Fresh Fitness Checkup
Fitness equipment and programming: One doesn't work without the other, and both are changing
By Kyle Ryan
The idea behind it sounds enticing: A long, vibrating belt connected to a motor literally shakes the fat around a person's midsection until it breaks down and dissipates—no personal exertion necessary. The vibrating-belt machine sounded too good to be true, and like a lot of miraculous fitness inventions, it was. Scientists dismissed the machines' claims as quackery not long after their peak in the middle 20th century, even speculating that they could be harmful.
In the information age, ideas and theories come and go with startling speed. Just in the past decade, fitness practices have changed considerably.
"Ten years ago, the things we thought about fitness and training, 50 percent of them aren't true anymore," says Sherry Catlin, fitness instructor and IDEA Health & Fitness Association's 2004 Program Director of the Year.
She remembers old strength-training classes that used 16 pieces of equipment because instructors only knew five exercises to do with each one. Now some classes use a medicine ball—that's it.
Catlin's memories sound less preposterous than the old vibrating- belt machines, but even those still linger on the Internet. For a few hundred dollars, consumers can buy new and improved versions, which also claim to stimulate acupressure points.
"I wouldn't expect to see those in clubs again, though," Catlin says, laughing.
Changes in fitness and exercise practices over the past decade come from a shift in perspective.
"It's not about training isolated muscles," Catlin says. "It's about training movement."
That holistic approach is the foundation for so-called functional training, which uses exercises based on what the body needs for everyday life.
"Talk about the most simplistic exercises," says fitness instructor Tom Holland, fitness consultant and founder of Team Holland training. "But that's the stuff that usually works most effectively."
A lot of functional training uses cable-motion machines, which allow for unrestricted, biomechanically correct movement. The cables can be pulled in a number of directions, offering an infinite number of exercise possibilities.
"[They're] only limited by the trainer's expertise," Holland says, but he isn't sure how long the buzz will last. "I think cable motion's great—I don't think it's utilized correctly," he says. "To be totally honest, I'll see a 300-pound person with a trainer doing something with a pulley system who's much better off walking on a treadmill."
According to the annual Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey conducted by IDEA, one of the world's largest health and fitness associations, 66 percent of responding facilities in 2004 had pulley equipment, down from a high of 81 percent in 2001.
That same survey shows a dramatic rise in another part of functional fitness: balance training. According to IDEA, only 41 percent of fitness facilities used stability balls in 1998. By 2004, the number more than doubled to 87 percent. Stability-ball programs have jumped nearly 40 percent.
The balls are just part of balance training, which incorporates a growing amount of equipment such as wobble boards, balance boards, discs and an inflatable half-sphere connected to a flat disc on which people stand on either side to do balance work.
"I think BOSU really lifted the whole area of balance training to a new level of respect," Catlin says. "Personal trainers were using it for a long time, but now there are a myriad of products, and I think it's because of the programming that BOSU did that really focused a lot of attention on that area."
Core training and balance training have created a demand for all sorts of products, with small equipment becoming prevalent in fitness facilities. Sixty-seven percent of respondents to IDEA's survey said they had balance equipment.
"When I see trainers working with clients, they are really utilizing all of these tools," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA. "Number one, because they're really functional, but number two, because they're fun and they offer variety, and they help people from getting bored."
IDEA's 2004 survey showed in numbers what many people in the industry knew anecdotally: Elliptical trainers are about to eclipse other cardio equipment in popularity. In terms of growth, 70 percent of fitness centers use them, up from 41 percent in 1998. In the same timespan, treadmills declined in usage 1 percent (to 74 percent of facilities having them), and stair-climbers declined 15 percent (to 59 percent). Elliptical trainers dramatically reduce the impact on joints and muscles during workouts, making them good matches for people who have knee problems.
"I think it's because they're so easy to do," Davis says. "You can get upper body and lower body, and they're so low-impact, and any fitness level can really benefit. You don't really feel like a klutz or anything."
Of course, there was a time when stair-climbers reigned supreme. In the late '90s, they enjoyed treadmill-like ubiquity in fitness centers, according to IDEA's survey. Holland, a die-hard stair-climber fan, says ellipticals don't quite provide as intense of a workout as stair-climbers.
"I'm always getting calls from writers who want me to say that an elliptical gives you the same burn, but it just doesn't," Holland says, "simply by the fact that your body is more supported. You do have to work a little harder to burn a similar amount of calories."
Other people apparently feel the same way, which means stair-climbers will most likely never become extinct.
Holland offers the cross-country-ski track machines as a similar example.
"I remember the gyms where I worked at that wanted to pull those, but the gym owners wouldn't be able to because four of the die-hards loved them," he says. "You can always say that, although they won't be as popular, these things will always have their corner of the gym."
In another case of old exercise theories coming undone, old prohibitions about children lifting weights have since been disproved. Holland, 35, remembers how well-meaning adults kept him and other kids away from the gym.
"Back when I was younger, they said you couldn't lift weights until you were 16 because it would stunt your growth," he says. "Well, all of those things have been thrown out the window. All the important research says 10- to 12-year-olds should and could lift weights, but do one set at moderate weight."
The nationwide obesity epidemic also has affected children, meanwhile many schools have cut physical-education programs because of tight budgets. That has led to a rise in youth-exercise programs elsewhere, including kids' gyms and youth-specific exercise equipment.
For most clubs, the machines may lack profitability, as adult equipment occupying the same space would get more use. But Holland thinks kids-only gyms could make kids' equipment and programming financially sustainable, while a traditional health club may not have a huge amount of floor space to devote to kids' stuff.
"That's just the bottom line," Holland says. "It's too expensive."
The numbers from IDEA reinforce that. According to the 2004 survey, only 9 percent of respondents' clients/members were under 18. However, 20 percent were over 55. In 2000, the survey showed that 13 percent of clients/members were 65 and over. (The 2004 survey only measured 55 and older.) That number only will grow as Baby Boomers age, and it could dramatically affect the fitness industry.
"There's a whole new generation of products that are being adapted and created for this market, and it's not just, you now, people in nursing homes," Catlin says. "You're going to see clubs that are geared to the over-50 crowd, just like you see Curves and Cuts."
Kids and seniors actually share similar fitness goals. For example, a preteen kid will do fitness squats on foam pads to strengthen his muscles and improve his balance and coordination. An 80-year-old could do the same regimen to stay strong for day-to-day living.
Seniors and kids do not necessarily need special equipment to work out, but that may not be the case for the disabled, particularly those bound to wheelchairs. Many health centers lack something like an exercise machine that lets wheelchair users work their upper bodies.
In one regard, facility managers are neglecting an entire market—but it's a very small one, so there's less incentive for them to install special exercise equipment for the disabled. Instead, Holland thinks those machines will be used in physical-therapists' offices rather than become fixtures in traditional fitness facilities.
"As far as gym chains, you know, it's all about the numbers," he says. "I think the cardio equipment and the stuff most people can use will always win out."
Equipment may not be the answer, though, when programming can address the needs of not only the disabled but kids and seniors as well. Although IDEA's survey lacked any information on disabled programming or equipment, it showed 47 percent of facilities have senior programs and 40 percent have classes for kids. Kids' programs jumped 15 percent since 1998.
The IDEA survey showed that only 16 percent of fitness clubs use workout-tracking systems, but few people expect that number to remain: Of the places that use computerized workout tracking, 52 percent think its usage will grow.
"In some ways, I'm surprised that it already hasn't become more prevalent," Davis says, "but there must be something that is, you know, some kind of stumbling block."
Cost could be tripping up a lot of managers, as computer systems can be prohibitively expensive. They're also relatively new; IDEA only has numbers going back to 2002. High cost plus the systems' newness equals a lot of managers in "wait and see" mode.
Pilates continues its blitzkrieg on the fitness world, with IDEA's survey showing a 53 percent increase in the number of facilities offering Pilates programs, up from 10 percent in 1997 to 63 percent in 2004.
"I never would have guessed that 15 years ago," Davis says.
The quick ascent of Pilates surprised a lot of people, sending many health clubs scrambling to capitalize on the cash cow that is Joseph Pilates' legacy. People may not know what it is or how to pronounce it, but they want it. Clubs have bought equipment, trained instructors and created programming, from one-on-one sessions to group-exercise classes to fusion classes like yogalates and water Pilates.
"It's almost like mind-body on steroids," Catlin says. "We've got to take it to the next level."
While Catlin speaks of avoiding a plateau, Holland thinks more than a plateau is in store for Pilates. In the stock market, an excessively bullish market can be followed by a steep downturn called a correction. Pilates may be due for one.
"The gym that I work at turned one whole room that used to be just for every different type of exercise class and devoted it solely to Pilates," Holland says. "There were enough people obviously to justify that, but they also kind of disenfranchised a huge part of the gym population, and I thought that was a mistake. I knew it was only a matter of time; when people don't lose weight from doing Pilates, that's going to stop."
Holland often recommends Pilates to clients as a third or fourth component of their program.
"I think it's great; I just think it's been mislabeled," he says, adding he doubts it will ever completely disappear. "[It won't be] out, but it won't have this incredible, ridiculous popularity."
Not surprisingly, the rush to incorporate Pilates into everything has led to some inadequate training of instructors. Until 2000, Pilates was trademarked, but a New York court overturned that, and the floodgates opened. Reports of injuries continually reach the offices of the Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit professional association that serves as a clearinghouse of Pilates information. The group will launch a Pilates Method instructor-certification test in August (see Calming the Storm sidebar).
"Everybody wants to jump on the newest bandwagon and become an expert on the newest piece of equipment overnight," Catlin says. "It's just like people who want to become Pilates trained in a weekend. They want to teach kickboxing after a weekend workshop. They want to teach a yoga class after a week's training. That's where the danger is."
Even if managers take their time before investing in new, flashy equipment, it can still backfire.
"It's nothing without the staying power to go with it," Catlin says. "If you buy a product because it's cool and it's the newest thing, but there's no programming behind it, it's not going to have staying power."
Good programming comes from a good staff, which will help new equipment reach its potential.
"They get [new equipment] in there, but they don't get trained on how to use them, then they don't get used," Catlin says. "It's nothing without training to go with it—and continual training."
The responsibility for that continual training may rest on the equipment manufacturers themselves.
"The onus is not falling on the instructors and the trainers," Catlin says. "Now the people who are developing the products are realizing it's their responsibility to fund the education, so that's almost like a product in itself."
The undisputed ruler of fitness-facility programming—personal training—has a hold on 89 percent of the facilities surveyed by IDEA. While most people typically think of personal training as pricey one-on-one time with an instructor, that definition is becoming less accurate. Small-group or paired personal training has gained popularity. According to IDEA, 65 percent of facilities offer paired personal training (up 23 percent since 1998), and 42 percent offer small-group training (up from 33 percent in 1998).
"What is exciting to me about this is that I see that the personal training with two clients sharing and three to five clients sharing is growing," Davis says, "and what makes me feel good about this is that I think it's going to be much more accessible to people because you really bring the cost down, number one, and number two, you're helping with adherence."
"Adherence" here means that people are more likely to stick to a program and enjoy themselves doing it when other people do it with them. Although personal training has, in some ways, moved beyond one-on-one interaction, trainers may need supplemental training to help them develop the necessary skills for it.
Considering personal training has become more a group activity, it's not surprising that group-exercise classes have continued to do well for the most part. There will always be a desire to work out with other people; what that activity entails, however, will change.
For example, the number of places offering Spinning classes dropped from 48 percent in 2003 to 38 percent in 2004. All types of aerobics, dance and martial arts classes have dropped by double digits.
The macro programming trend appears to be fusion. For example, abdominal classes have dropped 19 percent, from 76 percent of facilities offering them in 1997 to 57 in 2004. No one argues Americans have become less ab-obsessed, so what's with the drop?
"I think the reason for that could be that abdominal exercises and working on your abdominals are probably being incorporated into a lot of these other classes," Davis says, such as core conditioning, circuit training, boot camp and other hybrid programs. That theory applies to other class types that experienced large decreases in participation: weight loss (down a whopping 49 percent since 1997), stress management, meditation, and so on. For ancillary-type classes, such as money management (down 47 percent) or smoking cessation (down 21 percent), people may just not associate those activities with their fitness facilities.
IDEA's numbers did show one surprising drop: circuit classes, down by 9 percent since 2003, with 57 percent of facilities offering them. Circuit training outside of the classroom continues to grow, as indicated by the explosive popularity of Curves and its numerous imitators.
Circuit-training facilities, which typically attract people who feel too self-conscious to join a gym, in turn feed full-service health clubs. As people lose weight and feel better about themselves, they want more exercise opportunities than a circuit-training gym offers.
"That's what I say to people," Holland says. "Get started there, but you don't want to stay there."
Places like Curves do so well because they offer a non-intimidating—maybe even fun—environment for people who are out of shape. The concept of making fitness fun has reached unique levels, such as at the chain Crunch Fitness, where members can take classes called Cardio Striptease, Cycle Karaoke, dodgeball, even a discipline-heavy group-fitness class led by a faux S&M mistress. The classes definitely succeed in grabbing headlines, but Holland is less sure about their health results.
"I have to figure out a better way to say it, but fitness doesn't have to be fun at the start," he says. "The problem is gym owners, instead of finding good, qualified people to teach a good, hard class, they're constantly trying to entertain. It's like entertaining 13-year-olds."
However, others should imitate the Crunch model to a certain degree because the chain specializes in creative exercise. Exercise may not have to be fun, but it should be creative in some regard. Holland thinks other fitness facilities, particularly those outside of the nation's largest cities, can learn from Crunch and other places.
"Go to the major metropolitan areas, and see what's going on there, you know, because there's where trends are started," Holland says. "I would say some of these gyms are three years behind. You'll have Spin instructors in upstate New Jersey doing push-ups on the Spin bike, which was done three years ago, and we've since found out you shouldn't do that."
Classes may come and go, but the ones with good instructors have formidable staying power. Good instructors are the rock stars of the fitness world, and a really creative one can make anything popular. Equipment is only part of the answer.
"Don't just throw your money into equipment," Catlin says. "Throw your money into continuing education. If you're going to buy anything, make sure everybody knows what to do with it."
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