Vancouver fitness guru Ron Zalko has seen enormous changes in his industry since he opened his Kitsilano gym in 1980. The founder of the Ironman Canada competition has managed to maintain his business for nearly 35 years as numerous competitors, including some high-profile chains, have gone belly-up.
In an interview with the Georgia Straight in his 20,000-square-foot facility, Zalko recalls when he introduced the term aerobics to Canada. This occurred after it had been pioneered in Texas by the “father of aerobics”, Dr. Ken Cooper.
“I said, ‘Wow, I like that word,’ ” Zalko says.
He laughs as he explains how the term confused some Vancouverites, who would phone the gym and ask if aerobics was a form of acrobatics. Zalko will also never forget when Hollywood actor Jane Fonda called from Seattle in the early 1980s to see if he would host a workout she was planning to hold in Vancouver. Fonda was then known as the aerobics queen.
“I recognized her voice,” Zalko says. “It took a minute and a half to say ‘Yes.’ ”
Another highlight from the early years occurred when zippy fitness fanatic Richard Simmons appeared at Zalko’s original club on West 4th Avenue. Zalko chuckles as he remembers how Simmons dubbed his event “Fork Off and Go to Health”.
So why has Zalko remained operator of a single outlet when so many other fitness-industry entrepreneurs either franchised or created a stable of studios? “We decided a long time ago to have only one location so we can really focus on quality and not quantity,” he replies. “That’s because it’s not hamburgers. It’s not clothes. It’s a people business. You really have to look after them. You have to have the support, the service, and the inspiration to make sure there are good-quality programs. This way, they can reach their goals and be happy about themselves and their body.”
He has his share of success stories. Environmentalist David Suzuki has been going to Zalko’s gym for years and may be one of the fittest 77-year-olds on the planet. In 2006, Suzuki was so buff that he appeared nearly naked, only covered with a maple leaf, to celebrate the new season of his long-running CBC show, The Nature of Things.
Zalko erupts in laughter as he cites a lesser-known success story. A woman entered his gym and said, “Ron, I drink and I smoke and there’s no way I’m going to give it up. Can you get me in shape?”
Zalko says he told her that he could do that. “And before you know it, six months later she became fit,” he states. “She stopped smoking and drinking and she started running marathons.”
He takes delight in recounting anecdotes like this, but Zalko becomes very serious about what constitutes a proper workout and diet. He still exercises for an hour every day, emphasizing the importance of combining strength exercises with cardio workouts, stretching, and healthy, natural foods. He has a simple nutrition tip: if there are too many ingredients on the package in the grocery store, don’t buy it. Zalko also claims that 75 percent of weight loss comes from what people consume, and another 25 percent results from exercise.
“Do not eat processed food,” he advises. “They put in the salt so the shelf life is longer. Salt is a killer. Sugar is a killer. Fat is a killer.”
Ron Zalko Total Body Fitness & Yoga has 3,000 members, according to the founder. As the company’s name implies, there is no shortage of yoga.
“I see a trend to going to yoga classes,” he says. “But in my humble opinion, yoga is not enough.”
Zalko insists that women, in particular, need weight-bearing exercises not only to get toned and lean but also to ward off osteoporosis in the future.
He’s not a fan of cross-fit programs, particularly for those in their 40s and 50s, saying they can lead to injuries. He’s also skeptical about the parkour craze, in which devotees act like commandos, hopping over stairs and railings and jumping off buildings while doing cartwheels and other acrobatic stunts.
“All that jumping from box to box—up and down and out—maybe it’s good for the military for a short time,” Zalko says. “I don’t recommend that.”