Michael DiCono
Gregory Smith  /  AP
Michael DiCono, program manager for Health Fitness Centers, poses in Atlanta where many gyms are adding full kitchens to help members learn to cook healthy meals.
updated 1/7/2004 3:54:47 PM ET 2004-01-07T20:54:47

Nothing against juice and granola bars, but health clubs across the country are hiring chefs, giving cooking classes and teaching nutrition to help their clients drop the weight and keep it off.

Herbed salmon, anyone?

“People want to see results when they join, and we have to teach them they’re not going to get results if they don’t have an eating strategy,” said Nanette Pattee Francini, co-founder of The Sports Club/LA chain. The Sports Club hands out nutrition books to all new members.

“Fully 50 percent of fitness is how you eat,” said Francini.

Cooking at the gym
A gym in downtown Atlanta has added a teaching kitchen, complete with subzero freezer and overhead TV monitors. And it’s passing out more than smoothie recipes — visiting local chefs whip up citrus herb salmon and seared foie gras right alongside the freeweights and spinning classes.

A few gyms will even cook for you when you’re not working out. Some health clubs in New York are delivering low-cal meals to well-heeled clients.

Two-thirds of health clubs nationwide now offer some sort of nutrition guidance, industry experts say, with nutrition lessons thought to help members make sense of confusing diet news. Low carb? Low fat? Gym dietitians are stepping in to answer the questions.

In the crowded health club market, nutrition classes can give gyms a membership edge. About 36.3 million Americans belonged to health clubs last year, up from 17.3 million in 1987, according to International Health, Racquetball and Sportsclub Association.

Gym owners say innovative lifestyle classes — from cooking to smoking cessation — can bring in new clients when the traditional gym market is just about saturated.

“There are only so many memberships you can sell, so this is where the market is going,” said David Jamison, general manager of HFC Health Fitness Centers in Atlanta, which holds $35 cooking classes twice a month in its show kitchen. People who don’t want to join the gym can come just for the cooking lessons.

Nutrition labels 101
Another gym in Atlanta, this one for Emory University employees, pairs up club members with students studying to be dietitians. They dine out and go grocery shopping.

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The students-in-training show their partners how to read nutrition labels and answer common questions about food: Are fresh vegetables healthier than frozen ones? What’s the leanest cut of meat? For a restaurant primer, students take members to a tough assignment — a Mexican restaurant — where they point out the healthiest menu options.

“Everybody’s interested in food. It’s becoming more and more recognized that what you eat really does have an impact on performance. But the nutrition component can be so confusing in the real world,” said Liz Kustin, a clinical nutrition specialist who oversees the Emory students. “There is so much misinformation out there.”

Pilates and paella
The investment in nutrition also can pay off with higher fitness club retention rates.
At Flagship Athletic Club in Eden Prairie, Minn., employees say an in-house restaurant and varied nutrition classes keep members coming back. There are wine tastings, classes by cookbook authors, even a call-ahead service where clients can order hot, healthy meals to carry home after working out.

“If they’re not eating right, they’re sabotaging all that exercise,” said Sue Masemer, director of Flagship’s Lifestyle Department. “You can put ’em with a personal trainer, but it’s like, two steps forward, one step back.”

It’s a lesson Natalia D’Angelo knows well. A native of Russia, the Atlanta telecom analyst knew she needed to change her homeland cooking habits — lots of sour cream and pancakes.

So D’Angelo joined the HFC club, took a class on making paella and a tutorial about easy ways to prepare chicken breasts. She’s so happy with the cooking classes she plans to sign up for more.

“I loved to cook, but not when I’m tired because I just got home from work,” D’Angelo said. “Now I have learned it’s not so hard to cook healthy. And it’s important. You can’t rely on working out only — you have to eat healthy, too.”

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