MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) -- Gyms aren't just for muscleheads anymore.
FitForever, a small health club in a strip mall, only allows women -- and the average age of the 450 members is 51. Some have that beat by decades.
Unlike traditional health clubs, the walls aren't covered in mirrors from floor to ceiling. There aren't racks and racks of free weights. And the little bit of traditional weight equipment in the club wasn't there when it opened in December 2000.
Owner Gary Skole wants to attract patrons who aren't used to working out and whose goals are a little more modest than developing washboard tummies, running marathons or bench-pressing 300 pounds.
Skole, who is opening a coed club for seniors in Medford this month, is among the first to set up a gym geared primarily toward the older population in southern New Jersey.
But he's not the only gym owner who's finding good business by going only after a narrower slice of people who work out.
More clubs are going after niche markets ''as opposed to saying, 'I'm going to build the biggest club in town with the newest equipment and everybody will come to me,''' said Bill Howland, director of research at the Boston-based International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
With the oldest baby boomers reaching their mid 50s, doctors encouraging exercise and more older people wanting to do it, the 55-plus market is the fastest-growing part of the also fast-growing health club market, Howland said.
The number of clubs of all types nationwide has risen by more than 1,000 a year since 1997. In a July 2001 accounting, there were about 17,500 of them, Howland said.
The number of gym-goers has also jumped to 33 million at the end of 2000, up from 28.3 million in 1997.
To go after a targeted clientele, clubs offer a variety of services and types of equipment. Some are trying to cater to busy families by adding more amenities such as baby-sitting and auxiliary gyms for children. Some offer smaller machines designed for women's bodies or programs geared specifically toward older people.
Gyms for the elderly, Howland said, often have softer lights in locker rooms so pale skin doesn't seem so pale; softer music; and better-educated personal trainers.
The clientele can be as important as the gym's hardware and programs.
Howland said clubs for women only appeal to disparate groups of women: those who don't want to be hit on by male exercisers and those who might be intimidated by them.
Skole said older men have some similar considerations.
''A guy doesn't want to be with a 20-year-old guy benching 300 pounds and he gets on lifting 45 pounds,'' he said.
In Skole's Mount Laurel gym for women, there are some weights, treadmills, a recumbent bike with a seat that swivels to make it easier to mount and dismount and a no-impact elliptical runner.
But the main exercise room is dominated by a circuit of hydraulic exercise equipment, which offers resistance training without the need to put on weights. The faster the user pushes, the tougher the resistance.
The idea is people working out -- either in scheduled classes or on their own -- move through quickly, getting a cardiovascular workout and strength training at once.
Every 45 seconds, a recorded woman's voice comes over the speakers, intoning some variation of, ''It's time to move forward to the next station.''
Sixty-eight-year-old Ruth Pizzuto, a retired insurance claims adjuster, joined when the club opened. She had belonged to other gyms, but never stuck with them.
''I was just sitting,'' she said. ''I wasn't doing anything.''
She began doing only the cardio-strength circuit but now does five-mile walks five times a week on the treadmill, along with weightlifting.
Sixty-two-year-old Ella Rathjen is also a fan of Skole's gym in part because ''it's not preppy'' like the ones where workout wear is sometimes skin tight.
A resident of Southampton, Rathjen is thinking of joining Skole's coed club when it opens, figuring her husband could come along, too.
But she's not sure she will.
''The girls like to talk their own talk,'' she said.
End Adv for Thursday, Jan. 24, and thereafter
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