Making Americans Fit Again
By Rick Dandes
Fitness programs have come a long way from the days of Richard Simmons' enormously popular "Sweating to the Oldies" group exercise program. That was 25 years ago. In the time since, "The landscape of fitness, in general, has changed with the increase of boutique studios, small-group training programming and more convenient methods of getting your sweat on," said Shannon Fable, health and fitness expert for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
The pace of that change is accelerating. Now, even those joyous, fun Zumba workouts, which were all the rage in recreation facilities and private commercial health clubs just a few years ago, have begun to fade in popularity, giving way to more extreme activities like high intensity interval training (HIIT) and group-oriented programs like boot camps.
That's partly what the American College of Sports Medicine's 11th annual survey of fitness trends reported, said Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, the lead author of the survey and associate dean in the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. What the survey revealed, he said, is that while Americans will continue to use traditional exercise routines such as indoor cycling, interval training, group fitness classes and other calorie-burning activities, in 2017, body weight training and high-intensity interval training will be huge.
Fitness needs to be more than just a popular social lifestyle choice. It's much more important than that. Programs need to be effective in promoting a healthy lifestyle that shows results. With 69 percent of American adults now classified as either overweight (33 percent) or obese (36 percent), and with the annual healthcare cost of obesity now estimated to be up to $210 million, according to the latest data released by the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA), "the entire American medical establishment is emphasizing the necessity of regular exercise as never before," said Meredith Poppler, IHRSA vice president, communication and engagement.
Let's face it, said Beth Taylor Mack, director of health behavior and wellness at YMCA of the USA, "Up until this point, we've all been failing, if you look at the national obesity rate. Really, none of us, whether it is a fitness club, the YMCA or the medical community … we're all not doing our jobs the right way because we still have these obesity rates."
A Fitter America: Programming Trends in Transition
The fitness-program community, from private health clubs to nonprofits like the YMCA to public facilities like park district fitness centers, have their own ideas on how to deal with this problem, and attract membership.
Fitness programs have come a long way from the days of Richard Simmons' enormously popular "Sweating to the Oldies" group exercise program.
Certainly technology, connectivity and interactivity dominate discussions about fitness trends these days. Digital products, mobile applications and wearables may still be in their infancy, but will continue to grow in both sophistication and selection.
"Make no mistake about it, though," said Shawna Doerksen, health behavior consultant with SDC Insights, of State College, Pa., "technological advances really do help, and they're here to stay. People can use technology to help track behaviors and goals."
Organizations that offer fitness and wellness programs should seriously consider having a technology component, Doerksen contends. "If an organization has a mobile application, they can use it to help consumers track the schedule and add classes, and organizations can use that tool to increase motivation. The health data collected by wearable technology can be used to inform the user about their current fitness level and help them make healthier lifestyle choices."
That can be especially helpful once people start to lose interest and drop out, often in the first weeks to months of joining a club, Thompson said. "There are many motivational tools that can be effectively implemented using technology, including goal-setting, self-efficacy and planning. Pairing these health promotion techniques with health/fitness offerings is a winning combination."
The ACSM's annual trend report clearly rates wearable fitness technology as the top trend in 2017. Beyond that, Thompson said, "the second biggest trend we're looking at in 2017 is body-weight training." This is the most popular form of exercise regardless of location, whether commercial for-profit club, community-based, such as YMCA, JCC, recreation centers, corporate wellness centers, and clinical programs, he explained.
Types of body-weight activities can include the jump squat, various forms of pull-ups, dips, crab-walk, forward and backward sprints, burpees and leg raises—any activity that uses the body's weight itself as the form of resistance.
Thompson was surprised to see this so high on the ACSM trend list. "My guess is that clubs, particularly commercial for-profit facilities, are interested in driving revenue," he said. "They want to capture more members, but they also want to develop programs that are fun and capture the imagination of folks who want to pay for memberships."
This trend started during the economic recession and through some extraordinary marketing, clubs have continued to package and repackage body weight training, Thompson said. "It is low cost to deliver and can be used with any population, from kids to adults, from mom-and-pop storefronts to mega-boxes—and any location, including high schools and recreation centers."
Group exercise programs also continue to hold their own, trend-wise. These types of fitness regimens saw a surge of popularity in the past, but were replaced by personal trainers working with individuals. But now, Thompson said, "We're seeing a comeback in this type of program. Groups are typically less than 20 people, guided by one instructor. Recreation centers can easily do this with current personnel. High schools might want to recruit from their teachers, who have many talents besides teaching during the day, or partner with a local gym that might have someone interested in part-time work."
Group fitness is excellent as it incorporates a social element, Thompson noted. As you attend classes, you get more familiar with the other people in the workout group, which can be motivating for some. Some people really enjoy the community of these classes.
"We have, right now, a kind of perfect storm," Thompson said. "Fitness gurus have packaged and repackaged these forms of exercise so much so that it is still a popular form of exercise.
High on the ACSM list of trending fitness programs is high intensity interval training, or HIIT.
Also high on the ACSM list of trending fitness programs is high intensity interval training, or HIIT, which involves short bursts of activity followed by a short period of rest or recovery. These exercise programs are usually performed in less than 30 minutes.
"I had predicted that private interval training was probably not going to be around for a long time, mostly because there is at least a potential with HIIT for increased injury rate," Thompson said. "We haven't seen the data on that yet, but I like to compare it to driving a car on the interstate. You can drive at 90 mph, and that would be high intensity; or you could go the speed limit, which would be moderate intensity. And there's a greater likelihood of having an accident at 90 mph versus the speed limit. The same kind of thing occurs with high-intensity interval training. It first appeared four to five years ago and is still very popular in clubs, but in terms of our survey it has dropped to the No. 3 trend going into 2017."
No doubt, HIIT is still trendy, Thompson said. "But my prediction is that in another five years we won't even be talking about high intensity training. It has seen a bit of a decrease in the trendiness, I believe."
One surprising thing Thompson said he observed in 2016 was the re-emergence of group training. "Group personal training was trending a few years ago with the recession, but group training as in large groups of 20 to 25, was not. Until now. It's all changing rapidly. Large exercise classes doing the same form of exercise has regained popularity, and it is an interesting phenomenon. It harkens back to the 1970s or '80s, when Richard Simmons had a hundred people doing a group exercise." Thomson said. "We are starting to see the re-emergence of that."
Thompson theorizes that the popularity of larger exercise groups may have something to do with marketing. "It's a low-cost delivery model, just as body-weight training is low-cost," he said. "You put 25 people in a room and give them a significant discount off a personal training session, and all of a sudden it has a multiplier effect. It is great for business. It is good for the consumer. … We'll have to see what happens with group training."
Interestingly, he continued, one of the most popular forms of group exercise of about four years ago, Zumba, has completely lost its national and international popularity. "At least that's how we see it, according to our interviewers in the field," Thompson said.
"That is not to say that on the east coast in Florida and some clubs in New York City or elsewhere you won't see any Zumba classes," Thompson added, "but it certainly is not as popular as it used to be. Our survey showed Zumba losing its popularity."
Rising in popularity is the broad category of boot-camp-like programs.
"Equipment-less indoor and outdoor boot camps continue to appear on many club schedules," noted Lawrence Biscontini, health and fitness expert for ACE. "Among the reasons they attract so many participants are their ease of setup, ability to accommodate various fitness levels and constantly changing exercises, which increase the fun and reduce the likelihood of boredom."
Once an exclusive club reserved for military recruits, the growing numbers of average folks signing up for military-style boot camp programs provides a wide range of business opportunities for savvy and creative trainers everywhere. The beauty of putting on boot camp classes is that they offer tremendous variety, added Marion Webb, ACE personal training expert.
One good example is Battle Fit, an almost logical extension of the boot-camp mindset. Designed by former British Army officers and based on the physical and psychological building blocks of military training, Battle Fit catapults functional training to a whole new level with its 16-week series of structured 35-minute workouts using specially designed training equipment.
Through functional training Warm Ups, Battle Workouts and Operational Fitness Tests, participants perform everyday movements at high intensities inside traditional military fitness obstacle courses, battle preparation workouts and team drills. This gym-based group training delivers quantitative physical results while forging mental toughness, teamwork and physical discipline in a safe, controlled environment.
"Battle Fit is for those clubs looking to foster camaraderie and offer an elite workout that improves athletic ability for members who crave novelty and want more," said Matthew Januszek, co-founder of a UK-based provider of fitness equipment, fitness flooring, design and training, and also the company behind Battle Fit. "And, unlike the intense military-style training popular today that sometimes can lead to injury, Battle Fit, with its targeted motivation, was designed for member safety while driving top-level athletic performance. This makes Battle Fit a good tool for member retention, as well as trainer development and motivation."
Meanwhile, Doerksen added to the mix of trending programs: "I've heard that boxing training, including virtual, will be big in 2017. You can also access live-streaming classes that people can 'attend' from anywhere. If your schedule doesn't really allow for you to get to the gym," she said, "a virtual class might be perfect."
At the YMCA, "We differ from other organizations in that we do not believe in chasing the latest fitness trends," said Beth Taylor Mack, director of health behavior and wellness at YMCA of the USA. "We would rather offer them as part of our cadre of offerings. We focus on the health seeker, the members who are right now struggling at the YMCA. These are people for whom the many established programs don't work. They try a boot camp and they are sore the next day."
YMCA, Mack said, "has taken the intentional step back to say, 'We want to be more of a help to the individual. We have so many different programs we're offering, but what are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish by being here? What are you interested in? How can we match you up with something at your interest level?' And that starts from the moment when we first give someone a tour of a facility."
If someone has no desire to get into a pool, Mack asks, "Why then are we going to spend much time talking about a pool, versus if they are really interested in group exercise? Not only are we going to show them the group exercise facility, but we are also going to introduce them to some of the instructors. We will offer them the chance to sample a class, and they wouldn't have to stay there for a full hour. We've tried to do a lot in the upfront in member engagement versus having these massive schedules of 120 group exercise classes."
As for trends and offerings, Mack said the YMCA has definitely established a "really robust active adult schedule. But at the same time, we also try to counterbalance that for those individuals who do want a little bit more of a challenge."
There are YMCAs that offer boot camps, small group personal training, HIIT and programs similar to the very intense P90X programs. They offer that because they understand there is a core population who are fitness enthusiasts, and YMCAs want to make sure they are being serviced as well.
"We don't see any of these programs as either/or," Mack said. "We like to offer a spectrum of services that appeals to a wide range of ages so that we make sure we are servicing the greatest population."
If people meet their health & wellness goal, they are more likely to stay on that health & wellness program.
At the YMCA, Mack continued, "we don't want someone to just be a number. We are taking a hard look at our member engagement strategies, and part of that is making sure that our member experience begins immediately, from the front door to the wellness center door or to the group exercise door or the aquatics door.
"We want to make sure that our new members are meeting people," she added. "Because we know that when people meet others they are more likely to stay. And if they meet their health and wellness goal, we know they are more likely to stay on that health and wellness program. It is really critical for us to get this right. The offerings are like the frosting on the cake. What differentiates us from others is we try to stay on top of those trends and try to serve our community by understanding our community."
How do you know what the community you serve needs? At the YMCA, they ask members what they like and expect. But, Mack said, "There are many other ways to determine what programs fit. An organization could do a needs assessment of their community or a focus group. Planning the questions strategically can yield extremely useful information. Also, understanding the demographics within the community and target population can help organizations get a head start on making offerings that will match up with your core clients."
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