Kenneth Pierce doesn't carry a briefcase to work--he carries a$10 jump rope.
Patrick Skrable carries a set of $79.95 high-tech roller skates. And Steve Block carries a 9-inch rubber band that sells for $6.95.
The common thread among these businessmen isn't a serious case of childhood regression but aerobic dancing--group exercise to music that sharpens muscle tone and improves heart condition. The aerobics industry is growing in literal leaps and bounds, and these three executives oversee companies that sell newfangled aerobics equipment.
Each has capitalized on the public's infatuation with an industry that posted sales of more than $500 million last year, according to the San Diego-based International Dance-Exercise Assn., the aerobic dance industry's largest trade association. The group held its third annual convention in Anaheim over the weekend.
These executives were there to peddle their products to the 2,000 aerobics instructors, health club owners and fitness merchants looking for new ways to attract even more public interest in an industry that already has an estimated 25 million aficionados.
Most of the conference-goers--eager to test equipment and participate in seminars--came fully suited in flashy aerobic attire. But some were turned away at the door, not because of what they were wearing but for pure lack of space. Organizers said they had to turn down more than 1,000 convention applicants.
Although such names as Jane Fonda, Jacki Sorensen--the "mother" of aerobic dancing--and Jack LaLanne--the "father" of fitness--are most closely associated with the new exercise industry, it is mostly composed of young professionals who have a few spare pounds, a little spare time and more than a little spare change.
Recently, the aerobics arena has been legitimized by celebrity spokesmen, high-tech equipment, corporate involvement and support from many physicians. But even with all that behind it, the industry has recently been diverted along a highly commercial track that features everything from flashy videos to glitzy equipment and accessories that can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
"Sure there are lots of cons out there," Jack LaLanne said in an interview. "But anytime you can get someone to exercise and eat better, I'm all for it." The 71-year-old fitness legend, who was the keynote speaker at the convention, said he still exercises 2 1/2 hours daily. "You can't possibly be healthy if you don't exercise," he said.
LaLanne, who has licensed his name to a health spa chain, said he hopes to return soon to television. LaLanne recently made a fitness videotape.
But the tale of the tape is best told by Jane Fonda's "Workout" videotapes, which have sold nearly 1 million copies worldwide and which have been near the top of Billboard's list of best-selling videotapes for nearly three years.
Outselling 'Star Wars'
Yet another Hollywood luminary, Debbie Reynolds, recently made an aerobic video for middle-agers. That video, "Do It Debbie's Way," has sold more than 100,000 copies.
"Jane Fonda's video is even outselling 'Star Wars,' " said Peter Davis, co-founder of the International Dance-Exercise Assn. And the industry has recently branched out into new areas such as aqua aerobics--aerobic exercise in a swimming pools.
Some of the newest industry gadgetry, however, has some fitness experts scratching their heads.
"You simply have to weed out the things you don't need," said Kathy Harris, fashion editor at Shape, a 600,000-circulation women's fitness magazine based in Woodland Hills.
"It's become a lot like the ski industry," said Nina Hunt, an aerobics instructor from Lawton, Okla., attending the convention. "I'm not planning on buying any of the fancy stuff."
That "stuff" on display at the convention includes:
- Lifeline Jump Rope--a plastic jump rope that is specially weighted for serious athletes.
- The Xercise Band--a glorified nine-inch rubber band that is placed around ankles or knees during stretching exercise. It has been used in training by the Chicago Bears defensive backfield.
- Ball Trek--a pair of 13-wheel roller skate-like devices used for aerobic training.
- Vibrosaun--a $5,400, vibrating portable sauna that comes complete with exterior fans. This is being pitched as an "after-aerobics" accessory.
Accessories, however, like leotards, headbands and shoes compose the industry's biggest commercial boon.
"There's far more profit in selling T-shirts than in having someone come to aerobics class," said Ruth Sova, who is director at the Fitness Firm, a Port Washington, Wis., health club.
Industry executives estimate that a top-notch aerobics outfit--leotards, tights and sneakers--can cost in excess of $200.
"It really doesn't matter how you look," said Laura Thurston, a Foster City, Calif., instructor who wore a simple pair of leotards. "But in this kind of company," she said, looking around the convention hall, "I feel underdressed."