I can remember when the personal fitness craze hit, back in the 80s. I was living in the US then, and it seemed that, overnight, the landscape was lousy with Planet Fitness facilities, glittery L.A. Fitness - absolutely massive storefronts and, of course, the timeless Gold's Gym.
You just couldn't escape fitness centres, no matter how hard you tried. Even couch potatoes were constantly assailed with gym chain adverts on the telly. Soon, competition for gym membership dollars drove these and other franchises to outdo one another: first month free, open 24 hours, ladies only from four to six...
And, of course, targeted fitness programmes: Mommy & Me, Fitness Bootcamp, Iron Man training and more.
The fitness craze hasn't exactly died down since then; it's just become ubiquitous. And all those gym franchises? Some of them went international, others filed for bankruptcy while chains of lesser renown were bought out by other big names in the fitness industry or by private owners.
Some of those international gyms, L.A. and YMCA among them still operate in the UK but, overwhelmingly, the best UK chain gyms are UK-born.
Superprof investigates a few of those top names.
DW Sports Fitness
We wanted to start with DW because, of all the chain gyms in the UK, this one has arguably the most convoluted history.
Footballer-turned-businessman David Whelan bought 50 combined gym/shop facilities from JJB Sports in 2009. Over the next two years, that portfolio grew to some 140 sites, although some were simply shops while others were only workout facilities.
In 2011, DW Sports merged with Intersport, a Swiss-based sporting goods retailer. It wasn't too long after that, with Intersport's backing, that Mr Whelan acquired Fitness First and other major gym brands.
And then, COVID struck.
As of August 2020, the company is under administration. All of the stores and the fitness facilities under the DW name are closed or closing soon; only their 43 Fitness First facilities will remain operational. Depending on the facility, you will find:
- swimming pools
- steam rooms
- hot spas
- free weights
- cardio and resistance machines
- exercise classes
- aerobic studios
- changing rooms
Most facilities have a lounge for gym members to relax in; select gyms have a roster of personal fitness trainers, should you feel it worthwhile to get a bit of personal training to launch your fitness journey.
Compared to DW - and even to the American Bally Total Fitness, the UK Total Fitness chain (sans Bally) has enjoyed a remarkably steady performance.
Opening the doors to its first facility on the Isle of Man in 1993, owner Albert Gubay knew what he was doing - both in terms of establishing a chain business and in the marketing and diversifying game. After all, he also owns the Kwik Save chain...
Unlike other gym and fitness facilities, Total has not changed hands multiple times. Nor did they suffer much during the pandemic downturn. Long adept at sensing consumer trends, Total Fitness had already developed a full line of online fitness services.
Their ethos - that everyone is better fitter has spurred them to develop several unique fitness initiatives to keep their members' workouts fresh and exciting. They've also partnered with other fitness ventures, Water Babies and Beth Tweedle Gym Stars among them.
Among the many benefits that Total Fitness members enjoy, you may count on free membership for kids under seven years old and free family memberships; they even offer free parking.
Their best perk yet is membership inclusivity: if you're a Total Fitness member, you're welcome at all 24 Total health clubs scattered across the north of England.
And, if you're in doubt about your fitness type, you may consult with their fitness professionals to find the training programme that's right for you.
Esporta Health Clubs
Esporta tends to be more high-end, catering to a more exclusive clientele. The chain, officially known as Esporta Health & Fitness Club flourished rapidly in the UK, then went on to open facilities in Spain. And then, strangely enough, the company divested itself first of its Spanish holdings, and then their UK facilities.
Today, they are owned by Virgin Active. In keeping with the brand's original ethos, though, each branch strives to provide a top-class experience for every club member.
To ensure the quality of their service, they routinely audit their facilities, looking for lags in the quality - of service, of the equipment and facilities. Besides those bi-monthly inspections, each facility boasts 'mystery members' who visit the facility and attend various workout sessions three times per week so they can report back to headquarters on the quality of service.
You'll find plenty of kits at every Esporta facility; besides free weights and machines, fitness classes abound. Every site also has spa facilities, complete with saunas, steam rooms, sunbeds and jacuzzis. In addition to all of that, some Esporta clubs include courts for racquet sports - both indoors and out, outdoor swimming pools and full spa treatment facilities.
Still, for all that Esporta is rather high-end, the Virgin Active - and Esporta itself are no strangers to controversy. They've had to pay several hundreds of thousands of pounds in fines for skimping on maintenance and safety costs; in three recent instances, that neglect led to grievous harm and/or death to a club member.
As for Esporta, they're under fire for their stringent contracts that demand a three-month cancellation period - during which you must still pay your fees, whether you partake of their services or not. Several watchdog outfits have investigated and reported on the many customer complaints.
If you become a personal trainer, you may want to work there for the high pay but, for our money, Total Fitness' facilities better represent the individual fitness trainer - and a positive fitness ethos.
Énergie Fitness Clubs
With a name like that, who could doubt that this group puts all of their enthusiasm into making sure their clients enjoy the best possible experience?
Énergie is actually an umbrella name that covers both Énergie Fitness Clubs and Énergie Fitness for Women.
The first is the standard fitness club with a full range of amenities. Besides workout rooms, exercise studios and equipment such as free weights and various cardio machines, they incorporate reception and lounge areas, as well as cafe's serving a line of hot and cold beverages and snacks.
By contrast, Fitness for Women facilities tends to be smaller and cosier. The service revolves around 30-minute workout programmes but there are still a few exercise machines.
Énergie has a distinct, customer-centric approach.
Data shows that only about 10% of the population are members of any kind of fitness club and that high fees and long contracts are generally off-putting to prospective gym members.
That, and the idea that, once you sign a gym contract, you're pretty much on your own unless you pay additional money for a personal trainer.
That's why Énergie has tailored their fitness programmes - indeed their entire business model around six-week programmes. If you don't start seeing results in that time, you're guaranteed your money back. You'll jumpstart your journey to fitness with their standard offer of five personal training sessions, with more on offer if you ask.
Note that you'll have to pay for the additional sessions; only the first five are included in the sign-on price. And you will not have to sign a contract or pay a joining fee, either.
Are you up for a 6-week challenge?
Greens Health and Fitness
The fitness professionals at Greens know that simply saying 'I want/need to get fit' isn't a fitness goal. And that those who've fared the worst from the COVID lockdowns - not contracting the virus but losing all motivation to live a healthy life during lockdown, probably need an extra boost to get them moving in the right direction again.
That's why Greens' fitness trainers encourage setting realistic goals and encourage the patience to attain them.
Like so many other fitness outlets, they have a full range of equipment but their personal fitness mentors won't let you beat yourself up on the treadmill or lift more than you're physically ready to. Instead, they'll guide you to an exercise programme tailor-made for you - your body type, your mental state and your overall well-being.
Greens' take on fitness is less about lowering your BMI and more about cultivating a state of wellness, physical as well as mental and emotional.
In all our searching, Greens' is the only gym chain that broached the mental/emotional wellness topic head-on. For that alone, Greens Health and Fitness deserves extra praise.
We're so fortunate that the UK is home to so many homegrown fitness chains - far more than the handful we've covered here. Still, for all of their admirable qualities, joining a gym is a caveat emptor - buyer beware proposition. You might be drawn in by the facility's welcoming vibe but it may mask a lack of substance that would soon see you regretting that yearlong contract you signed.
Maybe you could work with a Superprof personal trainer to get started back on the road to fitness, instead. And then, once you're better conditioned to make full use of a gym's facilities, you could ask them which gym chain they recommend.
You might also ask them about effective pre-workouts for your body type and fitness goals...
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