Friday, September 18, 2009

Big Box Fitness

Posted By on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 11:10 AM

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I'm ready to pronounce Collierville the Fittest Community in Shelby County. I've never seen a place so well-served by health clubs, including two for-profit giants — Life Time Fitness and Prairie Life — that have entered this competitive suburban market.

Restaurants, homebuilders, multiplex theaters, and big-box retailers previously beat a path to the 'burbs. Now we have big-box fitness. At this rate, it shouldn't be long before there's a workout machine for every man, woman, and child in town.

I checked out the action this week with Collierville resident John Shepherd. John is as old school as they come. Back in the Fifties, he played football, track, and boxed in Golden Gloves, plus a little extracurricular roughhouse. His knowledge and memory of all things Memphis is encyclopedic. If there's a trend, he's usually among the first to spot it. And he can start a conversation with a stranger faster than you can say "what was your name again?"

These days, John gets most of his exercise by walking and working in his yard. He met me with an article he had torn out of a magazine that quoted Hippocrates, who was either a Greek physician or an Olympic long-distance runner, I forget which, saying "Walking is man's best friend." With that, we got in his car and drove off to scout out Collierville's Big Four of Fitness.

First stop, the DeSoto Athletic Club at the publicly owned Collierville Activity Center (DeSoto's first fitness facility was in Southaven in DeSoto County, Mississippi). Family friendly, older crowd, one racquetball court, outdoor lighted tennis courts, indoor track, miles of walking trails, baseball fields, lots of machines, basketball and volleyball courts, personal trainers, and Les Mills fitness classes. Fitness, it seems, is all about branding these days.

Next stop, the Collierville YMCA in Schilling Farms. Indoor and outdoor pools, two racquetball courts offering lessons from a world-ranked professional, a gym, the venerable YMCA brand, and room after room of the latest exercise equipment, some of which looks like torture racks and some of which looks like a well-padded chair in a Sharper Image store. A modern treadmill, we learned, can cost up to $6000. What recession?

Third stop, Prairie Life, a Nebraska-based company that came to Collierville four years ago. Kid-friendly pool, corporate efficiency, lots of trainers, walking track, and an acre or so of the latest high-tech equipment with the ability to monitor your heart rate, your favorite radio station, your iPOD, ESPN, CNN, or all of them. I haven't seen so much polished chrome since the casinos opened in Tunica. No racquet sports.

Last stop, Life Time, the newest and biggest entrant in the market. By this time John and I had had enough of tours and membership cards. We're a couple of nosy geezers set in our ways, not health inspectors or prospects. I went in and chatted up the guy at the front desk for a minute but declined the tour, so I base my assessment on a windshield tour. Life Time has a really big building and parking lot and two floors of activity space, plus a cool-looking outdoor pool with a big slide. No court sports yet, but I was told they are under consideration. I think I know a would-be category killer when I see one.

So, can all four of these survive in an area already well served by smaller outfits and churches like Germantown Baptist that boast their own indoor and outdoor sports facilities? We'll see. There is definitely a sense of competitive awareness, and each of the Big Four offers a pricing plan under $100 a month. They're all within a couple miles of each other. What I do know is that if you believe Americans whatever their age or creed or class will respond favorably to physical fitness given an affordable opportunity, which I do, then much of the rest of Greater Memphis is underserved.

If you live inside the interstate loop as I do, you can, depending on your finances and employment, choose from a menu of private clubs, older YMCAs, public parks and community centers, universities, French Riviera Spas, yoga studios, the Church Health Center's Hope and Healing Center, and whatever I'm leaving out. Swimming pools are scarce, and the season is short. Wherever you go, you'll probably need a car to get there.

I'd say the proposed Kroc Center at the fairgrounds should be a welcome addition.

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