I have had a long, tortured relationship with gyms. Even when I've gone to one regularly, it has been with a startling number of asterisks. I skip any exercises that require me to wait for equipment. I resist locker rooms, where I'm afraid to touch anything and which smell as if the Swamp Thing's workout clothes fell behind a locker in 1978. And my general fi tness approach is subject to whim: I'm one of those yo-yo people who succumb to such magazine cover lines as "The best shape of your life" every 18 months, who grimly endure a healthy routine for a while, and who generally feel self-satisfi ed simply resisting the urge to scarf down a dozen doughnuts in one sitting.
So my trip to the Life Time Fitness in Romeoville, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), is an epiphany. The 49-unit chain of health clubs aims to be a "macro, healthy way of life company," as COO Mike Gerend puts it. In the process, it strips away any excuse you could make for not living healthier — and enjoying it. The result is 29.2% year-to-year revenue growth and 28.5% profi t growth, and a business that will do more than $400 million this year.
The 140,000-square-foot facility features endless rows of machines that look as if they were just installed that day — all featuring instructions on their use! I rode three different types of elliptical trainers, and in two hours of weight training, I could get through only half the machines on the fl oor, helpfully organized by muscle group. (Yes, I had trouble moving the next two days.)
I could also get my exercise the old-fashioned way — playing on one of the club's basketball courts or swimming in either of its ginormous indoor or outdoor pools. Life Time clubs' current split-level design features high ceilings and plenty of windows and skylights to bring in natural light. And the air in the building is completely exchanged six times an hour (if only the piped-in music got refreshed as often. If I hear the rock version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" one more time... .). Since towels are free, people actually use them, and premoistened wipes for the equipment are located strategically across the fl oor. These guys have thought of everything! I even had three square meals at the LifeCafé, including a perfectly cooked grilled vegetable quesadilla and an energy shake that miraculously lacked that telltale grit of protein powder.
Here's a gym where people are having fun. Even the employees. You've never seen someone so happily fold towels or mop a fl oor moments after someone smushed a grape in the café (okay, I confess). Damn, even I'm having fun. Of course, when I realize this, I'm not actually working out, but noshing in the LifeCafé, using the free Wi-Fi to read email, and watching an endless pageant of hot moms enter the premises. Each seems to be balancing one kid in an arm, with two more excitedly running ahead to start their day-camp activities. Later, I have more fun hanging with a group of guys in a plushly appointed lounge watching ESPN from tobacco-colored leather club chairs and sofas. We should be smoking cigars rather than drinking protein shakes. Where am I again?
Ah yes, I remember: the gym. Hot moms, cool guys, little kids — Life Time Fitness fi nds ways to broaden what a health club can be. In fact, Life Time wants to be your neighborhood's de facto community center, and with everything from salsa-dancing lessons to an Aveda salon and spa to athletic leagues, it succeeds. Everything makes you want to spend time there. It's like a healthy casino. "Kids beg their moms to let them come here, and then Mom gets that fourth workout of the week," says Mike Brown, senior vice president of operations. And even with a Wendy's and an Arby's perhaps 100 feet from the parking lot exit in Romeoville, I watch kids happily stream into the café at the end of their day at the club for a smoothie. That's part of their ritual, and it's nurturing a generation who'll think exercise is fun and healthy food tastes good — with no asterisks.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.