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Anytime Fitness President and co-founder Chuck Runyon, left, and CEO and co-founder Dave Mortensen, held a grand opening of their new corporate building in Woodbury, which they call the "fittest building in America", Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press

Anytime Fitness sees rapid expansion

WOODBURY, Minn. -- Mary Thoma squirmed as she waited for her first tattoo.

Of all her core beliefs — love of family, religion, patriotism — only one was powerful enough to warrant signage under the skin. That was her love for Anytime Fitness.

“I’ll take the pain. I don’t care,” said Thoma bravely, perspiring visibly and nervously gulping wine.

Thoma was about to get inked at Anytime Fitness’s headquarters in Woodbury during a grand-opening celebration Wednesday.

She now is one of about 3,000 people with tattoos of the company’s “Runningman” symbol. The outbreak of tats is sign that loyalty to Anytime Fitness is more than skin-deep.

“Tattoos are an expression of who you are,” said company co-founder Dave Mortenson. “Anytime Fitness has been a life-changing event for a lot of people.”

That’s what Thoma says. She credits the no-frills 24/7 fitness chain with saving her life.

In just 14 years, the company has grown to 3,225 worldwide locations. The appeal is Anytime Fitness’ less-is-more business plan, which turns its larger fitness-as-lifestyle center competition’s model upside down. At Wednesday’s celebration, officials gushed about the company’s new headquarters. Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens arrived, sans tattoo, but with toenails tastefully painted with the Anytime Fitness logo.

Company media director Mark Daly gave tours. “We like to believe this is one of the fittest buildings in America,” he said.

Antidote for big

Half of the 200 headquarters employees work at stand-up desks; they meet in a stand-up conference room. They can share treadmill desks, walking and working.

Most of the work stations are near windows. “We are democratic with daylight,” said Daly.

A 60-foot climbing wall and probably the state’s longest zipline — 1,200 feet — will be soon built on a nearby hillside.Of course, there is a full gym for employees, and they can walk or bike around the 26-acre site. The place boasts two kitchens and a coffee bar.

The building is a monument to the company’s rise up from its origins as a single club in Cambridge, Minn.

At that time, according to co-founder Chuck Runyon, the industry locally was dominated by mega-chains like the YMCA and Life Time Fitness. Both chains offer pools and lockers, with Chanhassen-based Life Time boasting a club-like motif, including hot tubs, wood-and granite locker rooms, towel service, massage rooms, day care centers, salons, movie-watching rooms and even restaurants — and trainers on call.

These facilities are so big, said Runyon, that newcomers quickly can feel ignored — or worse, intimidated, surrounded by hundreds of beautiful bodies.

“I have heard people say, ‘I have to get into shape before I join a club,’ ” said Runyon.

During rush-hour, big-gym patrons shower and get dressed in large groups — which co-founder Mortenson doesn’t like. “I don’t believe the average consumer wakes up in the morning and says ‘Who is the next person I want to shower next to?’ ’’ he said.

In the face of this literally big competition, Anytime Fitness went small. Its gyms are usually 5,000 square feet — one-20th the size of a typical Life Time Fitness. They are not lifestyle destinations; they are tucked into retail centers and malls.

Each one has the basics — weights, exercise equipment, private bathrooms with showers. But there are no pools, child care centers, snack bars. There are no thousand-car parking lots.

They are less expensive, costing $35 to $45 a month, and they are always open — with one staffer or no one at all — so customers can come in for a solitary workout.

Yet a club culture thrives in the smaller environment, said Runyon. “We can get to know you like no other brand. We can listen and coach you to success.”

The price, the size, the hours — all are geared for quick workouts for people who don’t want to show off.

Physical graffiti

Mortenson said that when exercise is convenient and friendly, people get healthy. When they get healthy, they get grateful — and they show that gratitude with tattoos. That’s what happened to Cindy Keen.

Keen, of New London, Wis., once weighed 497 pounds. “I had to sit down to cook meals for my family,” she said.

Then she started exercising, and lost 266 pounds. “My life was given back to me by Anytime Fitness,” said Keen.

At the grand opening, she slipped into the tattoo parlor, a Goth-style room with “Bleed Purpose” in two-foot letters on one wall. She noticed the display of photos showing the the company logo tattooed onto shoulders, chests and, one in case, a butt.

She waited until Jimmy Hayden waved her over to a recliner. Hayden, a celebrity tat-meister who has decorated basketball stars LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal, was giving free tattoos.

The tattoo gun buzzed softly as he worked on Keen’s calf.

“It’s irritating, but it’s not I-gotta-jump-under-the-chair pain,” said Keen. “If you are passionate about something — if you really want it — the pain is not so bad.”

That wasn’t terribly re-assuring to her friend, Thoma, who was waiting her turn.

Thoma, 53, said she was once so obese that a doctor said she might not live long enough to retire. She joined Anytime Fitness and lost 100 pounds. “Anytime Fitness is near and dear to me,” said Thoma.

But she fidgeted as she waited, worrying about the pain. She fretted about her husband, who didn’t know about the tattoo.

When it was her turn, Hayden drew the corporate logo on her foot. Everyone watched as Thoma grimaced, and then relaxed. “It’s not so bad,” she shrugged.

But she still had another problem — her husband.

“If my name has changed the next time we meet,” she said to the group, “you’ll know what happened.”

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