When they put a Health Club in a Pill

When the news broke in late July that scientists had identified a protein that could quickly transform obese and lethargic mice into lean and energetic ones, our local newspaper (and probably others) were out the next day to interview health club clients. The question, as implied from the answers in The San Diego Union-Tribune, must have been something like: Would you be sweating at the club if you could get lean by just taking a shot of leptin, then doing whatever you want?

Why is it that so many simple-minded journalists (and a few simple-minded health club owners) think that just about anything that comes along that can improve bodily appearance or health is going to be serious competition to the organized workout establishments?

The assumption seems to be that health clubs are places of reluctantly self-inflicted toil and pain that would be avoided if only…

… if only I could take a pill.

… if only the doctor could give me a shot.

… if only I had a piece of equipment I could use at home.

… if only I could stay active on my own and not be bored to death.

The fact is that health clubs are not significantly endangered by these things (although there are plenty of other dangers that clubs need to be wary of).

Some clubs feel threatened by the sale of home gym equipment while others, at the progressive extreme, sell home equipment to their members and teach them to use it as a supplement to their club visits. What a deal. You collect money from the sale of the equipment, while the member continues to pay the same dues, and may use the club three or four fewer days per month. Research has shown that people who use home fitness equipment are more likely to be paying members of a fitness facility.

Now, what about teaching people to manage their own exercise programs outdoors, with or without equipment? I expect the same dynamics are at work. A person who sees herself or himself as an “exerciser” is more likely to be a steady club member.

Health club members feel they get more out of their exercise than those who exercise on their own. Last year, American Sports Data Inc. did a survey for the Fitness Products Council of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association to compare at-home exercisers with clients of health clubs. About a third of health club users reported “excellent” health — versus just 23 percent of those who exercised at home or outdoors. And, 42 percent of health club members say they are at their desired body weight, compared to 37 percent of homebodies. High blood pressure was experienced by 9 percent of club exercisers and 14 percent of home exercisers.

When our local newspaper reporters covering the fat-mouse/thin-mouse story went to the health club to interview wannabe dropouts, who should they find working out but a family-practice physician. Lawrence Schlitt, M.D., told them, “I don’t believe you get something for nothing. In our society, we’re always looking for quick fixes, and there is no such thing.”

A weight-management psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, expressed optimism that the mouse hormone discovery will lead to the improved treatment of obese patients.

But, said Morton H. Shaevitz, “if what you choose to do is sit on your butt and eat potato chips and dip, I don’t think we can pump enough hormones into you to make you thin.”

Health clubs will not be replaced by a shot, by a pill or by do-it-yourself efforts as long as they deliver excellent service and act on opportunities rather than get their imagination tied up in reacting against threats.