THE CULT OF THE L.A. BODY : L.A. BODY, INC. : A New Crop of Entrepreneurs Is Turning Our Obsession to Gold

Kathleen Doheny writes frequently about health and fitness for the Times.

Skeptics claim that the health and fitness boom is a figment of Madison Avenue imaginations.

That most Americans spend more time thinking about workouts than breaking a sweat.

And that a healthy-size chunk of the population buys its share of Reeboks craving comfort and fashion, not better 10K times.

Still, some bodies--actually millions of them--say they're out there exercising. About 70% of Americans claim to get some exercise, surveys show, and about 20% report working out at levels recommended for cardiovascular fitness. Myriad Southern California industries and entrepreneurs catering to fitness and health have cashed in on our obsession.

Industry observers say that the business end of health and fitness has even picked up considerable steam in the past five years:

SPOKING ALONG

When the U.S. cyclists won four gold, three silver and two bronze medals in the 1984 Olympics, millions of Southern Californians decided to rediscover the joys of bicycling.

The Olympic track record--plus many exercisers' desire to switch to lower-impact exercise--are two factors behind the bicycle boom that has swept the country and Southern California in particular, say experts.

In 1986, 12.5 million new bikes were sold in the U.S., estimates Bill Wilkinson, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of America in Washington, contrasted with 11.4 million in 1985. "As many as 8 million Southern Californians take to their bikes each year," Wilkinson says. "About 51% of American cyclists are adults age 16 and over."

"Southern California is probably the center of the universe when it comes to cycling," adds Bill Tigue of California Bicyclist, a 5-year-old magazine that distributes 45,000 copies a month in Southern California. "And Orange County is the white-hot center."

"Mountain bikes (wide-tired with straighter, upright handlebars and 15-18 speeds) are the fastest-growing style," adds Mary Osolin, project coordinator for the Bicycle Federation of America. In 1985, she says, 600,000 mountain bikes were sold; by 1986, sales totaled 1.5 million.

Southern California membership in the U.S. Cycling Federation, the governing body of amateur competitive cycling, grew in 1986 from 3,244 to 4,073. According to federation spokeswoman Diane Fritschner, this region has the highest concentration of amateur cyclists in the country.

The boom in bicycle sales is good news for shops like the Two Wheel Transit Authority, a Fountain Valley store with 10,000 square feet of retail space. In 1982, says owner Paul Moore, he sold fewer than 1,000 bikes. This year, he expects to sell more than 4,000.

"I'm sure it's (the bicycle craze) still yet to peak," says Moore. As one indicator that cycling is more than a fad, he points to dozens of organized rides throughout Southern California. On one recent weekend, for example, there were three big rides going on.

CYCLING DUDS

"Five years ago, people were riding (bicycles) wearing T-shirts and cutoffs," notes John Kucharik Jr., president of Kucharik Bicycle Clothing in Gardena. "Now, people are educated."

To Kucharik, that means they've ditched the grubby duds for brightly colored, tight-fitting, sometimes expensive bicycle clothing--jerseys, shorts, tights, windbreakers, one piece "skin suits" and special bicycle underwear, among other items. The attire is designed for practicality--pads sewn into bicycle shorts, for instance, reduce chafing and increase riding comfort.

"Back in 1980," says Kucharik, "we used to sell 50 or 100 pairs of shorts a month. (Shorts now retail for $35-$60, he adds.) In 1984, we sold 400-500 a month. That's probably doubled now." Mark Holler, president of the San Fernando-based Aussie Racing Apparel, a firm he founded five years ago, recorded first-year sales of $6,000. He expects 1987 sales to surpass three-quarters of a million dollars.

HEALTH CLUBS

When "Peak Performance," a marketing research letter for health and athletic clubs based in Bellevue, Wash., tallied the number of health clubs state by state in late 1986, it was no contest.

California won hands down. Of 19,052 clubs operating nationwide, reports Peak Performance newsletter editor Ellen Doub, 2,563 are in California. (In a lame runner-up position is Florida, with 1,327 clubs.) And about two-thirds of those California fitness emporiums--nearly 1,700--are in the southern half of the state, estimate local experts.

Says Doub: "California does not have the largest number of clubs per capita. Colorado usually does. But California has the largest sheer number of clubs."

Are we heading for a club on every corner, a workout emporium in every mini-mall? Mike Talla, co-founder with Nanette Pattee of Sports Club/LA, the 100,000-square-foot West Los Angeles fitness palace that opened in March, thinks not. "The number of total health clubs has peaked," claims Talla, whose club has already attracted 5,200 members (who pay average monthly fees of $80 plus initiation fees ranging from $800-1650) and began wait-listing applicants in October. "I think we'll be losing smaller clubs. Certain specialty clubs such as the Jane Fonda Workout will always be around, but (overall) there will be fewer but larger (clubs). People are not just joining for one particular type of exercise. They want the whole package. The 'Ma and Pa' days are over."

Rudolph Smith, president of Holiday Spa Health Clubs in California, agrees. Consumers want "a more spacious club with more options," he says.

In the past five years his clubs have catered to consumer demands, he says, adding state-of-the-art machines, maintaining private exercise areas for women, and not neglecting the people looking only for a peaceful sanctuary. "Lots of people come here just for a steambath or a sauna," he notes, "or a few laps in the pool."

AT-HOME EXERCISE

Not everyone enjoys sweating it out with the crowd, so workouts are working their way home.

Nationwide, Americans spent $1,206,300,000 on exercise equipment last year, according to Dan Kasen of the National Sporting Goods Assn., down a bit from the 1985 total of $1,216,400,000 but higher than the 1984 total of $1,055,600,000.

Locally, exercise equipment companies are expanding their product lines to accommodate stay-at-homes.

"Five years ago, we had only the Lifecycle, (a computerized stationary bicycle)" says Augie Nieto, president of the Irvine-based Life Fitness. And the bulk of sales, he adds, was to health clubs.

Not so today. "Business now is divided about 50-50 between home and gym," says Nieto. His company's prime consumer additions: a computerized rowing machine (also sold commercially) and the Lifecyle 6000 stationary bicycle.

Another LA-area fitness manufacturer, Paramount Fitness Equipment Corporation, tells much the same story. "Our retail business has grown to about 40% of sales," says David Summers, regional sales manager. New products include the FitnessMate, a $1,495 single weight stack for home or gym, and the FitnessTrainer, a $3,925 deluxe home gym.

Both Nieto and Summer say they depend on Southern Californians to provide a substantial share of sales.

ATHLETIC SHOES

In 1985, Los Angeles-based L.A. Gear posted total sales of $11 million, with a simple canvas workout shoe the most popular seller." Now, they offer more than 80 different shoe styles and posted total 1986 sales of $36 million, says company spokeswoman Stephanie Burchfield.

Another Southern California-based athletic shoe manufacturer, K-Swiss in Pacoima, has also flourished, says President Steve Nichols. Five years ago, total sales were $10 million. This year, Nichols expects total sales of about $40 million.

Nationwide, sales of athletic shoes are also booming: Americans spent more than $3 billion on athletic footwear in 1986, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn.

Nichols attributes the growth to several factors: "Increased sports participation is No. 1," he says. Nonathletes' desires for comfortable shoes is another factor, he adds. "Only a fraction of basketball and tennis shoes are used for the sport for which they're intended," he believes.

DIETARY GURUS

When Gretchen Newmark began a full-time private practice as a Santa Monica registered dietitian five years ago, most of her clients had one thing on their minds: weight loss. To achieve it, they wanted her to give them a simple road map to sleekness.

Now, she says, "people are more interested in how they feel . They don't want to sacrifice their energy level for appearances' sake."

Increasing numbers of Southern Californians are referring themselves to dietitians like Newmark to find out what they're eating right, what they're eating wrong and how to boost their energy level through diet. And they're paying $40 to $100 for the initial consultation (less for follow-up visits), costs not always reimbursed by health insurance.

More consumers are calling up nutritionists on their own, reports Joan Levinthal, a Tarzana registered dietitian. Five years ago, she estimates, only 5% of her clients called her directly. The overwhelming majority were referred by their doctors to obtain special diets to combat health problems. These days, though, about 60% of her clients are self-referred.

As consumer demand for dietary information has grown, so have the ranks of registered dietitians and other nutritionists. In 1982, estimates Rita Storey, a Newport Beach registered dietitian and an American Dietetic Assn. spokeswoman, the California Dietetic Assn. had 4,800 members, more than half in Southern California. Today, memberships tops 6,200, with 3,100 Southern Californians.

"The whole movement toward wellness has opened up the market for private nutritionists," says Storey. "Especially for the yuppie crowd. They want their health to be at its peak while they earn all that money."

Many clients need only one or two consultations to get on track. But other clients, especially those who want to lose significant amounts of weight, may need to consult with their nutritionist weekly for a year or more.

Current efforts by the California Dietetic Assn. to require licensing of dietitians in California, according to Storey, will help consumers identify competent consultants. Registered dietitians advise consumers to avoid consultants who offer such services as cytotoxic blood testing or nutritional advice through hair analysis.

SPORTS SHRINKS

Some tennis players depend on the best brands of racquets, balls or shoes to help ensure a faultless performance. But a 48-year-old oral surgeon whose game faltered under mental pressure owes his comeback to off-court sessions with Michael Mahoney, a Santa Barbara clinical psychologist whose expertise includes sports psychology.

When the surgeon first contacted Mahoney, he wanted a swift remedy to the problem, the psychologist recalls.

Instead, Mahoney told him the solution wouldn't be quick or effortless. Over the next few weeks, Mahoney helped the surgeon repair his self-esteem--as low as a rainsoaked net--and learn to forgive his faults on-court and off. "And on a more practical level," Mahoney adds, "we worked on concentration."

Psychologists such as Mahoney are becoming more common in Southern California--and more accessible to amateur athletes. "Probably 5-10% of licensed practitioners do at least some counseling for sports-related activity, and my hunch is that number is growing," Mahoney estimates. (Based on Mahoney's estimate, along with an estimate from the California State Psychological Assn. that more than half of the 8,000 licensed psychologists in California practice in Southern California, the number of psychologists here offering sports counseling ranges from 200 to 400.)

In 1986, the American Psychological Assn. set up a special division of exercise and sports psychology, says spokesman Don White, mainly due to member requests. According to the APA's White, the increased interest in seeking mental-health help for sports performance reflects a heightened overall acceptance of psychologists.

Mahoney sees another factor. "Sports psychology is growing partly because people are more interested in winning," he says. During the health and fitness "revolution" of the past 10 years, he says, "many people have turned to organized sports as a way to get fit. And that involves a win-loss outcome." The expertise of Southern California sports psychologists can cost $50-150 a session, according to Mahoney, and is often not reimbursed by insurance.

Whatever the price, frustrated athletes shouldn't expect miracles, experts caution. And they should quiz a psychologist first about specific training in sports psychology.

PRIVATE TRAINERS

Two years ago, says private trainer Kris Alesna, 80% of his clients were men.

Now, about 70% of his clients are women. Sex is not all that's changed about his clientele. "In the beginning," says Alesna, "my clientele used to include only professionals such as attorneys, CPAs, doctors and, of course, entertainment people. Today, I also have waiters, waitresses and more business people, along with retirees who want to keep the blood pumping and the muscles working.

"Money was the big issue (in not hiring private trainers in years past). The major concern now is fitness."

"In a few years," Alesna says of his profession, "we'll be as common as accountants."

Trainers' prices vary, from $40-125 an hour or more in Southern California.

SPORTS MEDICINE CLINICS

As Southern Californians have begun to take fitness more seriously, they have become more active. As they have become more active, the number of injuries has increased.

To care for them, and to teach them how to help prevent injuries, legions of Southland sports medicine clinics now offer everything from free injury evaluation clinics to referrals to orthopedic surgeons.

Exactly how many such clinics operate in the Southland is a matter of conjecture: One orthopedic surgeon estimates there may be as many as 1,000, offering differing degrees of services and competencies.

Pacifica Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, a physician-owned facility in Huntington Beach, offers, among other services, physical therapy, fitness evaluations and low impact aerobics classes for patients recovering from back and neck injuries, says Fran Curns, administrator.

A typical patient, she adds, is a man age 35,injured while running or playing racquet sports.

Weekend warriors aren't the only ones who benefit from the clinics, as Sharon Capell, director of marketing for Nu-Med Regional Medical Center, points out: "It helps our physicians build their practices."

NATURAL FOODS

Accompanying the fitness boom, say observers, is increased consumer demand for "natural" and lower-calorie foods.

In traditional groceries, the produce department has become more important and more profitable, notes Steven Koff, president of the Southern California Grocers Assn., an L.A.-based organization representing 1,200 markets. "Produce figures have risen dramatically in the past five years," Koff notes. "Definitely, the word is fresh. It (the produce department) wasn't as high a profit center in the past as it is today."

In recent years, many Southern California markets have expanded their produce departments 20-30%, notes Jan DeLyser, executive vice president of the Fresh Produce Council, a nonprofit organization representing growers, distributors and others. "Studies show the department most cited by shoppers as the reason they shop a particular store is the produce department," DeLyser adds.

"Grocers have also added a large number of vitamins," Koff adds, "including vitamins that normally were found before only in health-food stores."

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