Fad or Fitness?
Twenty years ago Russians didn’t know what the word “fitness” meant. There was “sports” and that was it. Anybody wanting to get fit had to visit their local socalled sports clubs, usually stocked with old-fashioned training equipment, a constant smell of sweat and total absence of service. Today’s fitness clubs are a totally different story, but have their own peculiarities.
Text by Elena Krivovyaz,
Drawings by Maria Luneva
As a Soviet Union-bred citizen I must confess that the emergence of fi tness clubs during the last fi fteen years is a true revolution. Many of my contemporaries and our parents remember PT lessons at school. It would be an understatement to say that those lessons were scary. Soviet PT teachers were mostly men with unsuccessful sports careers. Not all of them were good teachers. “Everybody is playing volley-ball!” Our teacher always began the lesson with these words. “Those who don’t like volleyball can sit on the bench like losers.” He found this very funny.
The Soviet system of sport education in schools stipulated numerous tests and standards and they were the same for all. Those who couldn’t jump as high and run as fast as they were supposed got bad marks and were made fun of. Many pupils, whose lives were turned into nightmares because of PT, turned to doctors to try and get a fake health certificate in order to avoid the lessons they hated so much. To my shame, I did the same, until I fortunately broke my leg. That was my salvation and I could sit on the bench and watch others being tormented. These memories are hard to forget and it is one reason why many post-Soviet Russians don’t go in for sports. The owners of the first fitness clubs realized that they had to spend huge sums of money to make people believe that “fitness” has nothing to do with those school sports. Millions for advertising, millions for rent and millions for equipment… hardly a good business to be in – in the 1990’s. The only way to make money was to make Russians think it was a new trend. The first visitors of fitness clubs were rich criminals, they were the only who could afford the club memberships, as membership cost more than an application to Eton College. Eventually, fitness clubs became kind of a fashion.
Oases of the Soviet Past
Over 300 – that was the number of fitness clubs I found in a recently published reference book. Basically, fitness clubs can be divided into three groups or categories. Exclusive – clubs for the well-off, (about 10-15% of all fitness clubs), with membership prices starting at 60,000 rubles per year, middle-class level (more than 35-40 % of all clubs) which encompasses those that cost 25,000-50,000 rubles per a year. The third category (about 50%) of clubs needs no introduction to most Russians – local gyms stylized in a 1980s or 1990s way. They cost from 500-1,000 rubles per month and can give you nothing but old and rusty equipment and unsanitary bathrooms.
“I spent two or three years in a local gym,” recalls Oleg Vorobyov, a 29-year old business analyst. “It was in the cellar of a block of flats. I only went there for the company. But it was awful. When it was rainy the floor of our gym was wet and fleas bit us terribly. There wasn’t any staff, just a security man who could sometimes go away for an hour or so and leave us locked inside.”
That’s why people turn their eyes to middle-class clubs. These establishments can offer more service – like swimming pools, aerobics, yoga, boxing, a solarium in addition to equipment which looks much better than those in local gyms. The floors and cloakrooms are clean, but there can be exceptions. There can be queues for the most popular training stations. Men and women – all mixed together. The piped music depends on the taste of the managers and trainers, and is usually pop, whether you like that or not. Some of the clubs charge low fees but make you pay extra for use of the changing rooms and towels.
“When I was trying to find a fitness club not far from my home, I found Fitness Empire (Imperiya Fitnesa),” said Maria, a 23-year old designer. “It cost 5,000 rubles a year, and I’ve never seen such low prices in a fitness club before. But when I started going there, I understood that I had to pay extra for everything: for using a cloakroom, for using the swimming pool and for some of the training equipment, too. When I asked the staff what the membership card gave me, they just shrugged their shoulders.”
Middle-class level clubs can offer you free lessons (from one to three) with a trainer. He gives you a medical check, asks questions about your medical history and gives some advice. But then if you want to train on your own, he may put pressure on you to try to make you pay for personal training. That’s because such personal lessons constitute the instructor’s main wages. Some clients find this kind of pressure intimidating and leave.
“One day I decided to lose weight and went to the nearest Planet Fitness club,” recounted Julia, a 26-year old businesswoman. “This was about a year ago, so I paid 5,000 rubles for the first month. It was a special; I didn’t have the 30,000 I’d needed for the whole year. I liked the first free lesson and the trainer. But when I started training on my own, he started to follow me around, saying I should pay an extra 7,000 rubles per month for personal lessons. ‘You can’t do it all yourself, you will just sweat and not lose your weight,’ he said. Then I decided to quit and never went back.”
This is one of the reasons why the management of these clubs tries to persuade clients to buy a year’s or at least sixmonths membership up front. The staff tries to be polite and friendly, but not everybody can. Don’t be surprised when calling reception at one of these clubs to fi nd out that the staff treat you as if you aren’t actually there (“Can’t you see, I’m busy with the other clients, please wait for ten minutes!”). Stay where you are and get used to it, or swap clubs.
Special Clubs for Special People
During the last five to eight years, the number of special clubs for men and women has increased. If you are a woman and don’t want to bump into sweaty unknown men in a training session, visit a fitness club for women. Well-known clubs such as World Class, for example, have a club for women – World Class Lady’s. There is also a network of clubs for women – Miss Fitness and many others. There are many fitness clubs for men only, such as Sport&Spa, Terra Sport Kopernik and others. The price for these specialized clubs is considerably higher than for an ordinary middle-class club.
The price for luxury club membership, for mixed or single sex establishments, can be over 100,000 rubles. These clubs can invite you for a couple of test visits. There are no queues here, and the staff smile naturally. There are fitness bars, shops, children’s rooms and other facilities at your disposal. You’re always given a fresh towel, slippers, and tooth-brush, etc, all as part of the ordinary admission fee. Clients pay not just for good service and impressive and splendid interior design, but for the chance to meet people: businessmen, diplomats, etc. There are no occasional visitors in these clubs. Such fi tness clubs don’t need more than 500-800 members, in contrast to big fitness club chains, which may have thousands of members. Membership fees for the top clubs can be over 200,000 rubles (Biosphere, Rixos Royal SPA Welness center, Vitasport) but not all offer better service than those which charge 100,000 rubles per year.
Though there are many places to go for fitness, Russians are still divided into two camps: those who cannot afford it and think it’s just a whim of rich, and others who take fi tness as a kind of fashion and choose the most expensive clubs. Are there people who understand that fitness is an everyday necessity and has nothing to do with either whims and fashion? Well, they exist, but many consider it better to do physical training at home or have a run or walk in the nearest park rather than pay money for their own efforts.
These are some of the reasons that fitness clubs in Russia are still the reserve of the elite, and fees are still considerably higher than equivalent establishments in other countries.