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Fitter, faster, more disruptive: How Les Mills is shaking up the fitness industry

The Les Mills gym empire is a very fit enterprise—good numbers, good effort, good attitude. So why is Phillip Mills suggesting some radical changes, not just for his company, but for the whole industry? Anya Kussler finds out. Plus turning at the top.

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photographs by stephen langdon

The Les Mills gym empire is a very fit enterprise—good numbers, good effort, good attitude. So why is Phillip Mills suggesting some radical changes—not just for his company, but for the whole industry?

The thought of getting fit generally conjures images of people in a gym, hauling weights, toughing it out on a circuit or upping their heart rates in a pump class. It’s a picture of healthy fun, sheer boredom or raw terror, depending on your perspective.

But there are other ways to get your fitness kick, including working out at home with celebrity DVDs, tracking your performance with your iPhone and a sensor on your bike or in your shoes, and gadgets like Wii Fit that turn exercise into play. And imagine what’s coming next: a virtual personal trainer at your office or home, and social networks that make exercise a collaborative experience. Or we may just avoid all that exercise altogether and opt for an evermore- affordable bout of lipo and a tummy tuck, or even the long-dreamed-of ‘fit pill’.

And then imagine you’re in the gym business. Is this future looking rosy to you?

Phillip Mills, founder and chief executive of Les Mills International, isn’t taking the risk. LMI is a great business, licensing its exercise classes to 14,000 gyms worldwide. Growth, says Mills, is up 20 percent annually over the past five years. Les Mills New Zealand owns ten gyms with plans for five more. Mills could survey his empire and decide that all is right with the world.

But it’s not. “There’s no doubt that the industry’s been cruising, and if we don’t do something, we’ll be left behind,” he says. So last year LMI commissioned a white paper, ‘The Future of Fitness’, to get its staff and customers—and competitors—thinking.

The report, based on a year-long Nielsen study into the global trends that are likely to shape our lives in years to come, is candid about the business model of many gyms—to sign you up for 12 months in a moment of fat-induced panic, whether or not you’re motivated to actually turn up regularly all year. “In the US, about 15 million new memberships are sold each year, but for every 15 million members that walk in the industry’s front doors, 12 million exit its back doors.”

Our new Britomart gym will be a lot further down the experiential design track, with a huge $1 million audiovisual theatre and multi-screen cardio cinema. It ’s going to be a really hip, rock ‘n’ roll type exertainment environment

That’s not an enjoyable experience for those customers. Then there’s the gym experience itself: “Mind-numbingly boring,” says one interviewee. “I look at the time and think, ‘Am I done?’—and I have done 18 calories, and that is not even half a cracker.”

“Tomorrow’s consumers are likely to be much less compliant,” the paper says. “They are less likely to embrace ‘fitness through hard work’. They will want fitness to be shaped around them.” Many consumers—Generation C—will expect all their experiences, including fitness, to deliver “what I want, when I want it and where I want it—oh, and I may want it differently tomorrow”.

The report is a rare example of an industry predicting its own demise, and examining the reasons why. But seeing the problem is one thing; doing something about it is the harder bit. And too often, when the problem is recognised, it’s already too late.

Given that only 10.9 percent of the Kiwi population currently belongs to a gym, the question arises whether the fitness industry can keep up with the new consumer demands. Technology plays a big part in those demands. We follow each other’s every move via Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, Google Earth, Linkedin and YouTube. And unlike early predictions that living online would turn us all into hermits, our virtual connections with like-minded people actually increase our chances of mass mingling in real life.

“I see the gym industry playing a preventative role in building a healthy society,” says Mills. “We have to be better at educating people about holistic health and fulfil their need for social interaction. To achieve this, we need to make the gym a more fun, social and interactive venue, and a source of learning—at the moment they’re still largely places where people just go to lift a barbell or ride an exercise bike. If gyms don’t change, they will become irrelevant.”

Gyms are already transforming into ‘exertainment’ centres—a social one-stop shop where you get your money’s worth on more than just exercise. As Mills says in his white paper intro: “I’m attracted to the idea that health clubs can become more entertaining social places. Done well, the health club might become something like the corner pub of the 21st century.”

The Les Mills fitness chain offers cafes, health shops and skin and body therapy clinics on their premises, and is using technology to stay tuned into their market—for example by keeping members upto- date via Facebook announcements. Events such as wine tastings, cooking classes and charity bike rides are held regularly.

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“Making our gyms a more fun, interactive place to be is very much part of the game plan. Already we are installing high-tech audiovisual systems with big mosaic screens playing sports, news and so on. Our new Britomart gym will be a lot further down the experiential design track, with a huge $1 million audiovisual theatre and multi-screen cardio cinema. It’s going to be a really hip, rock ‘n’ roll type exertainment environment.”

Group fitness programmes can be technologically advanced too—an example is the UK-based VRX stationary cycling classes where you mount a specially-designed interactive bike and have a screen in front of you simulating a ride through the great outdoors. In the US, Koko Smartraining allows you to insert your allocated memory key into the equipment to watch your ever-changing but personalised workout instructions onscreen, and you can track your progress online.

But a more powerful strategy fitness clubs can use to keep up with consumer demand is to cater for the wellbeing of a broad spectrum of social groups. The white paper identifies several prime targets. First, there are the mainstreamers, the high-energy gym junkies who are already active but need to be kept motivated, excited and entertained to stick to their guns.

There are the baby boomers who, being older and at risk of age-related diseases, have a set of health and fitness needs of their own.

Corporate types—who are generally short of time, stressed and struggling to prioritise work-life balance—are another target group. And there’s the greenies who demand environmentally sound practices and the spiritually-minded who prescribe to body-mind activities such as yoga, pilates and tai chi.

The last and probably most important targets are the Kiwis who are obese due to inactivity. This group includes the 26 percent of adults and the 8.3 percent of two- to 14-year-olds who were obese according to the latest New Zealand Health Survey and, as a result, run a high risk of developing life-threatening health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.

Says Mills: “Health has become one of the biggest items of government and consumer spending in the world. We have to turn this ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach around and be proactive in building a healthy society.”

New Zealand, and LMI in particular, already leads the pack when it comes to exercise programmes that cater for this disparate collection of social groups. “Group exercise classes are a big part of our fitness evolution. Exercise used to be something that people were forced to do, now it’s something they love. The industry has become a lot more group orientated, and choreography plays a huge role in making activities fun and interesting.”

Auckland chain of gyms BodyTech caters to the too-busy crowd by offering 30-minute or less supervised workouts. It also offers MedFit sessions for patrons with medical conditions and a 50-plus circuit, as well as a pool, a tennis court, spa treatments, physio and a free breakfast service.

Conversely, Jetts Fitness drops the extras like steam rooms, group classes and creches, for a pareddown (and therefore cheaper) workout without being locked into a year-long contract. For the shiftworkers, the antisocial and the night-owls, members can access Jetts gyms 24/7.

All good innovations, and a step in the right direction. “The gym has to be more just an exercise bike venue,” says Mills. “We don’t want to be selling to a sunset industry … There is urgent stuff we need to do, just to make the industry more fun, educational and social.”

But is that enough? As the white paper says, the imperative is to look ahead, innovate and change. The challenge for Les Mills International is to innovate at Facebook speed—and take the industry with it, too.

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Techno-fit

Whether or not health clubs manage to draw record crowds by snazzing up their exercise venues and menus, there’s a large percentage of our population whose fitness needs can be addressed via alternative means.

Take the homebodies, or those who prefer to exercise at home, with their families, at the office, in a community set-up or outdoors. Then there are the teenagers who grew up with PlayStations and simply can’t be bothered exercising at all.

Christchurch-based game developers Stickmen Studios and Crown Research Institute Industrial Research Ltd recently combined efforts to roll fitness, technology and movement science into an engaging, interactive martial-artsstyle party game called Kung Fu Funk.

To play this exergame, which was released in March, players must first master the moves using Wii motion-sensing controls. Different levels involve varying degrees of movements ranging from gentle Zen-type regimes and energetic plate breaking routines through to the grand finale, the ‘disco dojo’ showdown.

Because of the various levels, Kung Fu Funk appeals to a broad market and offers people of all ages, including the older generation, the opportunity to be physically and socially active. While it’s fun, it’s also functional. Incorporating the extensive movement science research of IR scientist Marcus King, the game includes a wide range of movements covering all joint angles in the upper body. Says Stickmen Studios CEO Wil McLellan: “A major achievement with Kung Fu Funk is that the movement science is hidden within the game, so, to the players, the experience is that of a fun party game.”

While there are more exercise options than ever, it is more than likely that the technological approach will become a fitness stronghold both in and outside the gym environment. So what will fitness look like in the more distant future? The white paper puts forward the controversial idea that technological and scientific breakthroughs may at some point do away with the need for physical activity in order to get fit.

This theory is based on the likes of molecular nanotechnology, the so-far hypothetical manipulation of natural matter to give it specific properties—think fit pills, radical lifeextension techniques and machines that surpass human brain power.

But realistically speaking, until we can change our biological make-up the principles of fitness will remain the same. The only way to be fit and healthy is to keep moving, so there will still be a need for structured exercise and professionals to keep us motivated.

“What is changing is where, how and who we exercise with,” says Richard Beddie, head of FitnessNZ, the association for the Kiwi health and fitness industry. “The ‘where’ is changing in that we increasingly exercise in locations that suit us, such as parks or our homes. I foresee the growth of small group activities such as boot-camp style or team training, with an exercise professional leading the activity.

Exercise professionals like personal trainers will play an increasingly important role—their skills, knowledge and motivation techniques will make all the difference.” However, their role is likely to become more multidisciplinary; to meet the demands of their clients, they will need to act as fitness trainer, nutritionist, personal motivator, confidante and social connection all in one.