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HEALTH & FITNESS : Fitness Centers Muscling Into the Home

June 22, 1989|JOHN CHARLES TIGHE | Times Staff Writer

On an impulse once, Dr. Rick Ulene joined a health club. He toured the place, put down $400 and returned to work out twice.

It wasn't for lack of motivation or lack of interest in his health. Ulene, then in medical school, simply didn't have the time in his schedule to include a trip to the club.

Recently, however, in the extra-large bedroom of his Newport Beach home, he set up a $5,000 home gym complete with a Lifecycle and free weights.

"My health became a priority for me again," he said. "But I want to stay home. I don't want to have to leave the house to get healthy."

Ulene, who was inspired to buy his home gym after attending a weeklong fitness camp last year, is typical of an increasing number of Orange County residents concerned about keeping their bodies firm and their hearts healthy but who aren't interested in fighting the crowds or the intimidation that sometimes go with the health club scene.

Industry observers estimate that the top 10 manufacturers of home gym equipment had sales last year of $620 million, up more than 20% from 1987 when the group sold $505 million in equipment, and 45% above the sales for 1986, according to an industry study by Find/SVP, a New York research firm.

A big reason for the surge in popularity is the kind of equipment available for home use. No longer are health clubs the only ones that can afford quality equipment. And no longer do home setups consist of a simple stationary bicycle and a few barbells.

These days, a home gym can include electronic, simulated stair climb on a Stair Master, a bicycle that describes in digital displays everything from your heart beat to the number of calories you're burning, and computerized weight machines that talk to you.

Products like the Lifecycle, made by Life Fitness in Irvine, have helped revolutionize the at-home gym the way microwave ovens have changed home cooking.

Life Fitness, which introduced its popular Lifecycle to health clubs in the late 1970s, created a home model in 1983 and sold 2,500 units that year. The company reported that last year it sold 30,000 home units at $1,595 each. Health experts said that advanced, stationary bikes like the Lifecycle have become the staple of a home gym because they offer the cardiovascular benefits of aerobics, they're easy to use for the under-conditioned exerciser and you can watch television or read a book while riding.

John Parker, a commercial developer in Newport Beach, is among those who started assembling a home gym after being taken by the new high-tech generation of equipment, as well as the contagious desire to stay healthy.

Last year, Parker and his wife, Betty, started their gym by buying a Lifecycle. Each rides 30 minutes per sitting--John four days a week, Betty five.

Parker typifies the health enthusiast who has expanded his home exercise regimen but hasn't given up going to the health club.

"It's not a question of choice. I really couldn't get along without both," said Parker, who still goes to the health club four mornings a week for a swim.

Although home gyms are increasing in popularity, they still are not commonplace--the Find study reported that fewer than 3% of Americans have them.

Exercise experts say a lot of people skip exercise out of laziness or because they find it boring. Among those willing to make time for exercise are older Americans. People over 55 are the biggest growth market for home gym purchases, while those under 35 are the most likely group to flock to health clubs, retailers and manufacturers said.

Health clubs, which had a 12% boost in membership across the country last year, are attractive because they offer what most home gyms can't--hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and lots of opportunity for social and business contacts. And the biggest plus to many is the highly charged, motivational atmosphere of a health club.

"It's tough to not get motivated at a health club. At home it's easy to do something else if you don't keep focused on exercise," said Michael Hoffman, a spokesman for Life Fitness.

Still, health clubs in Orange County and elsewhere are keenly aware of the competition from home gyms, and their marketing efforts are designed to complement it rather than fight it.

For instance, at Holiday Spa Health Clubs, members can buy a Lifecycle as well as the latest high-protein drink.

In a study of a group of Holiday members, half of whom bought Lifecycles from the club, 96% of the bike buyers remained members several months later, while 76% of the non-buyers kept their memberships, Hoffman said.

Staff members at the chic, $25-million Sporting Club that Sporting Clubs of America will open in Irvine next year will go off-site to conduct aerobics programs for exercisers who might not be willing to join a club.

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