This story is part of our series on
the emerging public-health issue of Access to Exercise..
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In 2008, the federal government released a set of “physical activity guidelines” recommending that children and teens get an hour of exercise each day and that adults aim to work out for 75 to 150 minutes each week. In 2013, no borough saw fewer people follow those guidelines than the Bronx.
While most Bronxites—61.7 percent—told a city health department survey that they got the prescribed amount of exercise, that was well behind Manhattan, where 75 percent said they complied. Elsewhere in the same survey, half of Manhattanites said they’d engaged in some kind of physical activity in the past seven days. Fewer than a third of Bronxites did.
The relative lack of exercise in the Bronx contributes to the borough’s overall health status: Nearly 70 percent of Bronx residents in 2013 were either overweight or obese, the highest level in the city. Self-reported rates of diabetes and high blood pressure also led the boroughs.
There are plenty of potential explanations for why the Bronx isn’t working out. Exercise awareness and participation increases with income, and the Bronx is the city’s poorest borough. Exercise takes time, and Bronxites spend more of their day going to and from work than residents of any other borough: Manhattan residents, on average, have 24 extra minutes each day to hit the gym than people who live in the Bronx.
But the Bronx also might suffer from a lack of access to gyms, which offer exercise equipment, shelter from inclement workout weather, personal training and—of course—an inspiring soundtrack.
A City Limits review of the websites of eight major gym chains—Crunch, Curves, New York Sports Clubs, Planet Fitness, Lucille Roberts, Bally’s, 24-Hour Fitness, Powerhouse and Gold’s Gym—found that there were only 23 chain gyms in the Bronx compared with 71 in Manhattan.
Well-served by some
Some companies evidenced a starker disparity that others. New York Sports Clubs has 37 gyms in Manhattan, eight in Brooklyn, six in Queens and only one each in the Bronx and Staten Island. Crunch has six times as many gyms in Manhattan (13 in a borough with 1.6 million residents) as it does in the Bronx (Two gyms amid a population of 1.4 million).
Planet Fitness, on the other hand, has 12 gyms in Manhattan, 11 in Brooklyn and nine in the Bronx. Lucille Roberts, Curves, 24-Hour Fitness and Powerhouse actually have more locations in the Bronx than in Manhattan—they just don’t have many locations.
Chain gyms, of course, aren’t the Bronx’s only option. Some community centers offer exercise facilities, like he Mosholu Montefiore Community Center on Gun Hill Road, which has a well-equipped weight room. ManyNew York City parks offer recreation centers that include fitness equipment for an annual fee of $100—or $150 if you want access to pools. Kids under 18 are free and people aged 18 to 24 or older than 62 can join for $25. There are 10 such recreation centers in the Bronx. Manhattan has 15, Queens 10, Brooklyn nine and Staten Island five.
The downside of these options tends to be hours: Many park rec centers don’t open until 8 a.m. and are closed by 9 on weeknights and 4 p.m on weekend afternoons.
Some parks also offer outdoor fitness equipment, such as chin-up bars and push-up stands. Brooklyn has 52 such parks, Queens 51, the Bronx 31, Manhattan 27 and Staten Island two. Darkness, cold, rain and—in some parks—safety limit the use of that equipment.
Don’t forget the indies
There are also private, independent gyms in the Bronx. Some focus on a combat sport, like the Morris Park Boxing Club on Morris Park Avenue or Bronx Judo & Martial Arts on Tremont Avenue. Others, like Soma Health Club on Hull Avenue and Gun Hill Road in the Norwood section of the Bronx, offer a more general array of equipment and training.
Anthony Fazzino, the owner of Soma, says convenience is a key factor in whether people actually use the gym. “Am I walking or taking the bus?” is a critical question for customers. Fazzino says 70 percent of people with gym memberships never actually use them, and believes a distance of more than three blocks can be a deal killer. Staffing is also important, he says, to keep people who do show up coming to the gym.
No factor, however, is more important than price. “In the Bronx, it’s a different price point. When you have that person who has to decide whether to pay their phone bill or their gym fee, they’re going to pay their gym fee,” Fazzino says.
For independent gym owners, the increasing presence of chains in the borough—Crunch and Planet Fitness have launched a handful of locations in recent years—is a threat. Soma, which after its launch in 2006 marketed itself as a high-end gym that needed only a 300-person membership roster to be viable, saw its membership fall by 50 percent after the opening of a Crunch on Webster Avenue a few blocks away. In response, Fazzino says, “We adjusted our price point.”
Neither Planet Fitness nor New York Sports Clubs responded to questions about how each chain makes its location decisions. Fazzino expects that development in the Bronx—tens of thousands of units of housing are being built along Webster Avenue near Soma—will boost the gym-going population. Increasing awareness of the benefits of exercise will also increase demand for places to exercise, he suspects. In time, he says, “A gym membership is going to be like health insurance.”
Free time is critical
An April report by the financial analysts at IBIS largely concurs. After strong growth thanks to public health campaigns like First Lady Michele Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative, IBIS predicts that the $33 billion gym industry will grow by an average 3.6 percent over the next five years.
It’s unclear whether this growth will provide more options to places like the Bronx. “[M]any industry players have limited their expansion to control operational costs,” IBIS analyst Sarah Turk writes. Independent gyms might “attempt to entice local, time-strapped customer bases by offering conveniently located establishments in unsaturated areas” but “large industry operators can somewhat mitigate this trend by attracting consumers via technology, such as phone applications that enable gym users to access their fitness statistics from previous sessions.”
IBIS notes that disposable income is a major determinant of demand for gyms. Low-cost memberships have seen big success nationwide. And in the Bronx, where low incomes dominate, it’s telling that Planet Fitness with its very low rates has made the biggest investment of the chains.
But Bronxites told City Limits that cost is not the only factor that matters. Manner of payment is also an issue, according to Alyssa, 40. “I live down the block from the Planet Fitness on Castle Hill Avenue but I can not attend because I don’t have neither a bank account or credit card for the monthly payment although I [could] pay in cash,” she says.
And time is the biggest obstacle for Mia, a 21-year-old. “I am both a full-time student and employee. Everyday I wake up and I have to go to class immediately followed by work. I spend about two to three hours on public transportation on my daily travels from the Bronx to Manhattan. By the time I get home, which is usually 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m. there is nothing left of me but hunger and tiredness. It’s nearly impossible for me to find time to attend the gym between my daily and social life. I can barely catch the supermarket open.”
Chain Gyms in the Bronx
According to gym company websites
Editor’s Note: This is obviously not an exhaustive survey of gyms in the Bronx. One chain we omitted, Blink Fitness, has seven locations in the borough.
This series was generously supported by the Simon Bolivar Foundation, funders of City Limits’ 2014-2015 Bronx Investigative Internship Program. The College Now Program at Hostos College donated the indispensable resource of classroom space. We are also grateful to New York Community Trust for supporting all our Bronx reporting.