Ask non-club goers about their perceptions of health clubs and they'll often say that they are a place for the fit and healthy — and the wealthy, or at least those with a modicum of disposable income. Their perceptions, however untrue, are very real to them, particularly if they are in areas that typically lack economic resources and access to health club facilities.

That's too bad considering the rates of obesity in lower income households in the inner cities and rural areas are greater than that of middle and upper class households in the suburbs, according to the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics. In fact, minority women with low income appear to have the greatest likelihood of being overweight, according to the American Obesity Association.

“If you analyze where the biggest numbers are as far as this catastrophic condition, it's in the poorer communities,” says Geoff Hampton, who has launched the Wellness Wakeup Challenge, a program that aims to improve the quality of life and the health of communities through grass root initiatives and educational venues that inform individuals about the risks of leading a sedentary life. Part of the campaign focuses on economically challenged areas, including inner cities, which bear a disproportionate rate of afflictions associated with obesity, including diabetes and heart disease.

The average household income of a health club member is $69,200, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The poverty level for a family of four is $18,400 a year.

“It's kind of a disgrace to say let's fight this war with those who can be profitable,” Hampton says. “The truth is, if you take care of the communities that need the help, you will benefit.”

Some club owners have done just that, and they are making a difference. Here's the story of two clubs — one a for-profit and the other a non-profit — that have reached into economically challenged communities in large metropolitan areas and have gained the satisfaction derived from helping those in need.

WORLD OF DIFFERENCE
World Gym
San Diego, CA
Owner: Dan Stovall

Pat Glaster isn't a cheerleader, but you wouldn't know that by talking to her, especially when she's talking about the World Gym in San Diego. The 58-year-old might be the gym's biggest fan. It's no wonder; after joining the gym in December 2002, and working out there at least three times a week, Glaster has lost 32 pounds.

“I feel so good, I can't even tell you,” says Glaster, who works for the Southeast Counseling and Consulting Services in San Diego. “I feel like I can run a marathon.” Recently, she had a checkup with her doctor, who was impressed with the change in her health and appearance.

Racquel Morrison is a quieter fan of the gym but a fan nonetheless. She and other staffers for San Diego City Councilman Charles Lewis belong to the gym and work out there several times a week. Councilman Lewis also belongs to the gym, which is situated in his district.

“We need facilities and people like Dan Stovall to get the community going,” Morrison says.

Dan Stovall is the owner of the gym. Stovall's 21,000-square-foot World Gym sits in the middle of an economically depressed area of San Diego, yet Stovall has reached into the community with a lavishly designed health club, investing in the health of the individuals who live there.

“I'm glad he is concerned about people's health,” says Morrison. “He's offering programs that people here need.”

The club offers nutritional classes. It has $450,000 in equipment, including cardio and strength equipment. It also has boxing rings, an indoor/outdoor basketball court, batting cages, a woman's workout area, free personal training, group exercise classes, spin classes, salsa classes, yoga classes, a juice bar, child care and after-school youth programs.

“To pay only $35 [a month] for that is quite a value,” says Stovall. The average income in the area is $30,000 a year, a pittance in California, Stovall says.

To help members afford the fees, Stovall offers several payment options. Members can pay $99 with no enrollment fee for a three-month contract (this makes up 30 percent of the business), $50 a month for monthly buys, $35 a month for one year with a $50 enrollment fee, or $10 per visit. In addition, corporate rates are $30 a month. In the beginning, everyone gets a free pass for five to seven days.

Stovall has electronic funds transfer (EFT) set up, but he learned the hard way that some members don't like EFT.

“All these seminars kept talking about EFT, which screwed me up because I was turning away cash customers,” Stovall says. “But many of the Hispanic members just want to pay cash not EFT.”

Stovall does have to deal with a high delinquency rate — 15 percent rather than the 5 percent average that most gyms experience. After first using staff to handle the delinquencies, Stovall finally turned to a collection agency, which took a more “hard nose” approach with the delinquent accounts.

MEMBERSHIP

Affordability and programming have helped the World Gym's membership climb since it opened in October 2001. The club has 1,200 members. About 40 percent of the members are African American, 30 percent are Hispanic and 30 percent are white and other. The average age is 35, but the club has members as young as 10 and as old as 70.

To attract members, Stovall initially offered some classes for free, including after-school boxing classes for children, and hosted a Halloween and Christmas party.

In addition, the club has allowed several community groups to hold their meetings at the facility. The exposure has led to a corporate client for the gym and to discussions with various non-profit groups about putting their programs into the gym.

The club has been received favorably in the community, Glaster says. With three levels and a variety of classes and equipment, the club has everything a person needs to make a lifestyle change, she says.

“If a person does not take charge of their life, that's on them because this is there,” she says. “They have wonderful people there to help you.”

Stovall agrees that the club has been embraced by the community. Even though the facility is located in a high crime area, Stovall was able to get rid of the security service after six months “because our members protect us,” he says. Gym members, some of whom belong to gangs, watch out for the staff. In addition, Stovall has made it known that he's a former FBI agent, the club has a video camera on the cash registers, and it is equipped with panic buttons.

The gang members who work out in the club set aside their gang affiliation while inside the club where gang clothes are not allowed.

“It's a strange mentality,” Stovall says. “When they are here, they are here to work out. They sometimes work out side by side with their enemies.”

Without the gym, Glaster doesn't think many of the members would be working out anywhere.

“No, they wouldn't,” she says. “I guarantee it…they wouldn't go. If that gym wouldn't have been there… it stands out in the ghetto area. Young guys come in and pump themselves up in a healthy way without pills and stuff. That's what makes me appreciate being at the gym and helping them go.”

Stovall sees a lot of overweight people in his gym, estimating it to be 50 percent of members.

“For a lot of them, this is their first gym experience,” he says. “They are learning the elementary basics of fitness and nutrition.” They are also dealing with problems related to being overweight: high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and sexual dysfunction issues.

“In the low-income area, obesity is…wow!” says Glaster. “I didn't even see it from that perspective until a month ago. We are killing ourselves.”

Because so many of the members had never exercised in a club before, they didn't know what salsa, yoga or step classes were so they weren't signing up for the classes.

“We had to go physically on the floor to gather them up and show them what the classes were,” Stovall says. “We had to explain on the flyer what a step class was. We were assuming too much in the beginning. That's why we started writing out class descriptions for them.”

In addition to the challenges of getting members to participate in group classes, Stovall faced marketing challenges to get individuals to just step inside the front door.

“The standard stuff doesn't work here [for marketing],” says Stovall. “We tried everything we were taught in the gym seminars. Ninety percent of it is wrong for this area.”

Stovall tried mail outs, yellow page ads, a web site and ads in the paper only to find that what worked was door-to-door delivery of flyers in Spanish and English with a discount or a giveaway at the top. Placing an ad in the PennySaver (a Spanish and English discount publication) also helped.

In addition, once Stovall let go his sales manager and gave bonuses to anyone who sold a membership, sales accelerated.

The club is on a bus line on a busy street between three freeways, and it is the only for-profit gym in a population of 150,000 people. The only competition is the YMCA that's a half-mile away.

To help ensure his club's success, Stovall, who is also a real estate broker, bought a Postal Annex business and located it in the 34,000-square-foot building in which the club is located. The two businesses feed off each other. Not only does each business keep flyers on the other business, but the gym also is one of the biggest clients for the Postal Annex and the location of the postal facility is convenient for the gym members.

“That [Postal Annex] has been a huge asset for me because it brings traffic to the area,” Stovall says.

The club will break even this year, Stovall says. He had expected to break even a bit sooner, but revenues were slowed because he was venturing into somewhat uncharted territory and he had some bad advice by several consulting companies. One of the consulting companies told him that the average revenue for the area was $45,000 and urged him to charge $59 a month for membership and extra for boxing. When Stovall tried that, it didn't work.

“The thing I had to learn was not to listen to consultants,” he says. “I learned by doing and by common sense.” Because most consultants work with clubs in higher income markets, the techniques, pricing and programming that they recommend sometimes don't work for lower income markets, Stovall says.

In the end, Stovall decided he had to do things differently than other gyms or the club wouldn't survive. The facility is a bit grander than one might expect (thanks to the consultant who misinformed him of the average income in the area) with ceiling fans, music, TVs, sky lights, three garage doors that open to let air in (two in the weight room and basketball court area and one by the boxing ring), saunas in the locker rooms and marble floors in the entry. However, that grandness has had an unexpected effect.

“They don't expect it (the nice design) in the ‘hood,” says Stovall. “When they walk in, we have them because they are floored. We call it the ‘wow’ factor. Once they walk in, they say, ‘Wow!’”

Stovall hopes that he and his staff can keep them coming in.

“The truth is, I think I've done a phenomenal job,” Stovall says. “It's the hardest thing I've done in my life. It's a whole new learning curve.”

MAKING A NEW LIFE
Healthworks Foundation
Fitness Center
Dorchester, MA
Owners: Mark and Patricia
Harrington

It's hard to imagine building a club and getting almost every piece of material and equipment — not to mention all time and effort — donated. That, however, is exactly what happened at the Healthworks Foundation Fitness Center in Dorchester, MA.

It might help that the center is non-profit. It also might help that the center exists to help disadvantaged and homeless women and pregnant teens improve their health and fitness.

Healthworks Foundation Fitness Center is part of the Healthworks Foundation, which is supported by Healthworks Fitness Centers Inc., a group of four upscale health clubs that serve women in the Boston area.

Mark and Patricia Harrington, owners of Healthworks Fitness Center Inc., donated $150,000 for the development of the facility and then got everyone to donate their time, skills and materials.

“We thought it could be a challenge getting people to help us with donations of time and materials, but it really wasn't,” says Hannah Karass, vice president of the Healthworks Foundation. “A lot of people were so grateful that we were taking the step to do it that they were happy to help.”

The mission of the Healthworks for-profit clubs and its non-profit club are the same: to educate women about fitness and self care, providing excellence in service and growing with the industry, says Kim Walker, general manager at the non-profit club. The only difference is that at one club the women can't afford to pay and at the others they can.

“It's important to me that the members get treated like they are paying $700 a month,” Walker says about her members at the non-profit facility. “It's important that they feel entitled, that they can hold up their hand and have me come over.”

The Healthworks Foundation Fitness Center is located at the St. Mary's Women and Infants Center in Dorchester, MA. St. Mary's is a home for pregnant teens and homeless women. It also offers a work program for disadvantaged women.

Membership is free to the women who live at St. Mary's and women in the community who meet the criteria. For the staff at St. Mary's, membership is also free, but any personal training or extra classes require a donation. Members of the community who want to join but who don't qualify for free membership can join in exchange for volunteering their time.

Since the 3,000-square-foot club opened in January 2002, Walker has signed up 725 active members. “Active” is defined as someone who has visited at least once a month.

About 20 percent of the members, who are generally between the ages of 13 and 45, are grossly overweight, Walker says. Some of the women are so heavy that they can't even use the equipment at the center.

“My challenge is to get this population in here,” Walker says, noting that an extremely overweight woman isn't comfortable on a bike, and walking, stretching and getting up and down off the floor are impossible for these women. “I can get a woman who's 100 pounds overweight and she'll come in and lose weight, but when I'm talking grossly obese person, that's much harder.”

Funding for the club comes from a portion of the dues paid by members of the for-profit Healthworks Fitness Centers. Some of the women even donate extra money to the center or volunteer their time to work at the center in various capacities. Other money comes from Boston Marathon runners sponsored by individuals and companies.

The club offers nutrition classes in addition to group exercise classes, cardio and strength training. Because many of the members are teenage girls or women who have never learned about nutrition or belonged to a gym, Walker feels it's important to stress proper eating habits and nutrition to the members. Many of the members come into the program thinking that by eating much less — sometimes to the point of just drinking coffee — and working out they will lose weight, Walker says.

“My feeling is that with the teens, we can nip it in the bud right away,” Walker says. “When they are enthusiastic about coming to a gym that's free, we can show them healthy practices and they can unlearn some unhealthy things.”

Walker, her two part-time paid staff members and volunteers teach the members about proper body alignment through yoga classes and offer cardio information during high impact and dance aerobics classes.

“That's the best practice to get them to use the gym and get comfortable,” Walker says. “After the first 10 classes, we show them the machines. That gets them to use the gym in a healthy way.”

Once the women start working out in the gym, they are given a wellness coach (either a staff member or a volunteer) with whom to exercise. The wellness coach not only helps motivate the woman to exercise, but she also helps create a relationship between the new member and the club.

To get the women to keep active at the gym, Walker offers incentives in the form of gifts from the Center's Wellness Store. The “store,” which is really a closet, includes items such as sneakers, T-shirts, socks, underwear, baby clothes, body lotion and other personal items. Every time a member goes to a wellness coach appointment, assessment appointment, nutrition class or group exercise class, she gets a signature. After 10 signatures in a month, she gets a gift as long as at least six of the classes were non-exercise classes (this prevents a member from going to five exercise classes in one day just to get a gift). Members also can get workout clothes from the store when they first join. The items are donated by the members of the for-profit Healthworks Fitness Center clubs and by corporations such as Nike and Everlast.

TESTIMONIALS

The gym is making a difference in the lives of several members. Margaret was living in the shelter at St. Mary's when she joined the gym in February 2002. Excited to join, especially since it was free, she enjoys the social aspect of the health club, the classes and the ability to take time for herself.

“Since I joined, I have a new place to live and a new job,” says Margaret. “The Center has empowered me to take care of my entire self. It provides me with a place to exercise my body and relax my mind. It's an invaluable resource, and I hope that it continues to help others the way it's helped me.”

Oleatha, a 44-year-old mother of two teenagers, has been a member of the club since the summer of 2002. She has had a struggle with her weight for many years. Prior to joining the center, she lost 40 pounds through a diet, but after joining the club, she lost another 25 pounds and is eating healthier and toning up.

“I was ready to take control of my life, and I guess I was lucky to find the center,” Oleatha says. “When I came to the center, I felt like I was in the right place at the right time.”

Wyvonne, an employee at St. Mary's Women & Infants Center and a member of the club, is amazed at how the center is affecting the lives of the women and girls from St. Mary's and the community.

“While I enjoy the center because of the time I am giving to myself, these women find so much else there,” Wyvonne says. “They are given the chance to work out in a wonderful facility — to learn how to take care of themselves through fitness.”

Wyvonne and other staff have even noticed that when the girls come back from the gym, they are often in better spirits and are easier to work with.

CHALLENGES

Part of their lifted spirits stems from the exercise but part of it stems from the social interaction with other members and the staff. Finding the right people to work with the members can be a challenge. It takes more than fitness knowledge; it also takes social services and psychology.

“It's taking what they [the members] are talking about and turning it all back to fitness,” Walker says. “When girls come in to talk about their boyfriends and how angry they are with them, it's not about talking about that, but about working out that frustration in the gym. While they are doing that, I can have a further conversation with them.”

Walker acknowledges that there are challenges in operating the club day-to-day, particularly on the administrative side. Because the staff is so small, it's difficult to get all the administrative work done, especially when there's not a private space on campus where she can work without interruptions.

However, the challenges are worth it, Walker says, especially since many of the members wouldn't work out if the center wasn't there. Prior to the facility being built, most of the members hadn't worked out before, but they see the benefits of it now.

“Women come in just happy to be there,” Walker says. “They are psyched and excited.”

That makes Walker's job rewarding even though at times it can be tiring and frustrating, she says.

“It's the hardest job I ever loved,” she says.

The foundation and its resulting programs have been rewarding for Healthworks Fitness Center, Karass says, and it fits in well with Healthworks' strengths.

“We felt it was important that we do what we do best, which is fitness,” Karass says. “A lot of organizations give away money, and that's great, but what we give away is fitness, which gives away health.”

In fact, the center has been such a success that the Healthworks Foundation may have another non-profit center in its future.

“We wanted to make sure we could do it and it would work,” Karass says. “After being in it for a year, we think it's a model we could carry out in the inner city.”

While this gym may eventually create clientele for the Healthworks for-profit gyms, Walker says that's not the main goal of the center. Instead, she sees the health club as an opportunity to bring fitness to a population that can't walk the neighborhood outside their house and that can't afford bikes and roller blades or exercise equipment for their homes. Planting the seeds of exercise in this generation will influence the next generation, and soon that will lead to an inner city population of women who will flock into Healthworks and other health clubs, Walker says.

“One of the things I'm learning in life is that when you offer something for free with the intention of just giving, you get so much more back,” Walker says.