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Fiscally Fit

Franchises are serving the needs of a health-conscious client base with women-only fitness centers.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about half of U.S. adult women are overweight, and 35 to 40 percent are trying to lose weight at any given time. This amounts to about 35 million prospective clients for diet and fitness centers.

But with large coed chains using lean celebrities like Kylie Minogue or toned athletes like Magic Johnson to represent their clientele, the average women looking to shed a few pounds or just get into better shape could feel pretty intimidated. A segment of franchises has come to the forefront in recent years, offering a low-stress workout environment for time-crunched women. Their promise to clients: Men aren't allowed.

Roger Wittenberns, a nearly 30-year veteran of the health-club industry, founded Lady of America in 1989 to reach what he recognized as an untapped market. "Though there are hundreds of coed clubs, I never saw an organized chain of women's-only fitness centers, so I embarked on that endeavor," he says.

Today, Lady of America operates more than 300 full-service, women-only fitness centers, featuring such amenities as aerobics classes, tanning, massage and childcare.

A factor fueling the trend is the growing demand among women for a time-efficient workout. Contours Express Inc., 30-minute circuit training centers, is just one of the franchises catering to this market. An added incentive: "I took machines used in regular coed clubs and had them scaled down to fit a woman's body," says president and founder Daren Carter.

In fact, to meet the needs of time-starved clients, Wittenberns purchased the Ladies Workout Express chain earlier this year. Like Contours Express, Ladies Workout Express offers complete circuit training in about 30 minutes.

The current trend is so strong, even longtime franchises are reaping the benefits. Though not women-only, Jazzercise Inc., founded in the late '60s by Judi Sheppard Missett, comes pretty close: Its client base is about 98 percent women. "Over the past few years, the overall fitness industry is becoming less of a so-called luxury and more of a necessity for people," says Kathy Missett, vice president of marketing for the franchise. "We haven't seen much of a downturn, even as the economy has fluctuated. That hasn't always been the case."

The smaller investment of these franchises is also helping them weather any economic uncertainty. The start-up for a Jazzercise franchise is as little as $1,800, aided by the fact that franchisees don't need to own a space or have a large staff. Contours Express' start-up ranges from $31,200 to $45,700, thanks in part to a small facility (as little as 1,100 square feet) and a required staff consisting of just one full-time and one part-time employee.

As word-of-mouth, a major draw for companies like Jazzercise, continues to spread, the popularity and presence of women-only fitness centers will keep growing. "I see this segment accelerating in the future with boomers and women in their late teens to early 30s," says Jerry Wilkerson, president of Franchise Recruiters Ltd., a franchise executive search firm. "This group crunches the clock every day, balancing work and general family time."

And prospective franchisees shouldn't underestimate the power of exercise itself. "When women exercise, they feel better about themselves," says Carter, "and that makes them want to keep going."

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