It looks like most suburban gyms: located in a shopping center, sweaty patrons with their gym bags and yoga mats.
The staff greets members by name as they enter the gym. An instructor shouts out instructions as students mimic her rhythmic movement. Britney Spears’ “Hold It Against Me” blasts from the stereo, mixing with the stomps on treadmills, the clank of elliptical and click of stationary bikes, the clang of weights against a metal rack, and members’ chatter and laughs.
Members execute each machine with all their might, wheezing for water after each set. The sounds fade in the rooms, where the women hustle through gauntlets of exercises: pushups to step-ups to jumping jacks.
Mottos scream at them from the walls: “No pain, no gain,” “What are you working for?” and “It hurts because it works.” But this gym has one characteristic that separates it from Corinth’s 35 other gyms: It’s women only.
Set on 5,500 square feet of land, Lady of America Fitness Center in Corinth diminishes when it stands next to fitness giant corporations such as Lifetime Fitness or LA Fitness.
The center is located in the middle of a plaza next to restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut and Asia Wok.
Membership extends to females of all ages, kindergartners to adults (but the younger kids require adult supervision).
Services include free baby-sitting, nutrition counseling, fitness evaluation, spa treatments, boot camps, massage therapy, sauna, tanning, personal training and more than 40 fitness classes with six to seven types: aerobic to zumba to piloxing to cycling. The gym offers everything a Lifetime Fitness or LA Fitness provides, but to owner Melissa Dudley, Lady of America is something more. It is a safe haven: a place to form friendships and an ogle-free zone.
“These women feel comfortable,” Dudley said. “They can come with hair any way they want, wearing no makeup and feel comfortable working out.”
Jen Peterson is not a stranger to LOA-Corinth. She has been working for Dudley for seven years. But before becoming an aerobics instructor and massage therapist, she found herself in a city where she didn’t know anyone.
Peterson moved to Corinth from California in 2005. The stay-at-home mother of two toddlers had no friends and no ideas on how to find them. One day, her husband spotted LOA-Corinth while driving around the city.
Peterson had always placed health high on her priorities list. In California, she joined her neighborhood gyms but never felt comfortable.
During her first visit to Lady of America seven years ago, she found “the feeling of a small community where everyone is friends.” She still remembers Dudley greeting her with the smile that she still routinely has on her face today, and the encouragement among the members.
“If I didn’t have this gym or the people in it, I don’t know where I’d be,” Peterson says as she looks down and reflects on the thought. “We always talk about moving back to California, but I want to pick this gym up and take it with me because I love it so much. I love the members, the staff. I love everybody.”
Welcoming new members and showering them with love is the unspoken LOA-Corinth standard, but the gym’s core is still fitness.
Boot camp instructor April Cowgill recalls two years ago a woman who weighed more than 300 pounds but wanted a baby. Through strict regimens, she lost more than 100 pounds, became healthier and had a baby shortly after.
Cowgill has seen women who cannot do a pushup or run more than a mile, but after a few months, they are running 15 kilometers together.
“I try not to take credit because I just tell them what to do,” Cowgill said.
The boot camp is a five-week program that is a non-stop one-hour session where women do push-ups for a minute before jumping to the next exercise. The routine requires so much endurance that a few women have to stop in the middle to catch their breath and get a drink of water before jumping back into another gauntlet of exercises.
Kristin Stewart is the MVP of this year’s winter boot camp program, an award given to the person who lost the most weight. Before enlisting in the gym, Stewart was in a postpartum stage and unmotivated. Losing confidence by the day, she met a friend who lost a significant amount of weight through LOA-Corinth’s programs and decided to register for the gym’s boot camp.
Heather Grein, another member in the boot camp program, is always fit and motivated. She runs in the morning and stretches whenever she can. Like Peterson, she relocated to Corinth and was a stranger to the city. She saw the gym’s boot camp advertisements as she was driving by one day and decided to join the boot camp.
The two women had never met. Each had a different goal and mind-set entering the gym. But what awaited them at the finish line wasn’t just physical and mental transformation, but also a long-lasting friendship.
Stewart and Grein each joined a major gym corporation before joining LOA-Corinth. Their first impression of the place wasn’t the greatest. Grein thought the gym “seemed small and not enough treadmills.” But after five weeks of sharing diet tips with classmates she had never met before, waking up early in the morning to run, struggling with her classmates, instructors holding her accountable, Grein’s initial perspective of the gym had changed dramatically.
“I find it to be a family, and I have established a lot of good relationships,” she said. “This is coming from a person who attended Lifetime where you are one in a million.”
To Grein, this gym is also the place for all the moms in the community. Since becoming a member, she discovers a majority of the moms in the gym have kids going to the same school as her kids, so she is able to talk to these moms about the school system.
A lot of these women also have different jobs, hence establishing a strong network among the women. Just recently, Grein took a piano lesson from a girl who worked at the day care. And while the moms mingle and exercise, their kids can play with other kids in the free day care room, so even they establish friendships with each other.
As Grein describes it, “it’s playtime for the kids and workout time for moms.”
As Grein recalls her experience, Stewart sits next to her, concurring with everything she said. Whenever Stewart felt discouraged during her boot camp regimen, she would receive a Facebook post from Cowgill, telling her to keep up the good work. After five weeks of strict dieting, running miles after miles early in the morning, tracking progress of her hard work, she lost more than 6 1/2 inches in her waist. But as much as she loves the physical transformation, the mental change is critical.
“I feel more confident,” Stewart says as Grein watches her with a proud look on her face. “I am able to smile again and not worry about the person in the mirror.”
Stewart thanks the gym for its accountability, the constant encouragement from everyone and the ogle-free zone.
“This gym is not like a meat market,” Stewart says as Grein shakes her head repeatedly in agreement.
“Yet you are wearing makeup today,” teases Grein.
“I am going to my son’s basketball game afterward!” Stewart says as both of them start to laugh uncontrollably together.
Under Dudley and her staff’s management, LOA-Corinth has reached a new pinnacle. The number of members went from 200 from the previous ownership to an astounding 1,200. The gym expanded 1,000 square feet, 30 classes to 40 and new equipment was added.
Dudley, with no prior business experience before her ownership and working another job at American Airlines, initially took the job because of her love for working out. But after seeing everyone’s transformation and the interactions among the staff and members, she knew she had to keep this gym alive.
She plans to be more hands-on because she believes that’s the difference between a successful and unsuccessful gym. She wants to get more ladies in the community to be more involved and encourages kids to exercise more by telling them about obesity.
She still can’t explain the feeling of owning a gym where fitness is a priority, but friendships and encouragement are the norms.
“I am so passionate about it,” Dudley says. “This is the difference between having a job and doing something you love.”