10 March, 2010

Raking in the dough from fat

Melbourne Herald Sun, 10th April 2010

Now put down that doughnut and tell me the truth. Are you as fit and healthy and slim as you'd like? The sad fact, of course, is that very few of us are.

The Medical Journal of Australia has just warned us that obesity is costing this country $56 billion a year. And that's just the health side. Naturally we have to do something about it, as a nation. And as every businessperson knows, where there's muck there's brass. (Or maybe it should be where there's fat there's dough.) So what are the business opportunities?

Certainly over the past decade there has been rapid growth in the business of getting us slim. Figures from the Bureau of Statistics showed that the number of job vacancies in the health and fitness sector was at an all time high, in 2008. It was reported that personal training was growing, along with gym memberships, fitness club openings and sales of fitness programs, with a shortage of staff to run them all.

There are now nearly two million Australians using these fitness centres - and more are joining up every day. You can expect to see the pressure grow from state and federal governments anxious to reduce their health costs - not to mention the pressure from our fellow citizens anxious to reduce their spouses.

Fitness Australia, the industry's association, claims that the centres contributed $900 million to our economy two years ago, and employed 17,000 people, though 80 per cent of these were part time. Since 2004 it was growing at seven per cent a year.

But, as Peter Garrett learned when his insulation scheme revealed bats in the belfry, fast growth can have its problems. So it is with fitness. A trainee can go from scratch to a Master Trainer qualification in just eight weeks. It ain't exactly a medical degree. And it means that some people who achieve the status can be less than dedicated.

Fitness Australia calls them the 'cowboys'. The small, inadequate operations that promise far more than they deliver, and leave unhappy customers in their wake.

So FA run education and training schemes for exercise professionals who are registered with them, requiring them to keep up to date. Their member businesses have to follow a code of practice or risk losing the association's 'licence'.

One of their major headaches has been the bad publicity from dodgy banking practices. At the front end, there's often a team of attractive, young, enthusiastic sales people urging you to sign up and become as beautiful as they are. Who can resist a gorgeous slim blonde in shorts - whatever their sex?

But once you've signed the reams of forms they have your banking details. All well and good until you decide you want to leave. As the Consumer Association's Choice Magazine put it, "The gym's sense of urgency suddenly evaporates. You're forced to jump through the most outlandish hoops just to cancel a membership you should have every right to terminate over the phone."

Pressure from state and federal consumer affairs departments have improved the situation somewhat - but before you sign anything, read the fine print carefully.

The industry is now consolidating into a smaller number of large franchises like Fitness First, with nearly a hundred gyms; Fernwood with its women-only niche of 80 clubs; even that money bloodhound Richard Branston has sniffed the brass and started his Virgin Active chain.

Local councils have begun to charge trainers for the use of their parks and beaches, while the music industry is suing for a big hike in royalties for those endless Madonna and ABBA tunes.

Ah yes, once you're doing well, everyone wants a slice of the pie.


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