When NBC sacrifices its prime time so that Katie Couric and Dr. Phil can talk about the 60% of Americans who are overweight, might there be an investment opportunity? Maybe -- so long as Americans decide to do the one thing the majority thus far hasn't done: head to the gym.

Three of the biggest gym operators -- the YMCA (cue the disco music!), 24 Hour Fitness Worldwide, and Gold's Gym -- are privately owned. That leaves investors one major operator with a troubled past: Bally Total Fitness (NYSE:BFT).

A totally fit Bally would be debt-free, rapidly growing, and generating gobs of free cash flow. In reality, as of the second quarter, the company carried $695 million in long-term debt, managed sales growth of just 2%, and (after years of deficits) churned out $1.3 million in free cash flow. So, what is the attraction?

We go back to the growing emphasis on weight and exercise. Katie and Dr. Phil are just one angle. There's also the debate about fat that has worried fast-food giant McDonald's (NYSE:MCD). Restaurants are also trying to improve their menus and reduce portion size. Applebee's (NASDAQ:APPB), for example, will co-develop new menu items with Weight Watchers (NYSE:WTW).

Finally, the federal and state governments are getting into the act. Maine is looking at proposals to promote exercise, curtail the sale of soft drinks in schools, and get menus at chain restaurants to spell out just how much fat there is in, say, the cafe mocha at Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX).

Gyms are capital intensive. After years of development, Bally is ready to capitalize on its investment. A small increase in memberships would have a big impact on earnings, but even the status quo makes this stock interesting.

Wall Street analysts estimate earnings for 2003 of $1.21 and up. If Bally is fit enough to pull that off, the stock is a bargain at less than eight times earnings.

W.D. Crotty owns stock in Bally Total Fitness. He can be reached at HawaiiFool@hawaii.com .