For Sale: 24 Hour Fitness

Categories: Business
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24 Hour Fitness.... buy now!... for just 100,000,000 easy payments of $19.95!
A time traveler from, say, the Renaissance era or the Hellenistic period, would immediately find two things strange about our beloved present. First (in no particular order): Michele Bachmann. Second: "Wait, people are paying money to run in place and lift heavy things?"

Everything else would sort of make sense once you explained it to him -- airplanes, Facebook, child labor laws, iPhones, global warming, credit cards, Mike Tyson.

But, health clubs?

"So you're telling me that civilization has exponentially diminished the need for manual labor and people are paying $40 a month to exercise in a room filled with other people exercising?"

"Yup, and it's spectacular."

So spectacular in fact that, as the New York Times reported, 24 Hour Fitness is on the market for $2 billion.

The San Ramon-based gym chain, founded in 1983 by Castro Valley native Mark Mastrov, has more than 400 branches and nearly 4 million members. Mastrov sold it to New York-based private equity firm Forstmann Little for $1.68 billion in 2005.

As the Times explained:

Forstmann Little's eventual sale of 24 Hour Fitness was expected. Once one of the world's largest private equity funds, Forstmann Little began winding down its operations several years ago after ill-timed telecommunications investments. Theodore J. Forstmann, the financier who led the firm, died last November at the age of 71.

24 Hour, like other health clubs, is a good buy these days. The Chron's Andrew S. Ross broke down the numbers in this morning's paper:

According to IBISWorld, a market research company in Los Angeles, the U.S. fitness industry, which includes yoga studios, boxing clubs and DVD and online sporting apparel sales, is expected to total $45 billion in 2012. Despite the recession, gym memberships have grown by more than 1 million to 25.3 million since 2007.

This must have been unimaginable back in 1847, when retired vaudevillian strongman Hippolyte Triat opened the earliest known fitness club in Paris. It still would have been near fantasy in the late 1940s, when public gyms began popping up along the California coast. Not until the early '70s did our culture's passion for self-reflection and self-improvement take enough shape for Tom Wolfe to write his famous New York Magazine treatise "The 'Me' Decade and the Third Great Awakening." He explained this rising phenomenon behind what he called "the greatest age of individualism in American history!":

The old alchemical dream was changing base metals into gold. The new alchemical dream is: changing one's personality -- remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one's very self ... and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!). This had always been an aristocratic luxury, confined throughout most of history to the life of the courts, since only the very wealthiest classes had the free time and the surplus income to dwell upon this sweetest and vainest of pastimes. It smacked so much of vanity, in fact, that the noble folk involved in it always took care to call it quite something else.

Wolfe's explanation for this focus on self stemmed from the post-war boom that "pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history," consequently giving the masses the kind of recreation time previously exclusive to rich people.

That boom's wake has been strong enough to establish a minimum American standard of living that persists even through the Great Recession. But beyond that, at a time when the underlying anxiety from layoffs and debt and diminishing savings permeates (almost) every class level, the individualism that fuels the price of fitness clubs sales seems more cathartic than vain -- the state of one's body being one of the few avenues for self-betterment still in a person's control. Closing times aren't even a hindrance anymore.

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