UNDERNEATH a wall of television monitors projecting a movie-screen-sized Brier curling match one afternoon this week, Jacqueline Benne had the stretching mats to herself at the Garden City GoodLife Fitness club.
The 29-year-old waitress has become a five-times-a-week regular at the 20,000-square-foot fitness centre since it opened in January.
Benne is a classic example of the wave of fitness club members driving the multi-billion-dollar North American industry.
The growing sector is seeing a national company like GoodLife bulking up into regional markets, international players like Curves toning its offering to meet the competition and local players like Shapes refusing to back down.
According to David (Patch) Patchell-Evans, the charismatic owner and founder of GoodLife Fitness, the preponderance and increasing quality of fitness centres is attracting even more members to the clubs.
And their undeniable success in promoting healthier lifestyles is seen by some as almost a guarantee for ongoing demand. "It is a competitive marketplace," Patchell-Evans said. "But I prefer competition to a lack of it. When you're surrounded by fitness clubs, eventually you think 'Maybe I should go to a fitness club.' It's like if you were surrounded by coffee shops, sooner or later you will have a coffee."
Benne said she always had an active lifestyle, but has only just started to attend a club.
"I wanted something more," she said. "I was a little intimidated at first because I didn't know anything about the equipment. But the staff are super-helpful whenever I have a question."
Patchell-Evans also firmly believes the more locations there are -- his London, Ont.-based company is building a $4-million club in Transcona, GoodLife's sixth location in Winnipeg -- the more important it is a good experience is provided, because there will be more to compare it to.
"It's not like it was 20 years ago or even 10 years ago when there were markets that did not have competition and you could open and succeed because you were the only guy," he said. "That does not exist now."
GoodLife is opening 15 to 20 new locations a year across the country. Patchell-Evans refers to it as a health network.
"Smart people realize that the purpose of the health-care system is to look after people if they get really sick," he said. "The best way not to get sick is to work out. If you work out two or three days per week, you will be sick eight less days per year. The risk of every kind of cancer goes down. The risk of back injury goes down 80 per cent. The risk of work-related injuries goes down dramatically."
But one wonders just how much investment in the fitness industry the market will bear.
Last week, Life Time Fitness, a $1-billion-a-year public company based in a Minneapolis suburb, opened its first Canadian location -- a palatial 143,000-square-foot centre in Mississauga, Ont.
Don Longwell, founder of Fitness Business Canada, an industry trade publication, has been following the industry for 20 years. "I am in awe of this place. It's huge. No one has anything to compare."
Not to say all fitness clubs are going big box, but an increasingly demanding clientele understands better what it needs and operators are getting more sophisticated at delivering the goods.
Shapes Fitness, an 18-year-old second-generation Winnipeg family business, also recently opened a new 6,500-square-foot location on Portage Avenue. Lyle Rousseau, an official with Shapes -- whose market some would say GoodLife is encroaching on -- said the company has two more locations in the works.
"Like most other industries, there is more and more competition every day," Rousseau said. "This motivates Shapes to provide the best facilities and services to the consumer at the best possible prices."
Snap Fitness, a Minnesota-based chain of small, no-frills fitness centres, is undergoing a growth spurt that will see at least nine new franchises open in Manitoba in the next two to three years.
Curves, the Texas-based granddaddy in the business that grew to about 10,000 women-only locations in 90 countries, has nine locations in Winnipeg.
The stripped-down, strip-mall-located chain became the fastest-growing franchise business in history -- faster than even McDonald's and Subway.
But in an interview from his headquarters near Waco, Tex., Curves founder Gary Heavin said the chain is stepping back and repositioning itself in the marketplace.
He said franchisees are being pruned in the United States and Canada -- about 100 locations have closed in Canada in the past three years -- and the chain is down to about 8,000 locations worldwide.
"We came into the marketplace as a discount gym that had a diet," Heavin said. "But that market is becoming very crowded."
Heavin invested close to $10 million in weight-loss research and has now partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to create a certificate program so that soon all Curves location will have a certified weight-loss coach on site.
Nicole Rogers, a Curves franchise owner in Winnipeg, has already converted her Courts of St. James and Dakota locations to the new offering.
"We are moving into a new market now," Heavin said. "From the discount gym with a diet to a mid-price weight-loss centre that has a gym."
There are probably more than five million members of fitness clubs in Canada, but elite fitness experts like Dean Kriellaars, associate professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba, remains unimpressed.
"What you are getting is access to equipment at a reasonable price, he said. "You are not getting value-added service over and above that."
Patchell-Evans and Heavin obviously have a lot at stake. But both declare it's not about the money.
"We have 300 locations that create good health," Pathcell-Evans said. "I don't know how many hospitals there are in Canada but we have 300 places to go where you can stay out of the hospital -- 300 place where you can go to get the good life."