As physical workouts become a regular part of our lives, gym chains have become a regular part of our neighborhood landscapes. Big-gym franchises are nearly as ubiquitous as fast-food restaurants — which is probably a good sign of the times.
But the spread of the fitness chains into Northwest Philadelphia has had an impact on small independent gyms, who have had to find ways to compete with the low membership fees and commercial lure of mega-gyms like Planet Fitness (most recently having opened a location at Bakers Centre in East Falls), LA Fitness and Sweat.
Those that have maintained their fiscal health have come up with creative approaches that rely on their individual strengths.
Amy Carolla owns Balance Chestnut Hill. She opened her business in Aug. 2008, when the American economy was headed south.
"We were nervous that it wasn't a good time to open a business that was considered a luxury," she said.
But Balance's one-on-one training programs were very well received.
"We thought the group fitness would be what most people liked, because it's more affordable," Carolla said. "That wasn't the case. Personal training is our bread and butter."
Balance expanded in 2012 to a larger location at 12 West Willow Grove Ave., and Carolla is one of a dozen trainers in the gym. Her business also offers nutritional coaching and has a physical therapist on staff.
"Our target market is what I call 'executive athletes,'" who she defined as clients in their forties to sixties with professional occupations "who want to get a good workout in."
Carolla's gym offers classes that are similar to those found in a much bigger facility or franchise, but she caps a class at 10 participants, or 15 for an outdoor session.
"That's mostly because we want our instructors to focus on the students and correct their form and answer their questions," she said.
Balance does not require clients to join the gym.
"People can come in anytime, and most purchase packages of personal training or group fitness," said Carolla, whose database has more than 1,000 names, but only half of those are steady visitors and many others are "popping in and out."
"We do feel the competition, and it's important for us to know what's out there," Carolla said. "You have to say on top of your game. You have to have the best people teaching and offer the best services.
"When you're competing against big chains who offer membership for $10 a month, you have to think outside the box and offer something [your clients] won't get there."
At its base at 4015 Umbria St. in Roxborough, All Fitness Customized Traininglives up to its name by offering training geared to specific groups of clients, from high-school teams to professional athletes, and teens to octogenarians.
All Fitness is owned by five partners and maintains locations in Broomall, Northeast Philadelphia and Bucks County.
"But, a lot of our business is outside our gym locations, and 15 percent is in people's homes," explained co-owner Jay Smith.
"We're not a chain," he said, but a service that adapts to the needs of its clients. "We don't feel like we compete with the big chains.
"They are membership-based and money-based. They're concerned with how to get people in and retain their memberships. We're results-based. When we get clients we ask, 'What are your goals?' It may be a college quarterback who wants to beat out the first-string player. We are stringent on setting programs that best help them."
All Fitness has a gym at a corporate site in Feasterville, with about 100 members who squeeze in a workout that fits in their workday.
"We're not looking for memberships, but our gyms do offer them for about $15 a month," Smith said.
Some of the clients also have memberships at a larger gym for the use of mainstream equipment. All Fitness concentrates on "functional training, using heavy tires and rope slams and practical exercises — not lifting weights," Smith said.
In a former 19th-century mill building in Manayunk, Intoxx Fitness hopes to attract a specific clientele: Students and millennials looking for both traditional and more creative exercise options.
Co-owner Anthony Chiarello said he and his partner took over the "mom-and-pop operation" at 123 Leverington St. last March.
It's too early for him to measure his success in membership numbers, he said, noting the presence of three major fitness chains within a few miles of his location.
The Intoxx introductory membership offer is $19.99 a month. The facility includes a wide range of fitness machines, weight training and group-fitness classes, as well as boxing, wrestling and tanning.
Manager Sam DeMarco provided a tour of other innovative options at Intoxx, including a cardio room with a video screen for "virtual spinning." Students often have unusual schedules and can't make it to organized gym classes, but they can watch a video and ride the stationary bike at their convenience.
Intoxx also likes old, established fitness methods, including Smith machines for heavy weights and heavy-duty balancing chains. TRX cables for suspension training hang from the old beams of the former industrial building.
The calisthenics room can be used for "military prep," DeMarco said, but it looks more like a head-shop from the 1960s, with black-light paint on the floor and other unorthodox forms of fitness motivation, like the weight scale nailed to the wall.
Chiarello has plans to add personal training and children's programming in the near future.
"We're just starting out and we're still funding" the business, he said. "Hopefully, we'll pan out."
Alan Jaffe writes about historic preservation issues for PlanPhilly and focuses on often overlooked built landscapes. He was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”