Bupa goes to the gym

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The Independent Online

Bupa, the private medical insurer, is close to agreeing a deal which will allow its customers cheap membership to more than 500 gyms nationally.

In return for granting the cheap membership terms, fitness clubs will gain access to the private medical insurer's database and benefit from the kudos of its sponsorship. Bupa believes that gym membership will reduce the incidence of medical treatments for which it is liable.

The deal, called Bupa Fitness Connection, has been masterminded by the Fitness Industry Association (FIA), which represents about 1,200 clubs in the UK.

The arrangement is the latest development in the increasingly close relationship between health insurers and fitness clubs. But the UK is still years behind the US, where gym members benefit from vastly improved private medical insurance terms. The US model is expected to become more apparent here as governments struggle with the herculean task of funding the National Health Service.

Gym operators have been eager to expand their operations by tapping the majority of the population which refuses to exercise, but would be willing to use clubs for health services. It follows research by Mintel, the market research organisation, which showed that although 68 per cent of the population recognised that it needed to exercise more, 64 per cent said it would never enter a gym. Britain is the European leader in obesity, with 21 per cent of the population suffering from the condition. LA Fitness, the chain which floated last year, has been at the forefront of attracting customers for reasons of health rather than fitness. It has just opened its first "Wellness" centre, in Bedford, providing even non-members with a variety of medical services manned by qualified doctors and nurses. Peter Jacobs, the former chief executive of Bupa, is now chairman of LA Fitness. Fitness First, another quoted chain, has also embraced the deal.

Nigel Wallace, executive director of the FIA, said: "Bupa is a great company for the health and fitness industry to be associated with."

Fred Turok, chief executive of LA Fitness, said: "We think this is an excellent idea. What's happening will be a drive to exploit the health element of health and fitness."