The pool deck atop the One Chicago building.
At Life Time, the word “gym” is like a curse word.
That’s a marketing cliché, of course. It is a gym—and a quite large one at that. The chain has more than 150 locations across the country, 13 of which are in the greater Chicago area alone. Some span hundreds of thousands of square feet and offer everything from massive fitness floors to sports courts to pools.
Most members are probably OK using the G-word. But the company, which opened its first location in 1992 and has operated in the Chicago area for decades, prefers the term “athletic country club.”
Life Time is one of the many fitness clubs that has reimagined the traditional gym membership into an almost resort-like experience. They command monthly membership fees well into the triple digits, and people are willing to pay.
“It’s a high barrier-to-entry product,” said Natalie Bushaw, Life Time’s vice president of communications. “We know that if someone is going to invest in a membership at Life Time, they’re investing because they want all of it—they want that Life Time lifestyle.”
Memberships at the club’s River North location, which opened at the One Chicago building earlier this year, start at $249 per month. That’s on par with other luxury gyms in the area.
Equinox, for example, is another national chain that has locations in Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Common and the Loop. Its single-location monthly memberships range from $185 to $210, plus a $300 initiation fee. At East Bank Club, which opened in Chicago in 1980, a standard individual membership costs $220 per month on top of a $500 initiation fee.
So why are some gym-goers willing to pay such premiums for these luxury fitness clubs?
There are the latest exercise machines and seemingly unlimited sets of weights. Basketball, pickleball, racketball, squash and tennis courts spread across the buildings. There are pools and saunas and steam rooms. The locker rooms are stocked with high-end face creams, hair sprays and temperature-controlled towels. Some clubs even have indoor golf driving ranges.
The indor driving range at the East Bank Club.
Group fitness classes, which are included in memberships, are also a pull for many guests. The popularity of studios like Orangetheory and SoulCycle transformed Chicago’s fitness industry by attracting gym-goers with a strong community aspect, group workout classes and tailored fitness plans. These classes can cost anywhere from $25 to $50 per workout.
At larger fitness clubs, there is a bit more variety. “If they get tired of their Olympic weight-lifting Alpha class, there’s a whole myriad of other things that they have the opportunity to do,” Bushaw said.
A cycle studio at Life Time’s River North location.
And in many ways, these places really are more than just gyms.
Tapping into the flexibility of remote and hybrid work, many of these clubs are offering co-working spaces within their facilities at an extra charge. Child care generally consists of more than someone watching your kids while you work out; there are offerings such as yoga, dance, karate, music lessons, homework help and more at many clubs. Members get exclusive access to rooftop pool decks. At East Bank Club, there’s even a car wash on-site.
“You get everything here,” Bushaw said.
Luxury gyms, including East Bank Club, are offering members co-working spaces inside their facilities.
But belonging to a gym in Chicago does not have to break the bank.
The average gym membership nationwide is $58 per month, according to personal finance website Money Crashers. And while it’s fair to expect that number to be higher in urban areas, where the cost of doing business is more expensive, there are plenty of fitness clubs across the city that compete to offer the lowest prices and appeal to Chicagoans as an affordable exercise option.
Planet Fitness, which has an established reputation as a low-cost gym for casual members, starts its memberships at $10 per month. LA Fitness, a slightly nicer option with locations from the Loop to Lakeview to the suburbs, offers memberships at rates as low as $34.99 per month.
A step up from these low-cost national chains are local clubs, where members pay a bit more for an elevated experience. Chicago Athletic Clubs, for example, has seven locations across the city and lists its memberships at $84 per month. That extra cost gives members access to amenities such as group fitness classes, pools and personal training sessions.
But for those able and willing to pay, the luxury gym experience is on a level of its own.
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