Why Is 12th Street Gym Partnering with McDonald’s?

Because "health and fitness are a matter of choices made, not choices offered," says owner Rick Piper.

The McDouble // Courtesy McDonald’s Corporation

I’ll admit it was a bit of a head scratcher yesterday when I received a very enthusiastic press release about an Olympics watch party to be held at Midtown Village’s 12th Street Gym, sponsored by  … McDonald’s. Does this not seem a bit odd to anyone else?

In the email, Alicia Gentile, the PR gal for the McDonald’s Owner/Operator Association of the Greater Philadelphia Region, which is sponsoring the event, explained that “McDonald’s is the official sponsor of the 2012 Summer Olympics so we have decided to partner with the 12th Street Gym to better introduce McDonald’s healthy low-calorie options to heath conscience and sports savvy people like yourself.” She was writing to invite me to the Olympics watch party, held in the gym last night, that was to feature items from McDonald’s “Favorites Under 400 Calories” menu, which debuted just last week to coincide with the start of the 2012 Olympics.

(To be fair, three other gyms in the region are hosting similar Mickey D’s-sponsored affairs: Future Fitness Center in Cherry Hill, Colonial Fitness and Sports Club up near Reading, and 1614 Fitness and Aerobics in Bear, Delaware.)

Whether or not it was intentional (though I’m sure it was), word of the new menu—which is actually just a reshuffling of the restaurant’s same-old options, simply reorganized by calorie counts—hit the media just as backlash over McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games was beginning to die down. Early last month, the London Assembly voted to ban the Games’ marquee sponsors, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, arguing that an event meant to celebrate world-class athleticism should not be underwritten by, as the Huffington Post puts it, “companies that produce high-calorie food and drinks that may contribute to obesity.” The International Olympic Committee obviously didn’t agree, as the Golden Arches and Coke logos are currently plastered all over the Games, but the Internet, rife with its usual cacophony of opinions, largely did. The result was a pretty big, well-documented backlash—one that’s not-so-cold in the ground, yet, that our own 12th Street Gym should have forgotten it.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that every last member of the 12th Street Gym staff has been unplugged for the past month and missed all the McDonald’s/Olympics hullaballoo. Even still, I fail to see how putting on an event with a fast-food restaurant makes sense for a gym. I didn’t attend the watch party last night, but I can just picture the irony of putting back a 390-calorie McDouble or slurping up a 340-calorie Oreo McFlurry (snack size, in case you’re wondering) next to a treadmill or a set of barbells. Does this make sense to you?

I wanted to give the gym a fair shake, a chance to explain itself, so I reached out to owner Rick Piper (who, it should be pointed out, mistakenly thought that McDonald’s had debuted a new, healthy menu with lower-calorie choices. When I pointed out that it, in fact, hadn’t—that the menu contains the same items McDonald’s has always offered, just displayed in a new way—he said he wasn’t “here to debate that.” Anyway.). When I asked Piper to explain how it made sense for a gym to align with a fast-food restaurant and offer that restaurant’s food to its members, he said, “I think health and fitness are a matter of choices made, not choices offered. Every restaurant, with the rare exception of a few speciality restaurants, offers healthier choices and less healthy choices, whether that’s the Capital Grille or Applebee’s or Cheesecake Factory.”

True, but we’re talking about a gym here, not the Cheesecake Factory. If I’m going to eat something that my gym is making available, I’m probably going to assume that the item is healthy. Yes, the McDouble has 390 calories, but it also contains 19 grams of fat (including 8 grams of saturated fat) and 890 milligrams of sodium. That’s not exactly the same as a kale smoothie.

Piper continued: “McDonald’s is attempting to offer healthier choices. No one’s suggesting that the menu represents entirely healthy choices, but the McDonald’s menu is no worse than any other brand-name chain, like Starbucks. I think McDonald’s to come in and show what choices they have is good for everyone. Our members can have a cheeseburger and still be fit an healthy.”

I completely agree—I’m all about people splurging every now and then. (Remember my love affair with Wawa?) But again, this is about the venue and the implied endorsement that bringing McDonald’s into a gym creates. Whether it means to or not, 12th Street Gym (and the others hosting these parties) is essentially putting its stamp of approval on McDonald’s, which I’m betting isn’t something most health-and-fitness-focused businesses would be quite so eager to do.

I love the idea of bringing Philly’s fitness community together to watch the Olympics. We should have a place to go to cheer on our athletes at the Games. And feel free cater the heck out of it, if you want. These days, Philly has no shortage of awesome, health-focused cafes and restaurants that probably would have jumped at the chance to offer samples to “heath conscience and sports savvy people.” But a party, in a gym, featuring McDonald’s food feels … wrong.

“We’re perfectly happy to partner with McDonald’s,” Piper told me.

At least one of us is.

>> What do you think? Is it ok for a gym to team up with a restaurant like McDonald’s? Share your thoughts in the comments.