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PENNY WISE / A street-level look at how Southern Californians
are stretching their dollars in a sputtering economy.

Gym payments too big a stretch

Consumers trim their budgets by exercising for free outdoors instead of at fitness clubs.

June 18, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

With gasoline prices racing to new highs weekly, it's crunch time for many gyms. Consumers looking to tighten their belts are giving up on tightening their buns in gyms, yoga classes and personal training sessions. Instead, they're exercising the old-fashioned way: sweating for free at the beach, parks or on the street.

Canceling a monthly gym membership -- which ranges from about $25 to hundreds of dollars -- may not seem to shave much off the budget. But for some, it's enough.

"I know it's next to nothing, but when you're a starving artist, every little bit counts," said Ashley Brooke Moore, an aspiring dancer and actress in her 20s who canceled her $36-a-month membership at Bally's about eight months ago. She then signed up for yoga classes, but when that got too expensive, she quit those and started going to free yoga classes at Runyon Canyon Park.

Money is tight because the catering company she moonlights for hasn't been doing many jobs recently. "Everything's a little bit slower, and gas prices are ridiculous," she said.

These days, she said, she spends money only on rent for her Hollywood apartment, her cellphone, car insurance, gas and food.

Local yoga studios, gyms and personal trainers are feeling the pinch.

"A lot of our clients have said, 'You know, I can't afford it,' " said Karen Speitel, office manager at Mind-Body Fitness Pilates Studio in Los Feliz. "People definitely go to Ralphs before they go to Pilates."

Things really slowed down during the three-month Hollywood writers strike, she said, and never really picked up again once it ended in February. She's tried calling former customers to remind them that group classes are only $15, but gets the same response: Even $15 a few times a month is too expensive.

The downturn in business comes on top of a slow 2007. Gym memberships declined last year for the first time in 10 years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn., which estimates the median monthly cost of a commercial health club is $55.

The fitness industry "is certainly not immune to economic factors, i.e., the credit crunch, increasing fuel and food prices, slowing employment and the housing crisis," wrote Kathleen Rollauer, senior manager for research at the association, in its most recent industry report.

Many gyms are trying to give members more for the price of admission, said association spokeswoman Rosemary Lavery. They're adding services such as massage, acupuncture and personal training.

They're also promoting special deals to entice penny-pinching consumers to get pumped about exercise. In some locations, for instance, 24 Hour Fitness is lowering its initiation fee or processing fee (a lump sum people often have to pay when they join).

Crunch fitness center is offering half-off monthly memberships for recent college graduates with no enrollment fee, and it's allowing other people who join with a friend to split the enrollment fee.

Both clubs said sales were comparable with the same period last year, but wouldn't provide specific numbers.

"People need the outlet of working out now, as much as ever, to cope with stressful times they may be experiencing," said Tom Ernsting, executive vice president of sales at Crunch.

But smaller gyms say things are tighter. Fewer people are buying memberships, said Sevak Petrossin, club manager at World Gym in Glendale. He used to sell five or six memberships a day. Now, he sells half that -- even though he lowered the monthly fee from $29 to $25 three months ago.

Gyms might have an especially tough time persuading people to pay to run on a treadmill when they're cutting back on driving and getting more exercise by walking or biking. They're also facing competition from public facilities, such as L.A. city pools, which this summer are offering free admission to adults who present a library card.

Jack Baker, 28, said he was trying to discourage a friend who just moved here from joining a gym.

"It's exorbitant," he said. "You don't need to go on a treadmill when you can walk outside."

That's part of the reason that Denise Capirati, who calls herself a "retired mom," has quit two gyms in the last year. She belonged to Gold's, found running on a treadmill boring, then tried Crunch for free to see whether it had a different atmosphere. Ultimately, she decided it wasn't worth the cost.

"You have to figure out what's important to you," Capirati said. "Why spend the money? Now I find a new hike outside every day."


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