Feature Article - November 2003
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Special Mega Section:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Designing and Outfitting Fitness Centers

By Margaret Ahrweiler

In a complex yet sedentary society, fitness means a return to the basics. People want to move. Give them some stuff to mimic the labor of life: running, lifting, pulling, pushing, bending, reaching. Then give them a place to wash off the sweat of their efforts when they're done.

Basic? Basic enough to have spawned a $12 billion industry that fills up some of the country's biggest convention halls several times a year. Putting together a top-notch fitness facility, from a hotel workout room to a stadium-sized megacenter, means making dozens of decisions on an amazing variety of necessities, amenities and luxuries. Decision-makers must winnow down hundreds of choices for the things their centers need and must also discover all the things they didn't know they needed.

On the bright side, when it comes to major equipment needs, it's pretty hard to miss the boat, according to one industry pro.

"When it comes down to it, your equipment needs are pretty basic," says Mike Connors, president of Optimal Fitness Systems International, a fitness industry consultant. "You can find what you need with the quality you need from a number of places. Most of your decisions will be based on sales and marketing."

The flip side of that, however: Those sales and marketing-oriented decisions can make or break your center.


But it all starts with the exercise equipment, exercise being the focus of fitness. For centers great and small, basic equipment needs never vary. A fitness facility must have cardiovascular equipment, which increases the heart rate over an extended time, and strength-training equipment. Strength equipment is split between circuit-training machines, known in the trade as selectorized equipment (users can select the weight level), and free weights: dumbbells, bar bells, and the machines and benches that go with them, along with the hybrid plate-loaded pieces that combine elements of both selectorized and free weights.

This equipment, after all, is what a fitness center is all about, and represents a huge chunk of a center's budget. On average, a 10,000-square-foot facility will spend between $175,000 and $200,000 on equipment, according to industry guidelines. At the University of Pennsylvania's new David Pottruck Health & Fitness Center, equipment and fitness accoutrements accounted for about $750,000 of the total $24 million tab of the 115,000-square-foot building, which features 50,000 square feet of rehabbed and 65,000 square feet of new space, says Dr. Michael Diorka, director of recreational sports at Penn.



Savvy fitness center managers know the most important equipment in the room isn't a treadmill. It isn't an elliptical. It isn't a weight bench. It's a spray bottle. Unfortunately, sweat is the acid rain of fitness—a toxic by-product that's the worst thing possible for exercise equipment. To fight it and extend the life span of equipment and keep them running, fitness centers should encourage a culture of clean by making spray bottles and boxes of gym wipes visible, accessible and usable. With new facilities, pride of ownership helps.

"The first thing people do when they approach a machine is pick up a squirt bottle and a rag," says John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. And when designing a new facility, architects need to add plenty of visible storage spots for those cleaning materials, says Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Boston-based Sasaki & Associates. He has even seen proposals for a cleaning caddy next to each machine.

"Quite a few people won't take the few extra steps to get something and put it back where they found it," he says.

Finally, fitness staff must encourage that culture of cleanliness by leading through example. Downers Grove's Director Mary Bahr encourages her staff to use the machines—and then very visibly clean them—twice a day.