When Equinox Fitness bought Sports Club LA last summer, members of the West End health club were cautiously optimistic about the new owner.
Some were less than thrilled with the blaring Top 40 hits and the advertisements featuring taut 20-somethings. But the abundant fluffy towels, luxury lotions in the locker room and efficient check-ins were welcome additions. Even better, the broken therapeutic pool that so many with arthritis and joint replacements had used for exercise was finally fixed.
But then the cutbacks started. Longtime desk attendants, locker room staff and the group training director disappeared. (Equinox staff wouldn’t comment on members’ assertions that they were let go.) Gone were several aqua aerobics classes and a “gentle yoga” class beloved by the 50-plus crowd. And then came the protests.
In the past two weeks, 40 seniors and middle-aged members of the District Equinox have written complaint letters to the corporate office and held a meeting with the general manager over what they say is a concerted effort to push older members out of the club.
“What was a perfectly nice club is being turned into this place where one feels that older people aren’t valued,” said Rachelle Horowitz, 76, who has been a member of the gym for 10 years. “I don’t want to turn it into a rehab center . . . but it shouldn’t be an Orwellian vision of well-oiled 22-year-olds marching to the same music.”
The tension at Equinox is as much born out of the raft of changes imposed at the club as it is an example of the alienation seniors and middle-aged people can feel at gyms.
Classes focused on burpees and tuck jumps don’t always appeal to the 50-plus crowd, and instructors don’t always consider that every move doesn’t work for everybody. Health club marketing also has a tendency of equating fitness with youthfulness, and that can be discouraging and intimidating.
“A lot of health clubs are managed by younger people and the membership tends to be younger, so it’s common for older members not to feel welcomed,” said Pete McCall, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. “Clubs are becoming more aware that they need to reach out to the baby boomers.”
As the population has aged in the past two decades, there has been an influx of the 50-plus crowd, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. There were more than 10 million members age 55 and over in 2012, compared with 1.9 million in 1990.
Still, it is difficult for gyms to balance the needs of all members. Staying competitive and relevant means adding new classes, often at the expense of others. And with the flood of spin, barre and Pilates studios, not to mention all the other gyms peppered throughout the city, competition for clients is fierce.
Officials at the corporate office of Equinox in New York said they are in discussions with the group at the West End club. They noted that not all of the aqua aerobics classes have been canceled, just a few sections that were not well attended.
“We continuously adjust our schedule based on class popularity and member feedback,” said Griff Long, regional vice president of operations at Equinox, in an e-mail. “With over 100 classes a week, we offer a diverse range of programming to meet everyone’s needs, so all members can find something they love that maximizes their results.”
Horowitz said she certainly enjoys the weight training and Pilates classes at Equinox. She likes the trainers, and the club is conveniently located two blocks from her home. But she finds the business decisions the company has made “incomprehensible.” Horowitz said many people she knows at the gym joined years ago for the early-morning “splash” classes.
In letter after letter to the corporate office, Equinox members explained how their hip replacements, arthritis and other ailments had made it difficult for them to do much more than water aerobics.
Ruth McInerney wrote that she attends five to six of the classes a week because they’re “perfect for arthritic joints and other older person aches and pains . . . so many of the other weight, spinning, yoga classes are too difficult for persons with any limited movement issues.”
Other longtime members said they simply enjoyed the camaraderie of the classes and refused to accept that low attendance was reason enough to cancel it.
“The pool has a much smaller capacity than the studios, so holding it to the same participation numbers is strange,” wrote Martha Whittaker, who goes to the gym at least four times a week. “This lack of regard for the softer side of club membership is what will ultimately lead to loss of membership among all ages.”
Many unhappy seniors are threatening to leave Equinox if the classes are not reinstated, but Alexandra “Sandy” Wigdor, one of the six members who met with the general manager, is optimistic.
She said General Manager Michael Smallcorn, who did not return calls for comment, was very “gracious” and “receptive” during the meeting in late April.
“We spent half of the time trying to find ways for them to become more attuned to the middle-aged and older membership, which we have a feeling they have not dealt with before,” said Wigdor, 74.
She suggested that the club make its posh pool a selling point and promote the water classes to pull in more middle-aged people in the area.
“There are dozens of condominiums around here with a lot of middle-aged and older people. Promote the club through the aqua classes because that is what these people can do,” she said. “They are very successful at bringing in young people, but we’re saying, ‘Why not broaden your view?’ ”
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