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On Route 9, a rivalry of elite fitness clubs

Amy Masters exercised at Healthworks on Route 9. She also belongs to Sports Club/LA, and can’t decide between them.

Michele McDonald/Globe Staff

Amy Masters exercised at Healthworks on Route 9. She also belongs to Sports Club/LA, and can’t decide between them.

Is it the on-site Botox shots at Healthworks? The Himalayan salt wall in the sauna at Sports Club/LA? The fresh cut Winston flowers at Equinox? What makes a person choose one tony health club over another?

In Chestnut Hill, the answer to that question is playing out along a fashionable half-mile stretch of Route 9 as two posh gyms move onto the street — Equinox and Sports Club/LA — and an existing club, the high-end, women-only Healthworks — fights to hold onto its members.

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With monthly rates that can top $150, the gyms feature lobby shops selling organic quinoa and nitrate-free turkey salad with sunflower seeds and edamame, yoga studios so beautiful that Gwyneth Paltrow herself would not seem out of place, chilled eucalyptus towels, Kiehls products, and water coolers infused with cucumber and lemon slices.

Planet Fitness — with its $10 monthly memberships and free pizza Mondays — these gyms are not.

Sports Club/LA opened in March as part of “The Street” — one of the trendier retail developments in the area. Perched above a Lululemon, the sun-lit gym is across from Pinkberry, Shake Shack, Treat Cupcake Bar, and Be Styled, a blow-dry bar. A Polka Dog Bakery is coming soon, and so are a Showcase SuperLux dine-in movie theater, complete with cocktails and a concierge, and Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse.

Equinox isn’t slated to open until the fall, but it will be part of a second development with a homey-sounding name that’s at odds with its state highway location. “Chestnut Hill Square” is scheduled to include a Wegmans, a destination grocery store if there ever was one, the requisite frozen yogurt shop (Red Mango) and a collection of high-end restaurants.

The competition for the wealthy residents living in Newton, Brookline, and other nearby communities is serious. One industry analyst, Dale Schmidt, of California-based research firm IBISWorld, predicts three clubs will have trouble surviving in such close proximity. Another expert, Michael Scott Scudder, chief executive of the Fitness Business Council, , a Taos, N.M., group for independent club owners, says that with gym supply outpacing demand nationwide, the number of members per club is dropping.

And wooing a person to join is just part of the battle. On average, 40 percent of members drop out after a year, said Scudder. “We’re a fickle public.”

Amy Masters, a longtime Healthworks member who recently joined Sports Club/LA, but can’t quite bring herself to end her Healthworks membership, likened the situation to affairs of the heart.

“It’s like you’re thinking about having an affair because you’re bored,” she said. “Sports Club/LA is the new guy enticing you — he’s handsome and exciting. But Healthworks is comfortable.”

Despite the high stakes, don’t expect to hear any weight-room grunts. Like Miss America contestants who insist they are only competing against themselves, representatives of the three Route 9 clubs maintain they’re focused only on their own facilities — even as they check out their rivals and make subtle digs.

“That’s them,” said Helene Feeley, senior general manager of Healthworks in Chestnut Hill, as she looked across the way at Sports Club/LA, where memberships are going for $140 per month. (Healthworks rates range from $79 to $159 for a membership that includes a monthly massage.)

Wendy Pierce, publicist for Healthworks, insisted the competition was good for all the gyms, but she was also quick to point out that her club and its on-site SkinHealth center offer facials, acupuncture, massage, and laser hair removal, among other services.

“Sports Club/LA does not have a spa,” she noted.

Similarly, a Sports Club/LA executive praised the competition — before slipping in the stiletto.

“Healthworks has a loyal following and that’s great,” said Smaiyra Million, chief executive of Millennium Partners, which owns the chain.

She paused. “I had several of their members who came up to me at our grand opening and said they’d reached a point where they wanted to work out with a husband or a boyfriend.” (That’s not possible at Healthworks, which is women-only except in smaller studio across a driveway from the main club.)

Million also took aim at her other rival: Equinox. Though the club will not open until the fall, it’s pushing preopening deals. Customers who sign up now pay no initiation fee and lock in a $133 per month rate, compared with a $175 initiation fee when it opens and a $154 monthly rate.

Equinox’s general manager, Peter Rothermel, said he won about 100 members from Healthworks and Sports Club/LA, despite the fact that the latter has been open just a couple of months.

“Equinox has a very urban New York vibe,” Million said. “The music is on the louder side. That may or may not appeal to a certain demographic in Chestnut Hill.”

Less than half a mile west down Route 9, where Equinox is rising, Rothermel was equally complimentary about Sports Club/LA. “It’s a beautiful club,” he said — before drawing attention to Sports Club/LA’s smaller size. “But it’s 33,000 feet. Their club in downtown is 100,000 square feet. There’s no pool. No courts.”

The targets of all this attention are trying to decide where to enroll. At Sports Club/LA, with its lobby fireplace and a spinning studio equipped with a panoramic screen? At Equinox, with its three-lane indoor pool? Or should they remain at Healthworks? It recently completed a $500,000 renovation, and the members love the spacious lounge and the comfort of working out with only women.

With Equinox and Sports Club/LA circling, Healthworks finds itself in the position of the spurned spouse ready to forgive any and all transgressions.

“I see that you have chosen to discontinue your membership . . . to explore newer pastures at SCLA,” the manager’s note to one former member read. “Please remember it is a seamless transition back home to HW if you don’t find what you are looking for.”

As the traffic inches along Route 9, and the spinning bike wheels spin, some members are playing the field. Consider the tangled story of Fern Hammer, an agent with Hammer Residential real estate. Wowed by Sports Club/LA, she quit Healthworks, her longtime gym. The members, she said, “started looking like my mother and it didn’t motivate me.”

But her new club proved to be too popular. “I was always stuck in the back of classes and I couldn’t see,” she said. “I’m 5 feet tall.”

Frustrated that there were some classes she couldn’t get into at all — even in the back — Hammer quit Sports Club/LA and returned to Healthworks. “But I told the manager when Equinox opens I’m leaving.”

And for those who don’t want to work out at all? The lines at Shake Shack are sure to ease at some point.

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.
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