Fitness clubs tap kids as memberships slide

by Satoshi Toi

Kyodo News

Fitness gyms offering a variety of physical exercise programs for children are doing well despite declining adult membership in the midst of the economic slowdown that has hit the country over the past few years.

One 35-year-old housewife sends her second-grader daughter and 5-year-old son to take “junior dance” lessons on weekends at a gym in Yokohama run by major exercise club operator Tipness Ltd.

“I want my children to take lessons despite the costly fees,” she said. “I juggle household expenses by curbing spending on dining out and asking my husband to put up with it.”

Almost all of the classes offered by the gym, which is located in a new residential area, are full. Children hoping to take ballet or dance lessons are being told to wait for others to cancel their memberships.

The center’s growing popularity is due mostly to the dance lessons, which give children a chance to develop a sense of rhythm and the power of expression by practicing light steps in an open atmosphere.

The lessons include basic physical training that calls for them to move their neck and shoulders and squatting to strengthen the lower half of the body.

Konami Sports & Life Co., the nation’s top fitness club business, is offering “cram exercises” for preteens in 10 different sports, including swimming, gymnastics, golf, baseball and karate.

Soccer is extremely popular with boys, thanks in part to the upcoming World Cup finals in South Africa.

Exercise clubs have expanded step in step with the growing fitness boom but the number of adult members seems to have leveled off in recent years.

Securing new adult members is crucial for fitness centers because monthly fees account for 80 percent of their income, according to industry sources. Fitness clubs are working to develop different programs with varying time periods, as well as programs devoted exclusively to women to attract new members.

Fitness club Esforta Ikebukuro, one of seven such facilities clustered within a 1.5-km radius of Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district, initiated a new “no membership fee and ¥100 per 10 minutes” system in January. The effort was a response to those who said they wanted to stop paying the monthly membership fees because time constraints were limiting their ability to visit.

“A reduction in the number of members would be a fatal blow to the club,” manager Satoru Murakami said.