Premature deaths cost American industry more than $25 billion and 132 million work days of lost production yearly, the American Heart Association says. The $25 billion covers compensation to families, the cost of the illnesses, insurance and an estimated $700 million to recruit replacements for the thousands of middle-aged men and women who die from heart disease.
What's more, no company is immune. Today's business executives sit behind consoles in comfortable swivel chairs and give order with the touch of a button. A Heart Association spokesman says it is his impression that these executives move about their offices less -- and hence get less on-the-job exercise -- than their predecessors. It's no wonder their bodies are atrophying, he says.
Enter a possible remedy: the sporting complex -- a facility with racquetball courts, swimming pools, whirl pools, saunas and a host of make-yourself-beautiful-and healthy exercise programs for men and women.
Five years ago, Washington had none of the mammoth clubs, which had sprouted throughout California and the Mid west. But by the end of this year, D.C. and its environs will sport at least four such establishments. They will try to lure area residents to turn over upwards of $2,000 a year each to get fit and stay that way.
Like its ancestor, the tennis and racquetball club, the sporting complex's raison d'etre is to offer top-notch athletic facilities in a classy atomosphere.
But ever more important is the club's function as a social playhouse. The facilities breaking forth in Washington have at least one restaurant each, and several have two. Circular bars set under skylights are commonplace; nurseries with 'round-the-clock babysitters watch the children so parents can mingle with their fellow fitness freaks.
"There's an American fitness renaissance and Washington's business executives are really tuning in to it," said Bill Shultz, vice president of operations at The Sporting Club, a $7.5 million facility set to open next month near Tysons Corner.
Directors of the new sporting complexes plan to make their living off the mistakes of their predecessors, the court clubs, who have discovered variety often breeds better business than uniformity.
In addition to offering a plethora of activities, the new-fledged clubs are targeted to the wealthiest Washington audience. To begin with, initial memberships cost in the $600-to-$900 range, and enlistees also pay dues in the range of $60 or $70 a month.
Members at some clubs must pay extra for fitness evaluations and custom-designed exercise programs. And club-organized mountain-climbing or biking trips, to help members build bodies and find friends, are another add-on-item.
In a year, a Sporting Club member easily could spend more money building his athletic prowess than buying food for himself.
"These facilities are not as class-conscious as the old-fashioned country clubs that used to be so popular," said Allan Barlow, president of October Corp., developer of the Athletic Express in Gaithersburg. "But there's no question it is the wealthier people who are going to come here."
Open 18 hours a day, the Express plans to do 45-minute physical assessments of all prospective members. The club opens unofficially today.
Several government agencies -- NASA, EPA, the Smithsonian Institution and the Transportation and Justice departments -- already provide their employes with time and facilities for exercise. And the list of private firms committed to employe fitness reads like a Who's Who of top U.S. companies; Arco, Chase Manhattan, Western Electric, Boeing, Xerox and Merrill Lynch, just to name a few.
Recognizing this growing corporation commitment to employe healthfulness, the sporting clubs are targeting Washington's big businesses with cut-rate membership invitations months before the clubs' scheduled opening dates.
Nearly 40 employes of Inco, a computer software design firm near Tysons Corner, recently joined the nearby Sporting Club because Inco is defraying part of the membership costs.
"We realize people who have healthy bodies will also have healthy minds and will increase productivity. In this business, that's vital," said Art Sands, executive vice president of the 120-employe company. Sands said he expects a score more Inco employes will join the sporting facility after it opens.
But the task clearly has been easier for some clubs than for others. One ingredient that seems to be important in the marketing recipe is a club's access to large corporate business developments.
Falls Church's Skyline Racquet and Health Club, open for nearly three years, sits in the midst of Skyline City, a large office, condominium and shopping mall complex from which it has lured about 750 members.
Skyline offers a 20 percent corporate discount to businesses who sign up 20 or more employes. Prospective office building tenants get a sales-pitch tour of the sporting facility, the club's general manager, Mitch Wald, said.
The Sporting Club also will try to attract tenants of an adjoining office building.
"The key to getting corporate members is being able to wind your way through the coporation's labyrinth without getting too muddled," said The Sporting Club's Shultz. "You've got to find the right guy in the corporation.
But the recessioin has left its mark on some local businesses whose employes now seem to be shying away from the sometimes burdensome expense of getting in shape at a lavish sports facility.
Competition among the sporting complexes blooming throughout the metropolitan area appears to be minimal so far. A club's members usually come from within 10 miles of the club; none of the clubs going up in the Maryland or Virginia suburbs has competitors nearby yet.
But some developers anticipate that many smaller sporting establishments -- particularly those offering only one type of acitivity -- will be forced out of the marketplace with the advent of the giant sporting clubs.
"Our existence may just enlarge the market for everybody as people see how great athletics in an organized club are," Barlow said. "But I doubt it. These eight-court racquetball clubs just may not make it. People seem to want so much more than racquetball these days."
As an example, he pointedto the experience of many small California racquetball and tennis clubs that went out of business with the arrival of next-door neighbors three times larger.
Managers at some of the smaller local clubs disagree with that view and are quick to point out that each club serves a different audience.
"We're more of a spartan club," said Bob Saunders, manager of The Players Club, a three-court racquetball facility near the new Athletic Express in Gaithersburg. "The people coming to our club wouldn't go to the Athletic Express anyway."
Shultz agrees. "The 7-Elevens of the world don't go out of business if a Giant supermarket moves in next door. There's a need for both types of clubs."
Even though they anticipate an open market for several years to come, the new clubs' managers and developers are trying to determine how best to stay alfoat in case the sporting club seas get rough.
Determining the most efficient number of members for a club is just the first issue on a grocery list of concerns some clubs' officials are discussing in daily meetings before their facilities open.
Creating an efficient front desk operation and setting a towel return policy that ensures a minimum of stolen towels are some of the recent issues Skyline's Wald has dealt with.
Operating expenses at the clubs commonly total $1.5 million annually, with no less than $20,000 of that going to pay electric bills.
Says Wald, "There's money to be made in this business, a lot of it, but you don't really hit the gold mine for many years, maybe a decade from now."
Nick Moga, general manager of Bethesda Racquet and Health Club, agrees. "It's a darned good thing once you start making back your money. Of course, that can take a hell of a long time."