Jazzercise and aerobics
Les Mills opened its first gym in Victoria Street, Auckland, in 1968. Phillip and Colleen Mills introduced New Zealanders to Jazzercise, dance-style exercises to music, which became fashionable through the 1980s.
The dance aspects of Jazzercise and later aerobics appealed to young people in particular. In the words of Phillip Mills: ‘The underlying principle was to make it a buzz to get a room jam packed with people, have a party’.1
The jogging boom of the 1970s further popularised aerobic exercise. By the 1980s ‘aerobics’ described choreographed mass exercise in a ‘fitness centre’, as gyms were restyled. Its exponents promised flexibility, strength and cardiovascular fitness.
The new gym culture, featuring pop music and lycra clothing such as leotards, became mainstream through movies such as Perfect and on-screen tutorials such as Jane Fonda’s workout and Aerobics Oz style. Les Mills’ 1995 slogan appealed to the aspirations of many gym-goers, who were often young urban professionals: ‘Become some body.’
In the 2000s New Zealand had approximately 400 health and fitness centres, catering for 500,000 members and employing some 5,000 staff. Three-quarters of these facilities were privately owned single-site operators. The rest were run by multi-site operators. About half of the centres employed only trainers who were listed on the Register of Exercise Professionals.
Skills Active Aotearoa, formerly the Sport, Fitness and Recreation Industry Training Organisation, created by the government in 1992, was operated by a coalition of industry bodies, and it set standards for the many tertiary qualifications offered in exercise science and leisure studies. The fitness industry’s advocacy and coordinating body was Fitness New Zealand.
In 2012 Les Mills operated 10 sites in New Zealand. Its classes were licensed to 14,000 gyms in 80 countries. Configure Express and Contours (both women-only) were the largest New Zealand-owned franchises, with 30 and 15 sites respectively.
The most striking trend was an influx of overseas franchises. Curves, Jetts, Snap Fitness, and Anytime Fitness were the largest chains. Organisations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), universities and city councils also ran gyms.
Diverse styles were evident in the 2000s. Corporate gyms suffered from the economic recession, but new operators emerged, focusing on weight loss and specific ethnic groups and ages – including babies, pre-schoolers, children and the elderly. Big gyms became bigger; small gyms described themselves as ‘boutique’.
Taking the gym outdoors
Gyms moved outdoors from the 1990s, as adherents of ersatz-SAS ‘boot camps’ invaded public parks at dawn to undergo punishing drills designed to fit them for the corporate rat-race.
Gym layout and services
Most gyms incorporated a main workout area with free weights and exercise machines; a cardio area with treadmills, rowing machines, stationary bikes and elliptical trainers; and a large space with a sprung floor for group exercise classes. Some gyms had extra facilities such as swimming pools, saunas, squash courts and solariums. Women’s gyms emphasised circuit training on exercise machines – 30-minute routines that promised quick results.
New exercise trends emerged. In 2013 Les Mills group classes included routines based on aerobic and strength exercises, weights, martial arts, yoga, t’ai chi and Pilates, stationary cycling, steps (a form of cross-training for all fitness levels) and dance. Team training and individual programmes designed by personal trainers were also available.
Many fitness centres also offered other health and wellness services such as nutritionists and physiotherapists. For example in 2013 Flexa Clinic in Northcote, Auckland, offered a 12-week supervised programme of massage, physiotherapy, personal training and dietary change.
It was not just young people who sought the body beautiful: in 2007, 36% of gym goers were aged over 35. Many gyms offered 24-hour access by card, and membership options became more flexible, especially as they could be traded online. One 2008 study categorised 60% of gym-goers as ‘transient’. And, in an indication of the difficulty of keeping to a fitness regime, about 30% of members dropped out each year.