WASHINGTON -- Pot bellies, flabby arms: It's the hot new look at health clubs.
The exercise industry sees an untapped market among the majority of Americans who get too little or no exercise and who view the health club as an island of agony inhabited by Type As with the physiques of Marines.
''Clubs are trying very hard to become less intimidating,'' said John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a health club trade group. ''We are trying to market to people's aspirations rather than their current condition.''
People who are fit and thin are a skinny marketing niche, but clubs know they can grow if they can attract Americans who do their growing around the waist. McCarthy's rough estimate is that clubs have about 40 percent of the 40 million adults who are in good shape, and 20 percent to 25 percent of the 160 million who get too little exercise. Another 40 million never see a gym because they get no exercise.
The industry lumps together those who get too little or no exercise as the ''deconditioned.''
''The deconditioned market is the most challenging,'' McCarthy said. ''We are beginning to see larger people in health clubs, but it's happening very slowly.''
''Getting through the door is the hardest part for most people,'' said Sandy Franco, co-owner of Franco's Athletic Club in Mandeville, La. ''They don't want to be reminded how out of shape they are.''
To ease the transition, clubs are toning down the sweat and playing up the fun. ''We took the classes and made them user-friendly,'' Franco said. For instance, the club has a Training Wheels cycling class and beginner yoga.
Prospective members who responded to a mailing got two weeks' trial membership free, including work with a trainer.
Trainers wear clothes that don't intimidate the uninitiated by highlighting the trainer's own buffness -- nothing too tight or revealing.
Trainers stay in touch with new members as they adjust to sweat and strain.
In Training Wheels, for instance, instructors were told, ''Get off your bike, get to know this person, tell them to do it at your own pace, check with them after class,'' Franco said. New members also got check-in calls after the first night, when their muscles were starting to get that unaccustomed soreness, to give them tips on relieving the soreness and to encourage them to come back.
Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers in north-central Florida tied itself into the public's health concerns by letting doctors give seminars and hospitals stage health fairs in club conference and aerobics spaces, owner Joe Cirulli said.
The company also wants to be known as a good place to be, he said. Members can use computers with Internet connections while they get a drink from a smoothie bar. The goal: ''Create a community within your facility, so people want to come even if they don't want to work out.''
However, as the clubs attract new members among the out of shape, they still must satisfy the nicely shaped, who are their core customers. To keep the fit club members from feeling out of place, clubs sometimes have programs for the non-athlete in one area, and weights and other equipment used by gym rats in another.
This also benefits the out of shape, who feel less intimidated.
But hardcore hardbodies would feel out of place in his place anyway, Cirulli said. ''I don't market to the bodybuilders or powerlifters. There are other clubs in town that do. We have guys who are in good shape, but not going out for Mr. America.''
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