New fitness lifestyle in Riga, Vilnius

  • 2003-03-27
  • Ieva Tuna

While locals may roll their eyes when they hear yet another well-meaning foreigner remark about the "beautiful people," the old cliche stands true: Rigans do look good. Now we know why - they exercise.

As new gyms and sports centers open on every other street in Riga, the capital is enjoying an unprecedented fitness boom.

Competition among fitness clubs in Riga is getting extremely stiff, said Aleksandr Fedorinov, director of Martas Sporta Centrs, one of the trendiest gyms located in downtown Riga.

"At the moment, there are many fitness clubs around, but quality service is what people choose," Fedorinov says. "Even if you have a super-equipped gym, there is no point in exercising there if the place lacks a good aura."

About 200 people visit Martas Sporta Centrs every day and most spend on average an hour-and-a-half working out.

Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, is also experiencing a health boom.

Asta Majauskiene, director of the Forum Palace Sports Club, which is scheduled to open in Vilnius on March 26, said that while the health club market in Lithuania's capital had existed for about three years, it was only now taking off.

"What is happening here is exactly what happened in Helsinki 10-15 years ago: People from all over the country are moving to the capital, where they are able to earn a higher wage. Once they obtain that higher wage and have more wealth, they find different and more productive ways to spend their free time," Majauskiene said.

As more people put exercise higher up on their list of priorities, competition among fitness clubs keeps increasing. Gym owners and operators are looking for new ways to lure customers, often making fitness centers a one-stop shopping place for services other than exercise.

Marita Beinarovica, owner of Georgs 5 fitness club, recently expanded her gym by building a new three-story fitness club. Besides the saunas and tanning beds found in most gyms, the new fitness center now includes a beauty parlor and various forms of massage.

Although a recent move from a downtown location cost Georgs 5 about half of its clientele, it still attracts up to 280 people per day.

Ralfs Upmanis, a choreographer and fitness expert with Riga's A+S fitness club said the competition between gyms had led to higher quality and ore diverse services.

"In some clubs, people will be offered large halls and all kinds of comforts," he said. "Other clubs may not have that, but they'll have something special of their own.

"Take us, for example: Our facilities are not very spacious, but I know the customers say they like the atmosphere and the kind of rapport they have with the instructors."

So what exactly is causing such enthusiasm for exercise?

"I see the tendency that people are starting to spend money on themselves, and not only because they want to improve their appearance. People over 30, who have made some money and have some stability, understand they need to exercise for good health," Fedorinov said.

Similarly, wealthier Vilnusites want to make an investment in their health the same way they invest in their portfolios and view joining a health club as a "long-term investment in personal health", Majauskiene said.

Riga resident Almira, 33, is proof. She has made the hour-and-a-half she spends exercising at Martas Sporta Centrs three times a week an integral part of her life.

"I do it for my health," she said. "This is my lifestyle." Almira said.

Arvydas Tamasauskas, director of the Lithuanian Telecom Sports Club, said that since opening the club about two years ago, its business had continued to grow as people became more interested in their health and image.

Tamasauskas also predicted that the market for health clubs will continue to grow as wages rise.

To match the schedules of their busy customers, fitness centers are opening earlier in the morning and closing later at night and different types of memberships are offered to help regulate the flow of people throughout the day.

After work - from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. - is generally the most expensive time for working out at most fitness clubs. The pricier fees applied to early evening hours help club owners avoid packed gyms and aerobics halls - and thus, upset clientele - at those times.

However, many are willing to sacrifice convenience for savings. People have taken to visiting gyms at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m. to save on membership fees.

Georgs 5 Beinarovica said 9 p.m. was presently the problem time at her gym, as the facilities were filled with people taking advantage of the 10 lat (16 euro) membership.

The 10 lat membership - compared with the average membership fee of 25 lats - allows people to exercise from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 9 p.m. to 11 p.m..

Despite all the machines available to improve muscle tone and strength, most people still exercise to lose weight.

"Women come to exercise mainly to shape up and look better. But judging from what I see in my classes, a large number of both men and women also come to relax from their everyday troubles," Upmanis said.

"Men mostly come to get rid of their bellies. Women, of course, take aerobics classes," said Fedorinov.

But lately, Fedorinov has noticed that people have become as interested in their souls as they are in their bodies.

"After shaping up various 'trouble spots,' I see girls meditating during yoga classes in the same aerobics' hall they jumped around in three months ago," he said.

As fitness clubs offer new classes like Tai-chi, Pilates, yoga, body bike (known elsewhere as spinning), belly dancing and even fitness striptease, there is definitely a wide range of disciplines to chose from.

Should anyone require more variety than that, people working in the fitness industry are ready to offer alternative choices.

Tadas Lenkutis, director of the newly opened Vilnius tennis club Teniso pasaulis (Tennis World), believes the market for tennis in Lithuania will also grow.

While there is a tradition of tennis in Lithuania, it is now perceived as a snob sport, he said.

Lenkutis said he wanted his club to change that attitude and make tennis more appealing to the wider population. As wages in Vilnius increase, people want to use the money to explore new pastimes, he said, tennis included.

Steven Paulikas in Vilnius
contributed to this report.