January good month for fitness centers

YAKIMA -- Belt tightening.It's good for the figure. And the bottom.

Especially the bottom line, in the case of fitness centers.

Every January, folks surge into area gyms and fitness centers to tighten their belts physically -- in other words, to get, or stay, fit.

"Oh, yes, we definitely see people who made New Year's resolutions to get into shape," said Judy Perrault, who co-manages Mid Valley Nautilus in Zillah.

It's the same scenario in Selah.

On Jan. 3, the first weekday after New Year's Day, so many people were waiting to go inside Selah Fitness Express when it opened at 5 a.m. that "it looked like a shopping mall," said Rick Betsch, assistant manager at Selah Fitness Express.

"For sure, you get more people in the new year," he confirmed.

Betsch estimated that membership at his fitness center increases at least10 percent in January, and that's a conservative guess.

"That's when you're getting people who are inquiring, people joining and people coming back after they've stopped for a while," he pointed out.

Perrault declined to say how many new members join the Zillah facility each January, but noted that once the weather outside turns wintry, people flock to exercise inside.

"It's too cold outside; you can't walk, golf or run," agreed Scott Abrams, who co-manages Anytime Fitness in Yakima.

Abrams calls this the "harvest season" for fitness clubs.

"There's absolutely no denying that January is the busiest month of the year," he said.

In fact, between Jan. 1 and April 1, the club, which is open 24 hours every day, garners 50 percent of its members, Abrams said.

One of the new year's gym newbies -- or re-newbie -- is Laura Potvin, who originally joined Selah Fitness Express about two years ago.

Then she moved to the Tri-Cities. But now she's back in town, and last week she returned to the Selah gym for the first time.

"It's all about health -- feeling healthy, feeling good and living longer," she explained. She doesn't want to battle high blood pressure, suffer a stroke or endure cardiac problems.

Potvin's goal is to head to the gym six days a week and lose 30 pounds.

On her first day back at Selah Express, she worked out for more than an hour, using the elliptical and weight-lifting machines.

The hardest part, admitted the 45-year-old, is just getting motivated to go. But once there, she said she appreciates the atmosphere, which she described as friendly, clean and affordable.

She doesn't intend to be one of the gung-ho people who attend for a month or so and then fall off the wagon.

The message that exercise lifts spirits and hones physiques actually might have locally hit home before January.

All three club managers described an early surge this year in new memberships.

"It started for us right around the first of December, people started coming in," Perrault said.

Selah's numbers began growing in October. That's when the facility launched its annual fitness challenge, a 12-week competition to get in shape and lose weight.

Betsch said the gym purposely chose that time to run the challenge: "We want to support people as they go through the holidays and what I call the 'Guantlet of Gluttony.' "

More than 100 teams and 430 individuals are participating in this year's challenge, competing for thousands of dollars in prizes.

Encouragement is a key element in retaining members, the fitness professionals said.

There's general acknowledgment that the first-of-winter resolve tapers into mid-winter dissolve; some people start hard and fast at an exercise facility and then peter out, Betsch said.

"There's always a big joke in January that if you think the gym is crowded, just wait a couple of weeks and everyone will go away," he said.

But it's to everyone's benefit to keep the exercisers coming, all three fitness professionals said.

"Our goal is to support the people who are seriously trying to change their lives," Betsch explained.

One way to retain members is to hook them up with a workout partner, Betsch said.

That approach appeals to Potvin, who acknowledged that she will be more motivated to hit the gym if someone is depending on her to be there.

Other retention techniques that clubs employ include offering personal trainers and group classes.

According to Abrams of Anytime Fitness: "This particular gym puts a huge emphasis on retention."

Anytime Fitness has found that new members frequently are amenable totrying a three-day, one-hour-a day regimen.

"We want to make people comfortable and help them feel they have a plan," Abrams explained.