Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

Lifestyle gym members still coping with LA Fitness takeover

TAMPA — Catherine Cole doesn't go to the gym to get in shape. She goes to cope.

For two years, her father has battled esophageal and lung cancer. So four times a week, the 37-year-old wife and mother showed up to the Lifestyle Family Fitness gym in Westchase for the 8:30 a.m. "RPM" cycling class.

She looked forward to the sweat, the burn — and the encouragement of her instructor.

"Frankly, when you're going through the toughest time in your life," Cole said, "to hear someone's optimism, that you can do it — it's priceless."

On Wednesday, she went to the gym as usual. There was no instructor, no spin class.

There was also no Lifestyle Family Fitness.

The gym is now called LA Fitness.

The national fitness giant took over the Lifestyle chain on July 2 and now runs 14 of the defunct company's 15 Tampa Bay gyms. Members say the transition has not been smooth.

Classes are still being scheduled, but there are no instructors to lead them. Those who still work at the old Lifestyle gyms don't seem to know what's going on.

Cole doesn't care who owns her gym. She just wants to work out.

Why, she asked, is that so hard?

"I don't care about the takeover," Cole said. "But the way this has occurred, it has been really subpar. It has been a poor transition. The people who work there don't seem to know anything and you can't find anybody in charge. The continuity is gone now.

"They had a nice gym. All they had to do was keep it up."

• • •

LA Fitness is a big player in the fitness world, and it's getting bigger.

In 2011, the trade magazine Club Industry ranked the California company the second-biggest fitness chain in the country based on estimated 2010 revenue of $1 billion. The magazine rated 24 Hour Fitness first at $1.3 billion.

That year, LA Fitness also took over the fifth-largest gym chain, Bally Total Fitness, paying $550 million for 171 clubs in 16 states, including Florida.

Now LA Fitness has acquired Lifestyle Family Fitness, making it a major player in the Tampa Bay market.

The Lifestyle chain was founded in Lakeland in 1982. It operated 33 gyms in Florida and, until the takeover, was headquartered in St. Petersburg. News of the acquisition was first reported by Club Industry in June.

Terms and price have not been disclosed. In fact, neither Lifestyle nor LA Fitness have publicly commented on the takeover, which isn't quite done yet. The two sides are apparently haggling over the last remaining Lifestyle gym in Tampa's Hyde Park. Lifestyle filed notice with the state that it will lay off a total of 94 people by the end of the year.

Neither company has returned calls and emails from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment. When the deal was reached on July 2, LA Fitness sent Lifestyle members an email saying their memberships would be honored.

• • •

The lack of communication from both companies has frustrated Lifestyle's members. Gulfport resident Cindy Gold, 50, recalled how she found out about the takeover during her "RPM" class, a Les Mills' style of spin class.

"I was in an RPM class and the instructor said she had an announcement," Gold said. "I was thinking she's getting married, or she's getting pregnant. And she shared with us that the club had been sold.

"She just broke down and cried and it made us sick."

Emotions often run high in Les Mills classes, where instructors and students alike call themselves a "tribe."

Les Mills is a popular form of fitness class that choreographs intense exercise to music. The classes combine dance, cardio, plyometrics and free weights in such classes as "Bodycombat," "CxWorx," "Sh'Bam" and its own version of spin: "RPM."

They inspire a strong loyalty among Lifestyle members that borders on obsessive. The instructors who teach it are like rock stars. Members followed them from Lifestyle to Lifestyle gym.

"It has changed my life," said Gold, who shed 30 pounds in 15 months. "It's the choreography. It's the music. It's the camaraderie. It's the passion that these instructors put into it. It's absolutely addictive like you would not believe. I tell you, it's like a drug."

Gold said that many Lifestyle members are refusing to renew their memberships until they find out whether or not LA Fitness will keep Les Mills. While most Les Mills courses are still being offered at the former Lifestyle gyms, members fear they'll soon be discontinued. LA Fitness offers its own fitness classes.

Les Mills instructor Sarah Sandy, 34, tried to save the popular classes with an online petition. Then her new bosses called her on July 3.

"They pretty much threatened my job," Sandy said. "I was told it wasn't professional and would not be tolerated. I needed to be a part of the team."

She took down the petition, which had 2,200 names. Technically, she still works for LA Fitness but doesn't expect she'll ever lead a class there again.

She was recently hired to lead Les Mills classes at Kinetix Health Club, a new gym chain from Georgia that opened in Pinellas Park in March. General manager Mike Childers, 38, said Lifestyle members keep visiting his club and nearly two dozen have already switched.

Gold has already visited Kinetix. She said she's in touch with dozens of Lifestyle members in Pinellas who are ready to switch if LA Fitness won't continue their Les Mills classes.

"We are one tribe," she said, "and there is nothing and no one who is going to stop us."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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