Believe it or not, but a man from Iran with a degree in electrical engineering founded the fastest-growing fitness company in the United States.

Bahram Akradi was born in Iran and worked at Nautilus Fitness while pursuing his degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he continued to work for Nautilus, and eventually became part owner, changing the name to U.S. Swim and Fitness. The company was sold to the Bally Fitness Group in 1989.

However, fitness was in Akradi's future, and he decided to launch his own health club in 1992. The first Life Time Fitness club debuted in Brooklyn Park, MN, in a 110,000-square-foot building on 15 acres of land boasting about 50,000 square feet of amenities, such as a tennis court and an aquatic center. Life Time Fitness now has more than 30 centers nationwide.

As you approach any Life Time Fitness club, you'll see a building that looks more like a large specialty retailer than a health center. Dramatic entryways let natural light into both floors of the building.

Mahogany. Leather. Cherry wood. Marble. You'd expect to find these lush materials in a resort — not in a fitness center. The locker room is a soothing space with plasma TV screens and areas for sitting and relaxing.

“We made sure every level of the facility has a rich, lavish, resort feel,” says Jason Thunstrom, director of corporate communications for Life Time Fitness. “We want it to be a place where people want to be — not that they feel they have to be.”

The object of the appealing atmosphere is to make Life Time Fitness a place where people go to meet many needs, from meeting friends to relaxing in the café to (of course) exercising.

“Is there a place you like to go? What makes you want to go there?” asks Mike Brown, senior vice president of operations. “That's what we try to do at Life Time Fitness. It's open, it's spacious, there's art hanging on the walls, there are beautiful plants, water in the rock garden, the smell of coffee, natural lighting. Chances are you'll run across some of your friends. We spend a great deal of time focusing on the feel, the look, the touch, the smell. We call it the third place — you go to work, you go home — and we're the third place you go.”

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To keep things just as sparkling as on the day they opened, Life Time Fitness remodels its clubs every five years.

You'd think a fitness center like this would charge a mint. Not so. The price point falls in the middle of the pack. Membership is growing so quickly that Life Time Fitness can afford to price their services lower than some competing centers. In fact, membership is exploding so fast that some clubs have had to put a cap on membership.

Life Time Fitness can offer such value because the company is able to capture more traffic at a cost less than most of its competitors. Life Time Fitness has its own real estate and development group that scouts new locations, and an internal construction division that builds the facilities.

“Buying our own land lets us come in 40 percent less than the next similar offering club,” says Brown.

Being open 24/7 is another part of the magic formula that lets Life Time Fitness offer attractive rates. Ten percent of their daily traffic comes in between midnight and 3 a.m.

Since exercise is one of Life Time Fitness' three core concepts (along with education and nutrition), the company offers a massive amount of programming.

For example, the General Fitness program is an intense, regimented boot camp program. Classes start at 5:30 a.m., and the instructors put the members through an intensive workout geared toward individual needs. During the 12-week program, members have to meet milestones to get to the next level of intensity.

Life Time Fitness also offers O2, an intensive cardio program similar to General Fitness. Other programs include Women on Weights and Moms on Weights.

The company also boasts an incredible amount of equipment. The main exercise area has more than 400 pieces of cardio and weight training equipment — which usually means no lines for Life Time Fitness' members.

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Education is another one of Life Time Fitness' core concepts. To that end, the company recently launched Experience Life magazine, distributed to Life Time Fitness members and available in bookstores. Circulation is a whopping 500,000. Articles are more detailed and research-oriented than traditional health magazine pieces. Recent articles include “All About Hydration,” “Nutrients: Sizing Up Smoothies,” and “Fitness Fixes: Finding Your Focus,” about whether readers' efforts to get in shape are being disrupted by Attention Deficit Disorder.

“It's not only a branding opportunity but also an educational opportunity,” says Thunstrom. “We help members and consumers make healthy lifestyle choices.”

Life Time Fitness also offers educational seminars hosted by registered dietitians, personal trainers and other experts. The education effort even extends onto the Internet with online health coaching tools for Life Time Fitness' corporate accounts.

Life Time Fitness' third core concept is nutrition, and to that end the company developed its own line of nutrition products in 2001.

“I would go out and speak to members and do seminars on metabolism and how to control it,” says Jeff Zwiefel, vice president of Life Time University (Life Time Fitness' internal team member training and development organization). “As we went out to new markets, we would get bombarded with questions about nutrition, especially supplementation. We didn't have good information we could trust and knew there were a lot of challenges within the nutritional supplementation category with integrity, safety and efficacy.”

Life Time Fitness researched the category and wasn't able to find a company they felt comfortable affiliating with their brand — so they set out to do it themselves. They started with a baseline multivitamin. “Then, we began to realize that people were time-starved and not getting the nutrients they needed, so we expanded to meal replacement products, then ventured into essential fatty acids, joint maintenance products, and the bar category,” says Zwiefel. The company's main product is the LeanSource product line — bars, Ready-To-Drinks, and soft gel thermogenic pills with no ephedra.

To gain the competitive edge, the company sought quality, using sucralose instead of cheaper aspartame, for example, and using protein isolate instead of whey protein concentrate.

“We also independently test all of our nutrition products to ensure our manufacturing partners are meeting 100 percent of the label claims,” Zwiefel says.

Life Time Fitness had so much success with its new line that it explored the mass retail channel. Now its products can be found in more than 15,000 mass retail stores.

What's the point of having a beautiful, state-of-the-art fitness facility if people just don't want to exercise? That's why Life Time Fitness' goal is to motivate people to get fit.

“The most motivated people have the most dedication and would come in and do things even if they didn't like to do them,” says Brown. “But for the majority of Americans, that's not the case. Some are there for social reasons, recreational reasons, or even because they're lonely. We're getting them up and moving with other people to create a sense of wellness. You don't need to run a half hour on the treadmill every day. What you need is to just get up and be mobile — get the blood flowing, play basketball, go for a walk. In that way we're more than a fitness center.”

It certainly is. Life Time Fitness also hosts events such as a triathlon that's to be broadcast on NBC this year spending half a million dollars on it and attracting 2,000 of the top triathletes in the world, says Brown.

The clubs themselves are attracting so many members and growing so fast that the company decided to file an IPO earlier this year. While the company is mum on its future beyond that intention, Brown offers one tidbit. “We'll be in every major city in the U.S. someday. That's our goal,” he says.