As a rule, hotel fitness centers stink, and we don't just mean they smell bad. Venture inside most hotel "health clubs" and you'll find a few dilapidated treadmills and a dumbbell or two, crammed into an airless storage closet.
Fortunately, some larger hotel chains are bulking up their anemic facilities to attract loyal, athleticminded travelers--and some are testing travelers to see if they enjoy having treadmills and other fitness equipment in their very own room.
The much-needed changes mean hotel workouts can be more than an exercise in futility. Some hotel health clubs, such as the one inside the Peninsula Chicago Hotel, are so comprehensive that locals pay a monthly membership fee. Others, such as the Embassy Suites Hotel Chicago-Downtown/Lakefront, near Navy Pier, have partnered with stand-alone health clubs, giving travelers the option to work out in a full-service facility.
"Hotels have typically cut corners in workout rooms, and we wanted to fix that," said Michael Feigenbaum, general manager for the Westin Michigan Avenue Chicago, which has upgraded its own fitness center, added two special workout bedrooms and partnered with Equinox so guests can attend group classes.
Cutting corners is an understatement. Hotels often misrepresent their "state of the art" equipment and workout spaces.
And "lap" pools are often impossibly small or oval shaped. Jim Kaese, co-author of "The Athletic-Minded Traveler," (SoCal Publishing, $18.95), which lists the top hotel fitness centers around the country, has actually seen a hotel pool sign that read "142 laps per mile." But Kaese and co-author Paul Huddle found things are changing.
"Most hotels are pretty similar in terms of price categories; most Hilton, Marriott and Westin hotels offer the same type of room experience," said Kaese. "Where hotels can really make themselves unique is by the amenities and one is the fitness center."
The most recent hotel to muscle in on the scene is the Westin Hotels and Resorts, which has teamed up with Reebok and spent more than $10 million since 2003 to redesign its antiquated fitness offerings at all 77 Westin hotels and resorts in North America.
Chicago's three Westin Hotels--the Westin Michigan Avenue, the Westin Chicago River North, and the Westin O'Hare, --all now have new fitness rooms with sleek new treadmills, upright and recumbent bikes, steppers, elliptical trainers as well as weight machines and free weights.
The revamped fitness centers also have "Reebok Core Training Zones"--precious space dedicated to exercises using core boards, medicine balls, stability balls and resistance tubing. And if you've no idea what to do with all these options, Reebox's fitness experts have developed 20-, 40- and 60-minute workouts for Westin guests.
In addition, for an extra $20, guests at the Westin can stay in one of two Westin Workout Rooms, which come with a guilt-inducing Life Fitness Treadmill or a Reebok Tomahawk XL Indoor Cycle next to the bed.
The room is equipped with pilates, yoga and spinning DVDs, a yoga mat, stability ball, dumbbells and resistance tubing, and ample space to actually use the equipment.
"In-room fitness is an important concept," said Chicago fitness trainer Michael Sena, who developed the Traveling Trainer, a total body fitness system that centers around rubber tubing. "Millions of people work out at home and some people still aren't comfortable in the hotel gym. Why not create a home environment?"
The downside of the special fitness rooms is that only one or two are generally available at a time. We also hate to think of how the bedspread or carpet will feel after several extremely sweaty runners have used the nearby equipment.
"Some people like to have equipment in the room so they don't have to work out in front of other people, but most of our readers like to go somewhere else," said Kaese. "A big motivator is just having a fantastic facility. People go down to see out of curiosity alone."
In the "Athletic-Minded Traveler," Kaese and Huddle, both triathlon coaches, toured more than 30 hotels in Chicago, plus fitness centers and spas that hotel guests can use. In the "Expensive" category, they loved the fitness center at the posh Peninsula Chicago Hotel. In addition to daily yoga and pilates classes, Peninsula's health club, located on the 19th and 20th floor, has the latest Life Fitness equipment. The cardio machines overlook the Magnificent Mile.
"It's the best view we've ever had in a hotel," Indianapolis's Carol Thornburg said while working out on a stairclimber. Thornburg, in town with her husband, Jeff, also liked the amount of Cybex weight equipment.
Kaese and Huddle call the Peninsula's three-lane, 25-meter lap pool, with high ceilings and a bright atmosphere, "one of the best hotel lappers in the country."
Sena likes the balance of the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport gym, which also allows travelers to pay a day rate of $11, and the enormous 30,000-square-foot fitness center at the Hilton Chicago, the host hotel for the Chicago Marathon.
Though Hilton Chicago guests pay an extra $13 fee to use the recently upgraded equipment, the 1/18th of a mile running track (18 laps to a mile) and the 20-yard swimming pool are free. About 400 residents of the South Loop area have memberships.
If you're into swimming, fencing, boxing, golf, basketball or squash, a stay in one of the 55 guest rooms at the Chicago Athletic Association is in order. (Yes, non club members can stay there for $135 and up.) The architecturally rich private club was founded in 1890 to sponsor amateur athletics and now has the most wide-ranging fitness offerings of any hotel in the city. The 24-hour fitness center has 48 new pieces of strength and cardio equipment, classes like yoga, core conditioning, spin and callanetics, group fun runs and personal trainers.
Other top hotel health clubs in the downtown area include the Park Hyatt Chicago, the InterContinental Chicago, and the Holiday Inn Chicago-Mart Plaza, which is attached to the Merchandise Mart by a skybridge. Though the Holiday Inn pool is tiny (17 yards), the hotel is minutes from the East Bank Club and guests can use one of the best health clubs in the country for $25 per day, according to the hotel concierge.
If you're staying in the suburbs, one of the best strategies is to locate a Lifetime Fitness health club and then book a hotel nearby. In Schaumburg, the Hawthorn Suites Hotel and the Comfort Suites Hotel, located near a Lifetime Fitness (900 E. Higgins Rd.) are the best two options, according to "The Athletic-Minded Traveler."
In Chicago, guests at the Embassy Suites Lakefront can use the swanky Holmes Place Health Club for $10 per day (Diamond members get in free). Guests at the Drake Hotel, Sutton Place Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, and The Westin can use the Equinox at 900 N. Michigan Ave. for a fee, and travelers staying at the Fairmont Chicago in Grant Park can use the Lakeshore Athletic Club Illinois Center for an extra $20.
But if you plan to stick close to your room, make sure to ask the hotel whether they have a full health-club facility when making a reservation. And don't stop there. Ask what kind of equipment, whether they have in-room fitness and whether they have a heart healthy menu in the hotel restaurant, Sena suggested.
"Ask `How big is the space? How many treadmills, bikes do you have? Do you have circuit machines?'" Sena said. "If they're answering yes and have three to five treadmills and three to five bikes, they've got some space and they're making a commitment."
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Hot picks for hotel workouts
Best kept secret: Chicago Athletic Association.
You don't have to be a member to book a room at the private club, which not only offers all the traditional cardio equipment, but has a boxing ring, basketball and volleyball court, indoor golf driving range, squash courts and a fencing program.
Best basketball court: Chicago Marriott Downtown.
Located on the rooftop, the basketball court was originally a tennis court until balls started landing on unsuspecting Michigan Avenue shoppers. No airballs please.
Best views: The treadmills on the 7th floor fitness center at the W Hotel on Lake Shore Drive overlook Lake Michigan. The Chicago Athletic Association boasts floor to ceiling windows that allow guests to gaze out at Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park and Lake Michigan. Hilton Chicago, the Peninsula Chicago and the Essex Inn also offer scenic views if you're bored with television.
Best place to spot a celebrity: The Peninsula.
When Jennifer Aniston was in town, she reportedly enjoyed the Peninsula's fitness center, which includes mesmerizing 20th floor views, free weights, state-of-the-art equipment, a true 25-meter lap pool, selectorized weight machines, spa and juice bar.
Best lap pool: The InterContinental's's famous 25-meter junior Olympic swimming pool. It was considered an engineering feat when built in 1929. The pool, used by Olympic gold medalist and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller, still has spectator seating so your family can cheer you on. Or they can throw pennies into the terra cotta fountain of Neptune on the east wall. Other decent lap pools are at the CAA, the Peninsula and the Park Hyatt.
Best indoor running tracks: The Hilton Chicago.
On those frigid February days, the 1/18th of a mile indoor running track is a wonderful option for those who hate treadmills. The Chicago Athletic Association's track is also 18 laps to a mile.
Best place to watch July 3rd fireworks: The fourth floor swimming pool at the Essex Inn. It is enclosed with a retractable glass ceiling; the hardwood deck overlooks Grant Park, Lake Michigan and Chicago's skyline.
Best suburban facility: The Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport
For an $11 fee, anyone can use the facility at the only hotel connected to the airport. Hilton Honors members can use it for free.
email@example.comOriginally published October 20, 2005.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times