The health club is no longer just a place to attain physical fitness, typically they offer a range of activities that hint at spiritual and mental wholeness too. These therapies can include eastern philosophy and so-called New Age spirituality. With growing numbers of Britons choosing to search for a fit body, mind and spirit in the gym - some churches have begun running Alpha classes in health clubs rather than church halls.
What is it that attracts huge numbers to join health clubs? What range of services do they offer? And what, if anything, can churches learn?
It's ironic that while many people in the Western world seem obsessed with looking youthful, slimming and developing tone and muscle on their torso that many others are obese. Governments in much of Western Europe as well as in the United States, consider the number of people who are unhealthily overweight has reached crisis levels.
Last spring the UK government issued a directive urging the nation to take control of its own health. We have been bombarded by adverts warning us to reduce our salt and sugar intake, while the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, tells you and me to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily, along with two litres of water a day. The final component in getting a healthy body is exercise. Five sessions of moderate exercise, each of 30 minutes duration each week, is the advice.
Millions of Britons have unhealthy lifestyles – and many need to supplement their low levels of exercise. While government does not say we have to use gyms to achieve our weekly exercise quota, health clubs and leisure centres are playing an increasingly important part in helping to keep the nation fit, particularly following calls for tax incentives and reduced health club prices to allow wider access.
For many years research has shown that conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and depression can all be alleviated to some degree by physical exercise. Stimulation of our minds and spirits has also been shown to reduce stress levels and increase a sense of wholeness and well being.
Health clubs explode
Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the launch of new health and fitness clubs. Research suggests that around one in five in the UK - are regular users of health clubs or leisure centres. Over the past decade there has been an explosion in the launch of new health and fitness clubs. In an industry which is believed to be worth some £1.3bn, there are now over 4,500 members' clubs, while every town boasts its own municipal leisure centre. The appeal lies in the fact that these facilities can provide a total body workout under one roof; a clean, comfortable and convenient environment with expert supervision and advice available at all times.
But the health club is much more than a venue to attain physical fitness. A typical club today will boast a gym, a swimming pool, studio, sauna and steam rooms, beauty treatments, dentistry, bar or restaurant, and crèche or children's facilities. Some clubs will have extensive sports facilities; some offer dry cleaning, travel agency services, a take away food service or video libraries. They attract all ages and backgrounds, men and women, singles, couples and families.
One up-market health club in London is called Third Space. "The philosophy is that you have three spaces in your life – home, work and here," explains Brocas Burrows, the club's duty manager, in an interview published in The Guardian newspaper (5/1/04). "It's the third most important space in our members' lives – and for some of them it's even higher. It's a spiritual centre in a way."
Third Space and other health clubs are replacing the pub - or the church - as the place where people will go to relax, meet and make friends, acquire new interests and seek advice. Some people have stopped consulting their GP for remedies to common ailments. Instead they are seeing their in-house health club doctor. Church attendance may be dropping, but many people are still keen to 'belong'. They want somewhere, which offers guidance, attention, wise counsel, the opportunity to make and keep friends – something to improve their well-being and the quality of their life. For some people the health club is close to fulfilling that role.
The Third Space offers DJs who mix music to help you work out in the gym, has TVs in the sauna, offers a range of martial arts activities, nutritionists and lifestyle coaches, a clinic offering orthodox and 'alternative' therapies, an organic cafe and supermarket - and even occasional Mongolian chanting and Gospel aerobics classes hosted by live choirs!
The fitness industry has always been known for its fads - clubs and suppliers of equipment have competed over the years to come up with the latest gimmick to help keep people motivated. Growing numbers of health clubs are offering elements of spiritual guidance to members under the premise of holistic well-being, commonly labelled Mind, Body and Soul (or Spirit).
Yoga which is linked with Eastern spirituality is now a mainstream offering, but some clubs have been known to provide Tarot card reading, fitness and beauty programmes based on astrological charts, Reiki, Zen meditation, hypnotherapy, and a gamut of New Age therapies. Thankfully as well as this range of weird and potentially hugely harmful practices, a handful of clubs have agreed to host Alpha or other Christian inquiry courses. However these are few and far between. Is that churches have been refused permission to run Alpha in health clubs – or perhaps more likely the clubs haven't been asked!
It's church gym but not as we know it
How many churches are recognising their local health club as their mission field and are prepared to present the gospel message in a culturally relevant way to health club members?
An interest in regaining good physical health can often signal a wider range of needs. These people may be more acutely aware of their own mortality than the average person, or they maybe more actively searching for emotional and spiritual health.
"People get a real boost from physical activity – it gives you a burst of energy and makes you feel good," says Nancy Goudie, who runs meditation classes in fitness environments around the UK. "But they realise that there's still something missing." Nancy, who is a co-director of the Christian music and arts charity, NGM, has written a Spiritual Health Workout book and has recorded three meditation CDs, which aim to alleviating stress.
Nancy Goudie is a high profile Christian in the physical and spiritual fitness field. Her website www.nancygoudie.com is well worth visiting. However she is the exception to the rule. Despite the plethora of options given health club members in different philosophies, self-help mantras and therapies, very few people in a health club setting can access the Christian faith. "Health club members start looking for answers and will try anything that is on offer. The meditation classes provided in the health club will often open them up to other religions such as Buddhism," says Goudie. "We should be in these places providing a Christian alternative."
Yet, very often, Christians are worried about going into these environments for fear of being misled themselves. "When I tell Christians that I run meditation classes they claim that is 'dodgy'," says Goudie. "But meditation is very much a Biblical concept - the other religions stole it from us."
Wake up to the challenge
Rob Frost has written and spoken extensively on how the church should be taking note of elements of the New Age therapies: 'the emphasis on the sacredness of creation, the interconnectedness of all God's creation and the need to be concerned for our environment, were all deeply Christian themes - but ones which had been too often neglected in the church.'
"The church needs to wake up to the challenge of going into these places and meet with people who are searching," says Goudie.
Even if individuals or churches do feel uncomfortable with answering the claims or coming alongside these New Age therapies, there are many ways in which they can get alongside health club members. Simply joining the facility themselves and making friends, is one way.
Fiona Castle, well known for her efforts to encourage women in evangelism belongs to a health club near her home in Surrey. "It's a great place to build friendships," she says. "And I've found that I have had amazing conversations with other women even as we swim up and down the pool. People open up tremendously and I have had numerous opportunities to share my faith as a result."
For the managers of the health clubs, friendship among its members makes good business sense. Even though people know they should exercise, most eventually find it boring and monotonous. For health clubs the challenge is to find ways to keep members interested – the alternative is they leave and cancel their membership fees. Health club managers acknowledge that it's easy for people to leave a facility, but hard for them to leave friends.
Health clubs which have hosted Alpha courses have reported that people who attended who said they would never have participated if the course had been held in a church premises, but as it was held in their club they felt they could 'give it a go'.
Other health club-based courses could include classes to develop parenting skills, enhance marriage or manage stress. Care for the Family is one of several Christian organisations that provide resources to run these courses.
Some health clubs have hosted Christmas carol services in their sports halls, while one organisation runs Esther Days, which provide makeovers incorporating some basic Biblical teaching.
Health club members are simply waiting for a positive Christian message to be presented to them. It is up to us to seize this opportunity.