Proudly South African

Discovery's Vitality program makes me sweat the small stuff
(also features my Virgin Active experience)

Blog 038 - 17 August 2013

Cascades Virgin Active Gym

About nine years ago my daughter and her husband decided to swim the Midmar Mile. As they wanted to enter as a family, my son and I were roped in. As I was still working at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) back then, I was able to train in the university's 50 m pool. Since then, I have swum seven, possibly eight Midmar Miles.

When I officially retired from UKZN at the end of 2009, I decided to take up the University's medical aid provider, Discovery's offer to join their Vitality program. In doing so, I qualified for membership of the local Virgin Active Gym on payment of a lump sum, and a monthly levy thereafter. At the time I took up the offer and immediately switched my training for the Midmar Mile to the 25 m pool at the Victoria Road Virgin Active Gym.

About a year ago then they closed the parking lot that I used at Victoria Road. Fortunately this happened at much the same time as Virgin Active opened the gym at Cascades. The switch to the new gym was not a problem, as being much closer to my home, it suited me now that I was fully retired and spending more time at home. What did not suit me, was to find a pool at the new gym that was five (5) meters shorter than one would expect i.e., a twenty (20) meters pool. How brain dead is that? Well perhaps not as brain dead as the benches in the change rooms. More about that shortly.

At the time I was so taken aback by the 20 m pool, that I wrote to the manager, only to learn that it was decided that five meters of the pool's length was sacrificed so that an adequate "lounge area" could be provided. Not the exact words from the reply, but good enough. I doubt that I will ever be able to get my head around that thinking.

So what is wrong with the benches in the gym change rooms? Well they are not exactly benches. Nor are they really seats. In fact they are large square 'pouffe' type things that are about one and one half bricks high. Not exactly what I suspect a neuro surgeon, or biokineticist would recommend, especially if they are recommending gym work for someone recovering from back surgery. Don't get me wrong, it is not all bad. For example, I have come to realise that being seated so close to the floor, makes it is much easier for me to find my shoe laces. It has also brought me to the realisation that I should perhaps polish my boots more frequently.

So I think the pool is too short and the benches too low. What about the rest of the experience. As I only swim at the gym, I cannot comment on the rest of the exercising facilities. What I can say about both the gyms I have used thus far, is that they are pleasant places, and that the facilities are generally excellent. The staff at the front desks are also friendly and helpful, and the cleanliness is generally to be recommended.

Having got those gym related issues out of the way, I can now address the real reason for writing this 'open letter'. That is my Discovery (Vitality) Virgin Active Gym membership. When I signed up, I was required to ensure that I had visited the gym at least 24 times during any given twelve month cycle, as at the end of each calendar month. Recently this was increased to at least 36 times, and I can only presume(*) that this increase was permissible in terms of the contract I signed. Why it was changed, I do not known. What I do know, is that if I do not maintain this level of attendance, I will loose my gym membership, and the preferential rate that I currently enjoy. I would then also have to rejoin the gym at a much higher rate, if I wanted to continue to use the gym.

Could this change be a disguised attempt to make more money? I suspect it is, and if that is the case, then perhaps it would have been more honest of Virgin Active / Discovery to have said so. They could have simply said, "This is a deal limited to one year, thereafter you will have to pay the full rate.".

Ironically, this situation is not that dissimilar from the situation I recently faced with First National Bank (FNB). At the time I was reaching my retirement age, FNB offered me the opportunity to change my cheque account to an 'Encore' cheque account. One of the benefits would be no bank charges if I also deposited R10000 into a fixed deposite account with FNB. I suppose I should not have been surprised when FNB subsequently said they would be scrapping Encore accounts. My only reaction was to spend the R10000, and of course the interest earned. It would have been OK by me if it had stopped there, but if my recent memory serves me correctly, I have since seen an FNB deal, or offer, that would exempt me from bank fees if I invested R10000 in a FNB-related fixed deposite. Again the mind boggles.

My perspective is that the only constant in all of this is, "making money", and business changing the disguise it uses in order to do so. If you need more convincing, then you may want to consider for a moment the cell phone industry and the deals and packages they offer. The only constant there is that I always end up thinking that I should have waited another three months for the next offering of deals and packages.

There is of course a possibility that I have slowed down and am no longer able to handle the rate at change occurs in my environment, except that I do not think that is the case. On the contrary, the last time I was as physically active as I am now in my retirement, was before I went to school. Unfortunately in terms of ensuring that I meet the 36 gym visits per year, very little of this activity occurs in a Virgin Active Gym. So for the record let me state that this activity in recent years has included:

  1. Most of the maintenance of our home and garden. We have been in our current home for ten years now. It was built on a sloping piece of land and so the garden had to be started from scratch.
  2. Walking the 'Capital Climb' several times. Unfortunately I did not bother to count, and only kept one medal to represent this activity.
  3. I have as I have already mentioned, swum at least seven Midmar Miles. I intend to swim the Midmar Mile again in 2014. If it turns out that I have actually already swum it eight times, I will probably endeavour to swim it twice during 2014, as a member of a team on the Saturday, and again as an individual on the Sunday.
  4. I started cycling about five (5) years ago. During that time I have done two Shovas, two Tour Durbans, one Argus, the 100 kms from Nottingham Road to Himeville once, and various and numerous other shorter rides. Training for these rides usually sees me doing at least two 20 km rides per week, for most of the year. I have also used my bike to tour Pietermaritzburg several times and records of these tours can also be viewed on the WWW by visiting
  5. I regularly (at least 300 / 365 days of the year) walk our dogs in the evening. During the past ten years the walks have mostly been up Non Such Road and vary, in length between two and four kilometers.

So why am I mentioning all this activity? Well it is because it suddenly occurred to me that instead of visiting the local Virgin Active Gym at least three times a month, every month, for a swim, I will now simply swing by the gym whilst walking or cycling in that vicinity, and clock in and out. In fact I did that on Saturday, 27 July 2013, when my wife and I took the dogs down to the Cascades Mountain Bike Park for a walk. I did it again on Sunday, 28 July 2013, when I went for a training ride. And again when I went for a training ride.on 1 August 2013.

In order to be able to substantiate that such activities actually occurred, I took a photograph during the walk, and recorded three rides on my cell phone using the Sports Tracker application. The photograph appears at the top of this page. In it the gym can quite clearly be seen. Not so easily noticed in the foreground, are our two dogs, and the activity that followed a cycling event that had just been concluded with a prize giving whilst we were walking. Should you wish to see a larger image, click on the displayed image on the left of the heading.

Evidence of the rides that I undertook, these can be seen by visiting Vitality Ride 01, Vitality Ride 02, and Vitality Ride 03. From any of these pages, follow the "View full workout data >" link to see just that. These displays can also be switched to "full screen" mode (by selecting the small graphic consisting of four outwardly pointing arrow-heads which you will find halfway up the right margin of the page). Once in that mode, the altitude profile corresponding to the ride route can also be seen (by selecting the small left-pointing arrow-head which you will find halfway up the right margin of the page). Neither a simple nor an intuitive process I know, but worth trying.

I am of course also mentioning all this activity because I need to know whether Discovery and Vitality are going to be satisfied by me popping into the gym in order to swipe my card and thereby have the exercise session that I am undertaking at the time, count towards the maintenance of my required twelve month rolling total of at least thirty six gym visits. Also, if they are not going to be satisfied, I would need to know that, and why that is the case. After all, I could go to the gym in order to use one of the provided Mountain Bikes in order to do my training ride.

Since I started this practice, I have gathered that this swiping in and immediately exiting is not that uncommon. Whether these members also hop back onto their bikes, I cannot say. I would also not know whether they are also in on the Discovery / Vitality / Virgin Active deal.

So I remain intrigued as to why this Discovery / Vitality / Virgin Active setup is not content to take my R179 per month irrespective whether I go to the gym or not, and smile broadly on their way to the bank. I personally think that increasing the minimum gym visits required per year from 24 to 36, is a ploy designed to set me up to fail. To fail in the hope that I will return and sign up at the full rate in order to continue to exercise and remain healthy. Perhaps I am wrong, perhaps it is out of concern for my health. Here again I tend to believe that it that were the case, the requirement would have been at least two visits to the gym per week, with some slack provided. That translates to eight visits to the gym per month, more than double the new minimum rate, and a visit frequency more likely to benefit my health.

I have already gone on for too long. That said, hopefully you will have read this much and will now visit this site When a Favorite Company Breaks Your Heart. It is a storey with and embedded video (that you should not miss) illustrating the "sales trumping service" company ethic.

It is also a storey that I believe applies to the situation I have been describing. I could of course be wrong, and if anyone thinks that is the case, I would be more than happy to have someone explain to me why I am wrong. I would also be more than happy to post such an explanation, or explanations, here!


  1. I have had a response to the email I sent to Discovery / Vitality regarding the concerns I have voiced here and my intention to add this to my blog. I learned, not unexpectedly, that the increased expectation in terms of my gym visits is all above board. I accept that. What sill intrigues me is why three visits, in fact why two visits? There must have been a reason or reasons for having arrived at the figure two initially, and for subsequently deciding that two was not correct, and that it should be three. I would very much like to know what the reason or reasons were/are and will contact Discovery / Vitality in order to do so.
  2. Associated with my Discovery / Vitality membership, I enjoy a further benefit. It is a card that can be used at Pick and Pay when shopping to earn points and thereby benefit in some way. My view it is another business strategy being employed to get me to shop at Pick and pay. Now don't get me wrong. I mostly accept that this is all part of healthy competition between vendors of services and goods. I also have some personal experience of this sort of marketing. I have a Woolworth's card, and I try to use it. Recently I bought four packets of Bran Rusks from Woolworths when I would normally only have bought one, possibly two packets. As you should be able to see from that, I too can compete. Admittedly in this case the deal may be easier to swallow.
  3. If I want to find out how many visits I have made to the gym during the current rolling year, I have to collect data from the 2012 records and then combine it with the data from the 2013 records to date. If there are N members doing this regularly, they could all be saved that effort if Discovery / Vitality did it once. That is, got the IT guys to fix the system so that it displays the visits and total for the current rolling year.

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