On an Upward Trend

The Latest in Fitness Can Make Your Facility More Effective


The word "trendy" may bring ridiculous things to mind—like jeggings for men or oxygen bars or competitive hot dog eating. But when considered thoughtfully and in light of your own particular circumstances, the latest trends in fitness can be a great guide for keeping your programming and facilities fresh, current, and as effective and engaging to users as they can possibly be. (The same cannot be said of jeggings under any circumstances.)

Evidence of their importance: Lots of fitness-industry experts keep an eye on these trends and even measure them themselves. Over time, these most popular phenomena drive new products, new partnerships and new companies. For example, the Fitness Design Group Consultancy, in business 20 years, has created Aktiv Dynamic Training Solutions, a division focused on the latest in exercise spaces. In addition, a quick Internet search reveals the wealth of fitness-oriented apps and online workouts that are always just a few clicks away.

We've sifted through these industry reports and spoken to the experts to offer you some big-picture insights and tips. We hope you'll be inspired by these trends to improve the way you serve your members in 2016 and beyond.

Insight #1—Exercise as an Experience

Rather than viewing exercise as something to slide into a solitary timeslot during busy days, or something to check off the list before getting to more-fun opportunities, people are coming to see it as something that can be social and enjoyed with others. Growing stronger, fitter, more focused and less stressed can be an integral part of their lifestyle and an enhancement to other activities, not something separate.

To that end, fitness seekers want "a unique exercise experience that allows them to connect with other like-minded individuals," wrote American Council on Exercise (ACE) health and fitness expert Pete McCall in a recent blog post. This can be as much about motivation as conversation.

Fitness seekers want a unique exercise experience that allows them to connect with other like-minded individuals.

Over the past few years, much of the fitness industry's growth has been in the area of smaller, specialized gyms and studios, notes the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) in its 2015-16 Health Club Industry Data report. This is because they're "centered on a particular community of people with similar passions, and provide a high-touch, personalized environment." IHRSA has identified successful specialized facilities as including boxing, yoga, barre classes, indoor cycling, CrossFit, and mixed martial arts (MMA).

But that's not to say these activities only thrive in boutique spaces. Specialized programming and class offerings can be popular at larger health clubs and community centers as well. Dance-based exercise classes like Zumba have attracted lots of participants in all sorts of locations, and as outdoor events like boot camps and obstacle courses and other themed races become more popular, they're creating this community-and-experience atmosphere beyond the gym, IHRSA reports.

There are a few other trends within the "exercise as experience" movement, as well. As can be noted by the popular specialized workouts mentioned above, exercise that focuses more on body movement and less on particular equipment has piqued public interest. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) lists body weight training (which uses minimal equipment and goes far beyond push-ups and pull-ups) as its No. 2 trend to watch for 2016. Between 2010 and 2012, equipment use declined 16 percent as functional and body weight training gained traction in fitness centers, IHRSA reports. However, hand weights and dumbbells remain widely used because of their flexibility and use in popular group classes and specialized training methods.


Functional training, a related approach to exercise focused on enhanced everyday movement and strength, "is an effective method of building strength, coordination, movement confidence and cardiovascular fitness because it trains us for the way we live," explained Erica Tillinghast, global education manager for a Woodinville, Wash.-based fitness equipment manufacturer. "Training for life, or our favorite sport, requires us to expose our bodies to new training stimuli." In other words, not just the same old 30 minutes on the treadmill or repetitions in the weight room.

In line with this thinking, the ACSM survey also found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT)—which combines short bursts of exercise with quick recovery periods and generally is completed in 30 minutes or less—will continue to be popular, as will strength training and the services of experienced fitness experts.

That last part makes sense; as users demand more specialized workouts, they need experts to guide them to and through the experiences they seek (because it's all about the experience, remember?). Professionals certified by ACE or ACSM or other accredited agencies not only keep customers challenged and safe, they can use their specialized knowledge to create programs and experiences tailored to their clients' needs and interests, explained Anthony Wall, ACE's director of professional education.

However, being aware of trends in the industry is just the start. The real value comes in finding ways to translate an area of growing interest or changing focus into something practically applicable at your own fitness center. So here are some expert thoughts on the ways "exercise as experience" could be infused into programming and facilities.


Offer expert trainers and teachers. "It's the people working in the club who help members reach their goals and stay motivated in ways that working out alone cannot," said IHRSA spokesperson Meredith Poppler. She suggests hiring the very best people you can and then investing in them—from front-desk staff and managers to floor trainers. When your members trust the staff and desire their expertise, they'll keep coming back to get it.

"Individual sessions led by a personal trainer provide the exerciser with one-on-one attention that ensures that they are learning proper exercise technique," noted Tillinghast.

But make sure group training options or classes taught by credentialed experts are available as well, suggested Bryan Green, president and founder of Aktiv Dynamic Training.

"Group training classes are great for those who desire instruction, but prefer to train in a motivating group atmosphere at a lower price point," Tillinghast added.

In either format, start with a "results-driven approach" and your staff can focus on working with clients rather than spending time recruiting new ones and "reselling," Green said.

Finally, don't be afraid to share knowledge with your users. It's likely to increase their loyalty and satisfaction, rather than reducing their need for your services. As consumers' fitness interests grow more specific and sophisticated—from HIIT to barbell weightlifting—"the average fitness consumer is being exposed to strategies and techniques for exercise that were once reserved for only high-performance athletes," McCall explained. To exercise safely and effectively, they'll need expert information and guidance, which educated and experienced staff can provide.

Expand functional exercise offerings. Part of making exercise an experience is keeping workouts fresh and varied. This not only keeps users engaged and challenged, but it can enhance their results as they stretch and strengthen their bodies in new ways. "Functional training gives the ability to create versatile programming for clients, which means members are less likely to get bored with their training routine, will see results more quickly, and will return for additional training," Tillinghast said.

Simply put, encourage teachers and trainers to mix it up! Interval training provides the perfect format to combine exercise methods, noted McCall—indoor cycling with boxing, body weight training with treadmill or elliptical running, rowing with strength training, or all of the above. Gyms equipped with functional training systems provide trainers with endless workout options to target "the core, coordination, and movement needs of each exerciser," Tillinghast said. And combining cardio with functional fitness also maximizes precious workout time, she noted.


Look outside the gym. Both literally and figuratively, exercise that's truly an experience goes beyond hours logged in a workout space. As fitness becomes a shared, social endeavor and part of an overall lifestyle, it makes sense that the most effective instructors and trainers will acquire the expertise to advise clients holistically about their health as "health coaches," McCall noted. "[P]roviding a high level of service isn't just giving a client a workout for a single day. Rather, it involves coaching clients on how to make exercise and healthy choices a foundational part of their lives."

In addition, the growing popularity of outdoor boot camps and obstacle races can give fitness centers an opportunity to connect with users' passions apart from the gym. "Many clubs have incorporated programming such as 'obstacle course training,' couch-to-5K training, and getting ready for ski/golf season as a way to bring the outdoor passions of their members into the club," Poppler said.

Functional training also lends itself well to sport-specific training, Tillinghast added. "Think tactical training for mud runs," she explained.

Free up some space. Some physical adjustments to your exercise spaces will also enhance users' experience at your facility. With these new trends' focus on using and moving bodies in varied ways and a less-is-more approach to equipment, it makes sense that what your gym may need most is space to move. Green's company is dedicated to helping gyms and health clubs create these dynamic training atmospheres. And it doesn't require a total revamp. In many cases he's working with 1,500 to 2,500 square feet to create "a box within a box," he explained. "It's fun and functional, [and allows people to] move the way we move energetically."

Don't ditch all the equipment you have, of course, but consider consolidating or rearranging to provide space to move and gather in groups. Rather than a sea of exercise equipment upon entry, greet members—and potential members—with someone to guide them toward the results they seek. And encourage your staff to help constituents transition by using equipment in different ways, combining familiar exercises with new workout elements. A workout doesn't have to mean 30 minutes on the elliptical, Wall noted. Instead, try it for a few minutes at varied intensities. "Use a bike or cross-trainer to build a program," he suggested. "That's how fitness professionals and specialists can help."

Insight #2—Technology to Enhance & Personalize

A second—and related—huge trend in the exercise world (along with the rest of the world) is the use of technology to customize users' experiences and maximize effectiveness. ACSM's No. 1 trend for 2016 is wearable technology—watches and personal fitness trackers, and even devices implanted in the fabric of workout gear. Technology related to smartphones, as well as the wealth of online fitness resources, are trending factors as well.

A second huge trend in the exercise world is the use of technology to customize users' experiences and maximize effectiveness.

"Not only is the technology getting smaller, but it now has little to no impact on the ability to exercise, and it is increasingly more accurate and sophisticated," said ASCM spokesperson Walter R. Thompson, associate dean for Graduate Studies and Research at Georgia State University. Whether they're tracking your running or biking route, calibrating the intensity of your workout, or counting the calories you burn, these devices give real-time insight into how your exercise is going.

"Those tools supplement the information we have or give us new bits of information to shape our experience and create a more meaningful relationship with exercise," Wall explained. This information can also be used by gyms or trainers or fitness organizations to "manage the experience" of an individual, he added.

Technology is also finding its way into the equipment and machines that populate a fitness space, yielding bikes and treadmills that communicate with personal fitness devices and integrate with apps to add their input to users' overall data picture. In addition, fitness apps for smartphones and on-demand videos available via the Internet have opened up the options for exercising outside the walls of the gym and at nearly any time of day or night, McCall reported.


People are also better informed about the mind and body benefits of various types of exercise these days, and they're sharing that information over social media, Poppler said. "Devotees are religiously posting not only their daily workouts but their results," she added.

Early research suggests that this technology-fueled social component of the "exercise as experience" trend can be motivating to those in the same circle, McCall noted. Hearing about the exercise others are doing encourages increased participation, perhaps via virtual competition.

But again, the key to making this trend beneficial is translating it into practical applications for your particular situation. Here are some pro suggestions for making technology work for you.

Offer education and integration. At first glance, all this wearable technology and personalized fitness information might seem threatening to gyms and fitness centers. Why ask a trainer what your FitBit can tell you? But rather than competing with gadgets and gizmos, embrace them. "Gym owners and trainers are in a great position to teach their clients how to accurately use these devices," Thompson said. When used correctly, personal technology can be a great motivator and will keep users coming to work out long after their New Year's resolutions have worn off.

Along with education, enhance users' experience at your facility by offering ways to connect with the technology they're interested in. "Many clubs and trainers are integrating fitness tracking capability into their programs, even offering equipment that syncs with tracking devices," IHRSA reports. Some gyms go as far as providing fitness trackers for members to use on site, Poppler noted. Trainers can then access their clients' tracked data to help them make sense of the information and customize future workout plans.

Along with education, enhance users' experience at your facility by offering ways to connect with the technology they're interested in.

"Also, many clubs now have their own branded app that allows club members to engage with other members, track progress with a group, or 'gamify' their workouts with friendly competitions," Poppler explained.

Connect with users beyond your walls. Even the most dedicated exercise junkie spends a lot more of his life outside the gym than inside, IHRSA has noted, so it makes sense to stay in touch via technology. Sharing fitness data with trainers or teachers can again keep clients motivated and focused on their fitness goals, but beyond personal fitness trackers, there's lots of room for less cutting-edge technology to be of assistance, as well. Virtual programming—on-demand workout videos accessed online—can help you expand your expert offerings and make instruction available at times when it might not make sense to schedule a class, Poppler explained.

Having these sorts of resources available to members on your facility's website may also help you expand your reach to new populations. For example, those affected by our country's obesity epidemic "are not the majority currently doing HIIT in the gym three times a week," Wall said. "They're shy or intimidated about traditional facilities, so online coaching or videos are a better option to help them meet their goals in the environment where they're comfortable."

Insight #3—In-House Expertise

This last tip is truly timeless: There's no trend big enough to supplant what's already working for you.

Find middle ground. "It's certainly a balance," Green said. Don't cast aside those enjoying treadmill time or circuit training, "but perhaps thin it out a little," he suggested. Create some open space that can be used in a variety of ways, and you might be surprised what happens. "Create a less intimidating environment," he suggested, "not just to be more appealing, but to create an inclusive and energetic space."


Talk to your constituents. Discuss these newer concepts to see what appeals to them. Your demographics are a big factor in both programming and facility choices, so don't forget to listen to the voices closest to home. After all, it's users who create the trends in the first place. "Zumba is a classic example," Wall said. These dance exercise classes are available at many clubs and gyms now because members asked for them.

Use your staff as a resource. What technologies are they familiar with? What do they feel would work best for integrating into your facility? "Let programming drive growth," Wall suggested. "Then you can make the right level of investment in equipment." And in the meantime, let your staff educate your clients and be creative. "Take what you have and build education around it so it still maintains its value."

Ultimately, whether you choose a big change from among these suggestions or a small one, keep the big-picture perspective in mind, rather than the more transient, trendy details. (No one's forcing you to wear jeggings.) This is a "long-term, societal endeavor," Green said. "Getting more people to find their space within physical fitness, giving them a more inclusive opportunity to find something they like, [because] that's when they stick with it and get results—that's good for business, good for the end user, and certainly good for the obesity crisis."

Jessica Royer Ocken