After 42 years as the country's oldest and largest nationwide operator of health clubs, Bally Total Fitness is dramatically revamping its approach to fitness.

Gone is the old image of fitness: the sculpted, super fit, young, hard bodies. In its place is the concept of total fitness where everyone, regardless of age, shape or size, works out regularly and eats right. While the difference may sound subtle to some, Bally views it as a major change.

“We see a difference between fitness and total fitness,” says Martin Pazzani, chief marketing officer for the fitness centers. “We are evolving the company from gyms to a ‘total fitness products and services’ company. We have reformed the brand and position.”

The change went public in December 2003 when the company launched its “Every Body Needs Something” ad campaign. The ads reflect the company's philosophy that says a combination of proper nutrition and diet instruction, along with a regular fitness routine tailored to an individual's specific needs, will produce effective and lasting results. The ads represent a more realistic and modern approach to fitness, Pazzani says, adding that the ads tackle the concerns and lifestyle issues that most Americans face daily while showing that Bally has effective and affordable solutions for all these issues.

FROM CASINOS TO HEALTH CLUBS

Since 1962, Bally has offered solutions to the industry. Originally part of the Bally casino organization, the fitness business grew through acquisitions of other operations, including Jack LaLanne, Vic Tanny and Holiday Health. Today, Bally has more than 440 centers in North America with outlets in 29 states and 45 major metropolitan areas. Most of the clubs go under the Bally Total Fitness or Crunch Fitness name, but the company also owns Gorilla Sports, Pinnacle Fitness and Sports Clubs of Canada.

In 1997, the company spun fitness off from the casino. Since then, Bally has ramped up its in-house product line, opened eight clubs in four foreign markets, and crossed the four million member and $1 billion annual revenue marks. Bally's latest addition in Monterrey, Mexico, opened in April. The company is partnering with Consorcio Spectrum, S.A. de C.V., a Mexican investment group, to open 10 fitness clubs over the next eight years. Bally also has clubs in China, Korea and the Bahamas.

And yet, for many American health club consumers, the Bally Total Fitness name conjures up bad memories. Most of that ire comes from the company's ironclad, until-death-do-you-part contracts that the company previously insisted members buy. Bally now offers a variety of memberships from a day, to a week, to three years.

“The business model that involved a contract has been outdated,” Pazzani says. “We sell month-to-month memberships. You can join Bally's for a day, a week or a month. We have the most flexible pricing in the business.”

Pazzani, however, defends the multiyear contract, saying it remains the company's best buy.

“What has been lost in all the negativity about the contract is that a huge portion of our members like it because you pay more up front and for the rest of your life you pay a little in membership fees,” he says.

AMERICA: LAND OF THE UNFIT

The company has aimed its “Every Body Needs Something” campaign at people who don't exercise or belong to a fitness club — about 88 percent of the population.

“We see this as an unbelievable growth opportunity,” Pazzani says. “[The campaign] is a direct response to what Americans want from a fitness company while realizing that everyone has different and personal needs.”

To go along with its ad campaign, Bally conducted Every Body Needs Something survey in December. It found that people are looking for answers to weight control issues.

The random sample poll of people 18 and older found that 97 percent of Americans are aware that the United States is the world's fattest nation. Sixty-four percent found this fact embarrassing. Fifty percent of respondents said they were overweight and needed to lose between 20 and 40 pounds.

“We are coming at this at a point in time when Americans have never been fatter and less fit,” Pazzani says. “We've made it a mission to play an important role in making America fit. Our objective is to take the company out of the niche and make it a mainstream product and service.”

Jon Harris, vice president of communications for Bally, agrees, adding that people are understanding that the only solution is a combination of diet and fitness.

“Eighty percent of the people out there could use our help,” Harris says. “It is our goal to make exercise more appealing and inviting whether they are beginners or people who have gone to the gym their whole life. We like to think that we have something to offer you in all aspects of our business.”

Despite these survey findings, why don't more Americans work out? The answer, Bally discovered, traced right back to the industry and clubs like Bally.

“We learned that the (hard body) image turned everybody off,” Pazzani says. “It was an impossible standard to meet. It was impossible to envision perfection, and people didn't want to go to the gym.”

In addition, the average person feels he or she has to get into shape before going to the gym, says Harris. That information led Bally to understand that if it wanted to attract the largest group in America — the baby boomers on the bust side of boom — it had to change its philosophy. The average person wants to stay healthy, feel good and not be bombarded by images of sleek, super fit people. It is a new way of thinking for the industry, Pazzani says.

“The industry has been insular and never looked outside the fitness business for new business,” he says. “It has been youth-oriented. The industry is being forced to be better. We know that, as the leader, we have the responsibility to be as accessible as possible. The new ads are more mainstream and reach out to everyone.”

More than half a year in, the new ad campaign seems to be working. Bally recorded a 33 percent increase in first quarter memberships. “What we have managed to do in a short amount of time is change the consumer perception of fitness and Bally,” Pazzani says.

Both Harris and Pazzani credit Paul Toback, Bally's chairman, CEO and president, with leading the way. The real push came last year when Toback revamped the clubs and revved up the brand potential.

“Part of it is recognizing our strength and knowing our reach and recognizing where we are and where we are going,” Harris says. “When Paul came on, this was part of his initiative.”

EXPANDING THE MARKET

Since 1997, the company has expanded the marketing of the Bally brand. It started with power bars and shakes sold inside the clubs. From there it led to an agreement with Life Fitness to produce home gym equipment. Smaller, handheld weights are sold through Avon, Foot Locker and Ladies Foot Locker. The branding business is bringing in $150 million a year.

Along with its in-house retail stores, Bally has childcare centers and offers new programs such as Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art form. Members can get a personalized diet and fitness program complete with personal trainer. Bally now has a 30-day, results-oriented, money-back guarantee stating that the company will return money to members who are not satisfied with their results.

The chain has teamed with the Discovery Health Channel and the President's Challenge to Fight Obesity on a series of family fitness offerings that include hip-hop and boot camp classes.

“We offer everything we can to make sure we are the destination,” Harris says. “We like to think that we are the one-stop solution. As a leader, we see it as an important position to get America off the couch and into the gym. As an industry, it is critical that we do all we can do.”

Bally Total Fitness has joined with Meredith Viera from the TV show “The View” to get America's children fit. Bally is providing personal trainers to five children to help them get in shape. “The goal is to take the concept and educate and motivate the masses,” Harris says.

As for what's next, Pazzani says the company isn't revealing its future plans, but he will say that Bally wants to attract mainstream Americans into its clubs. He believes that, over the next five years, fitness will become a regular and expected part of most American's lives.

“What encapsulates Bally is that there is not a better value in fitness on the planet,” he says.