is among the five fattest states based on the percentage of adults considered obese. More than 24 percent of Hoosiers were obese in 2002, the most recent year data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2006, Men's Fitness magazine ranked Indianapolis as the nation's 11th-fattest city.

Adding new gyms to the landscape should increase the number of people involved in physical activity, which would help everyone in the fitness business, Roberts said.

"It doesn't do the industry any good to keep sharing the same one-in-five people who belong to the fitness center," she said. "What we really need to do is get the 80 percent of the population that doesn't belong."

New chains coming

Health-conscious Hoosiers could be hearing a lot of new names in the coming months.

Lifestyle Family Fitness is one. The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company is hoping to open eight to 12 clubs in central Indiana, including three by the end of 2007, said company CEO Geoff Dyer.

The chain has 43 clubs open or in development in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. It often chooses existing strip-mall space for its roughly 32,000-square-foot centers to allow for a quick opening.

The privately held fitness chain likes the Indianapolis market because of its population size, family mix and good road system, Dyer said. The company also will be looking at perimeter cities such as Bloomington and West Lafayette to provide good coverage to justify broadcast advertising.

Dyer isn't worried about oversaturation.

"Even markets that appear to be crowded keep having clubs added, and you don't see clubs closing," Dyer said. "I think there's huge potential for growth in the fitness business."

Los Angeles-based LA Fitness already has gyms under construction in Glendale and Greenwood and plans to build at least five more in the area, said retail broker Scott Gray, a partner with The Linder Co., who is representing the fitness outfit.

Each of LA's fitness centers will offer 80 cardio machines, four-lane lap pools, spas, full locker rooms and more than 50 classes a week in areas such as aerobics, Pilates, yoga and stationary cycling. The 45,000-square-foot centers will be built from scratch.

The company is looking for additional locations downtown, on the northeast and northwest sides, and suburban locations to the west and north, Gray said.

The LA Fitness across from Glendale Mall is set to open in March. The Greenwood location on State Road 135 is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Gray said fitness is one of the hottest retail categories nationwide and in Indianapolis, but he is skeptical whether the market can support another chain as large as LA Fitness.

"A market is only so big," he said.

Convenience is key

As new gyms proliferate, chains are seeking out niche markets based on factors such as age and fitness level, said Brooke Correia, a spokeswoman for the IHRSA.

Many also are growing larger--to accommodate a variety of interests and offer an alternative to the stereotypical cramped and gritty gym where weekend warriors can feel out of place.

Convenience is the top reason consumers choose a health club, which makes driving a long distance to the gym unacceptable. That has resulted in a pent-up demand for workout centers, said Donna Hovey, a vice president with the local office of Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis.

"They're certainly putting them into markets that have been underserved," Hovey said.

An example, she said, is the Gold's Gym on East Washington Street. That club, which occupies a former home of Cub Foods, features a lap pool, cardio movie theater, sauna and personal TVs on each piece of cardio equipment.

Gold's plans to open a second Indianapolis location, at West 86th Street and Michigan Road, in April. And the chain is planning six to eight more locations by 2010. The franchisee of the Indianapolis locations, Roy Switzer, said the new locations could include gyms in nearby cities.

"We're going to make sure everyone in Indianapolis has a chance to participate in health and fitness," said Switzer, who lives in Richmond, Ky. "I think with what we offer, we won't have a problem with competition."

The Dallas-based chain has 610 gyms and 3 million members worldwide who run 556,800 miles a day, or 23 times around the Earth, according to the company's Web site.

Another chain, Minneapolis-based Life Time Fitness, also is considering building new health clubs in the market. Life Time, which has 60 centers in 13 states, has a 95,000-square-foot club off East 86th Street, just north of Castleton Square Mall.

The publicly traded company features upscale finishes, along with spas, cafes, full-size basketball courts, racquetball and squash courts, child-care areas and aerobics studios. A spokesman said the chain is analyzing several properties.

Retail brokers say San Francisco-based 24 Hour Fitness also is scouting the market, but a spokeswoman for the privately held chain said there are no plans to expand here yet. The chain has been featured on the TV show "The Biggest Loser" and endorsed by athletes such as Magic Johnson, Andre Agassi and Lance Armstrong.

Local gyms feeling heat

The onslaught of national chains could have adverse impacts on local players, including some neighborhood gyms.

In the four years since Kyle VanOsdol bought Monon Fitness Center in Broad Ripple, three competitors have arrived: Cardinal Fitness in the Village, a new fitness complex at Butler, and the sprawling LA Fitness under construction across from Glendale Mall.

"I don't think it'll take me under," VanOsdol said. "But it will threaten me. It'll hinder me from expanding out to a larger clientele."

VanOsdol has 1,500 members who use the 14,000-square-foot gym, which offers personal training, massage and boxing lessons. Monthly fees average $25. He said the local gyms offer better customer service, a friendlier environment and more reasonable rates than the big-box fitness giants, where monthly dues often are in the $50 range.

"It's kind of nice to keep the neighborhood gyms in instead of the corporate ones trying to put us out," VanOsdol said.

As the big chains arrive, local players will have to work hard to stay relevant.

The National Institute for Fitness and Sport will emphasize its niche as a medically based facility.

The YMCA's plan: Reinforce its focus on families and services that are more comprehensive than fitness, such as sports, summer camps and social events.

"The Y has been in this community for 152 years, and it is here to stay," Ellsworth said.

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