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How do gyms like Planet fitness make any money?
Since reporting on the Planet Money podcast that detailed the ways in which Planet Fitness (and other low-cost gyms) manipulate its members into not going to the gym, I’ve received a lot of feedback about Planet Fitness. Much of it is along the lines of, “Screw you! It’s not Planet Fitness’ fault if you don’t go to the gym. It’s the members fault for not having the willpower to take advantage of the $10 a month membership fees.”
But remember, Planet Fitness actually tailors itself to out-of-shape people it knows are unlikely to follow through on using its services. In fact, on the other side of the equation, I heard accounts from several people that Planet Fitness actually discourages gym-obsessed people from using their gym. After all, when their facilities have 6000 members and only accommodate 300 people at a time, frequent users of their gyms are actually bad business for them.
So, I dug a little deeper (based, in part, on anecdotal evidence from readers and friends) and found a few ways in which Planet Fitness is actively trying not to be a “real” gym.
1. As a The Daily Show segment illustrated back in 2011, Planet Fitness may bill itself as a “Judgment Free Zone,” but in reality, it judges what they call “lunkheads.” In fact, “no grunting” policy and a “Lunk Alarm” that sounds whenever weight lifters make too much noise — or grunt — while lifting weights (which is not common, given the fact that Planet Fitness typically does not stock incredibly heavy weights).
2. There was a huge uproar last year after a Reddit user reported that his Planet Fitness removed the squat rack after another member complained that it was too intimidating. A few days before that, another Reddit user complained that his Planet Fitness removed the free weight benches and all dumbbells over 75 pounds for “insurance reasons.”
3. In March of this year, another Planet Fitness member was kicked out of the club because her “toned boy” intimidated others. According to Tiffany Austin, who was wearing a midriff on the treadmill, 15 minutes into her first workout, a staff member came up to her and said, “Excuse me we’ve had some complaints you’re intimidating people with your toned body. So can you put on a shirt?” In April, she contemplated bringing a suit against the gym.
4. A few years ago, this 49-year-old man was banned from Planet Fitness after making a video demonstrating the results he got from working out at PF.
5. A while back, Planet Fitness discontinued their personal training services, and actually insulted the personal trainer industry. The CEO of the company wrote a letter, according to Fittalknews, noting:
That most people doing personal training are “just renting friends.” … “who the hell needs a friend for 50 bucks an hour?” “For us to be selling personal training is a fraud and downright condescending to anyone who can breathe,” he wrote.
Despite all of this — or in fact, maybe because of it — Planet Fitness continues to be the fastest growing gym franchise in America by focusing on the 85 percent of Americans who typically do not work out and by offering them 3 million pieces of pizza a year. Ten percent of all gym members in America belong to a Planet Fitness, and they don’t downplay incidents in which members are kicked out for being “lunkheads.” They embrace it. In fact, they are proud of the fact that they are considered the McDonalds of gyms.
Ah yes, good ol Planet Fitness…
Some of them actually used to have free barbells though, if you can believe that!
There was a rumor going around — that turned out to be true — that in one of the few PFs that had a squat rack, a member saw it being used and complained that it was ‘intimidating’. And it wasn’t long before that franchise location had it removed.
“[That wasn’t] a typical Planet Fitness,” says McCall Gosselin, the company’s director of public relations. “Our clubs don’t have equipment like squat racks and Olympic benches. Our dumbbells only go up to 80 pounds.”
(Which actually may n…
On January 7, a Category 2 shitstorm exploded on Reddit when a Planet Fitness member complained that his local club had removed its only squat rack. By way of explanation, an employee told him “a customer complained that it was intimidating.”
As of Friday morning, the post had generated more than 1,400 comments, and links to the rant showed up all over my Facebook feed. When my New Rules of Lifting coauthor Alwyn Cosgrove wrote about it, his post got 70 shares and more than 300 likes.
But you know what the weirdest part of the story is? That a Planet Fitness franchise still had a squat rack to remove.
“That’s not a typical Planet Fitness,” says McCall Gosselin, the company’s director of public relations. “Our clubs don’t have equipment like squat racks and Olympic benches. Our dumbbells only go up to 80 pounds.”
Understand that Gosselin isn’t apologizing for any of this. This is the company whose commercials make fun of bodybuilders and gym bunnies, the people most dedicated to serious training. This is the place with “lunk alarms” that go off when someone grunts while lifting.
Planet Fitness isn’t embarrassed to be known as the wimpiest gym in town. It’s the business model, and it works. Gosselin says the chain has tripled in size in the past five years, from 242 clubs to more than 750 by the end of 2013. They’re in 47 states and Puerto Rico, with more than 4.5 million members.
Gosselin is also candid about why it works: “The gym industry was built on bodybuilders, people who work out multiple times a week. Planet Fitness was founded as a place for the other 85 percent.”
Or, to be precise, the other 82.5 percent.
According to IHRSA, the trade association for the health-club industry, gym membership in the U.S. peaked in 2011 at just over 51 million, or 18 percent of the population. It declined to 17.5 percent in 2012. But at the same time, Planet Fitness grew.
That’s partly because of the price. “Gyms that charged $10 a month really thrived during the recession,” says Stuart Goldman, executive editor of the trade magazine Club Industry. Another boost was the company’s sponsorship of The Biggest Loser. But there’s also no getting around the broad appeal of its unique branding.
“A lot of people are not ‘lunkheads,’” Goldman says. “They just want to get in, get on the treadmill for 30 minutes, and get out. They don’t want to be bothered by anything else.”
Thomas Plummer, a fitness-industry consultant based in Cape Cod, sees Planet Fitness as a marketing success but a failure in every other way. “I personally think they are horrible clubs that do a great disservice to the members and the industry as a whole,” he says. “I think they were right for the market 10 years ago, but the fitness world is growing past that model.”
Recent data supports his point. According to IHRSA, the use of most types of equipment found in Planet Fitness has declined in the past several years. That includes stationary bikes, treadmills, ellipticals, and even weight machines.
What hasn’t declined? Free weights, and exercise systems based on free weights, like CrossFit.
None of that makes a damned bit of difference to Planet Fitness. The company is not only recession-proof, it’s satire-proof. The Daily Show spoofs its lunk alarm, and Planet Fitness grows. Slate asks why a gym chain wants to intimidate people who love to work out, lifters rant on social media about being made to feel unwelcome on what they thought was their home turf, and Planet Fitness just increases its market share.
I have a theory about why it works. I’ve been a member of health clubs almost continually since 1980. For 20-some years I belonged to franchise gyms – first Vic Tanny, then Holiday Spa, then Bally Total Fitness. Each January, I saw exactly what you’re seeing in your gym this month: a flood of new members, most of whom will never be seen after Valentine’s Day.
But unlike my fellow gym rats, I didn’t resent those people. I understood that their fees paid for the true cost of my membership. Big-box gyms lose money on people like you and me, who pay the same low price as the ghost members but actually use the equipment three or four days a week.
And not only do we use it. We wear it out. We stress cables and pulleys, trample carpets, crack the vinyl on the weight benches. We create extra work for the gym staff – tightening screws, replacing parts, and occasionally removing traces of epidermal tissue from a barbell.
If every member trained like us, the gym’s owners would either have to multiply fees or go out of business.
At Planet Fitness, it’s always January. They drive away the lifters who would be expensive to accommodate, in favor of those who’re least likely to swipe their cards more than a few times a month. Many, I suspect, don’t swipe their cards at all; the $10 monthly charge seems a small price to keep alive the dream of getting in shape.
It may be the best business model in the history of health clubs: a facility people pay for but barely use. And the company is proud of that. “We say we’re not a gym, we’re Planet Fitness,” says Gosselin, the company’s PR director.
The problem isn’t Planet Fitness. The company is perfectly clear about what it is. The problem is people who expect it to be something it isn’t: a place where serious lifters get serious workouts. You aren’t likely to get that for just $10 a month.
Lou Schuler, C.S.C.S., is an award-winning journalist and the coauthor (with Alwyn Cosgrove) of The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged.
As one of the previous commentors said, most members are pretty out of shape, so probably won’t show up too often. And those who do, often just use the treadmill and various variations of kinetic motion machines. There are lots of those machines, so not much chance of too many people at one time.
Those of us who are ‘regulars’, into body conditioning or strength training, some will use the exercize machines, so at peak times one may have to wait. But most of us ‘experienced’ enthusiasts use the free weights and cable machines. During some peak times there will be a shortage of weights (only …
NO! they do not.
They have a rack of dumbbells that goes up to 50 pounds and a lot of cardio equipment and machines. They do not have a standard power rack to do squats instead they have smith machine.
They replace the location that could be used for Olympic lifts with massage chairs in front of televisions. There entire business model revolves around shunning away serious lifters that would intimidate people that do not know what they are doing at the gym.
The biggest cash cows are people who sign up for a reoccurring membership that only go to the gym occasionally. These are Planet Fitness’s…
Setting Fitness Goals? Start by Ditching Your Scale
A scale can tell you one thing: how much you weigh. That’s it. And it’s not even a very accurate measure of that. Eat a salty meal and the scale goes up. Forget to hydrate and it goes down (temporarily). Plus, changing your muscle-to-fat ratio can sometimes make it seem like you’re gaining weight when you’re working out harder than ever! Bottom line, set workout goals — not weight loss goals.
Regardless of what your scale says, there are so many awesome benefits to working out. So, when you’re setting fitness goals, consider these six.
1. Your stress levels are dropping toward Zen territory.
That huge, snarled traffic jam? Your kids scheduling three conflicting events on the same night? You got this like a Zen master. Because exercise boosts your serotonin, the hormone that makes you feel groovy, you may find yourself handling stress better.
2. You’re getting real, deep sleep.
Whether you usually struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up groggy, you might find that those issues just aren’t much of a factor anymore. With lowered stress levels, you’re more relaxed. Some studies have found that exercise may have a positive effect on circadian rhythms, the “body clock” that shifts you into sleep.
3. That mid-day energy slump is history.
Oh, the 3 p.m. slog when the vending machine and the coffee pot become your new BFFs. But if you work out regularly, you may not hang out with them much anymore. That’s because exercise makes your energy levels steady throughout the day, eliminating those spikes and dips that can keep you in wired-but-tired mode.
4. You’ll take the stairs. And not just because the elevator’s broken.
Maybe when you first began working out, walking up the stairs was a pain — sometimes literally. It was tough to catch your breath. Now you run them. That’s a common mark of progress for many gym goers since exercise improves cardiovascular efficiency. Your heart muscle actually increases in size (you’ll be literally big-hearted!), making it possible to pump blood better. Plus, you recover quicker.
5. It’s easier to lift heavy things.
No matter what type of workout you do, you’ll likely see changes in your muscle tone — and strength! For some people, increasing their muscle mass and toning up leads to weight gain because muscle is more dense and compact than fat. That makes watching the scale even more of a useless exercise.
6. Finally, you know where you left your keys.
Working out not only helps you concentrate better but one study also found that it boosts the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Work out now, remember the name of that guy you met in the grocery store later.
Using scales the right way
Yes, scales can be useful — and even motivating — but paying too much attention to that number can have the opposite effect. That’s why you won’t find scales at Planet Fitness. We just think there are better ways to measure success. Because … don’t make us say it again … you are more than a number! Carry on.