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

Most industry pros agree that a fitness center should have between 50 percent and 60 percent of its facility devoted to cardio equipment and 40 percent to 50 percent for strength training. Client makeup will determine that 10-percent difference. And knowing and understanding the needs of that client base will drive smart equipment decisions.

For example, the Downers Grove Park District Fitness Center, which opened last year in suburban Chicago, crunched its population numbers before opening. Director Mary Bahr determined that Downers Grove's population of 49,000 had a mean age of 39. While the center planned to cater to ages 16 and up, they decided to allow children 12 and up with an adult and realized that women would make up a significant percentage of its users.

Client makeup can vary equipment needs dramatically, says Rob Romano, a former fitness industry consultant now with a manufacturer. A recreational center with a primarily female clientele may lean toward 60 percent cardio and go easy on heavy free weights in favor of smaller dumbbells and easy-to-use circuit training systems, he explains, while a college campus center might add more free-weight training areas. A commercial club that caters to the under-30 set will buy different equipment than a wellness center with a strong 60-plus population. When in doubt, it's often safe to err on the side of cardio due to the time element involved, Romano adds.

"People will stay on cardio equipment for a minimum of 15 minutes, upward to an hour, whereas people can work their way in and out of weights," he says.

How much do you need? There's no magic formula, unfortunately, but a few rules of thumb do exist. A 40,000-square-foot club with a first-year membership of 5,000 should consider about 100 pieces of cardio, Connors estimates, with an average of 40 treadmills, 40 ellipticals, 20 bikes and 10 other pieces.

Another rule of thumb is that for every 10,000 square feet, a facility should feature at least 40 cardio pieces. This may be conservative: Downers Grove's 5,200-square-foot facility, for example, features 15 treadmills, 12 ellipticals, four recumbent bikes and two upright bikes.

Finally, many major manufacturers offer planning tools on their Web sites and through their sales teams to help formulate a good estimation of equipment needed.


Most cardio areas are filled with the Big Three: treadmills, stationary bicycles and elliptical trainers, with a smattering of other equipment that has either fallen from fashion or attracts only a small core of passionate users. These include stair climbers, which have faded in popularity lately with the growth of ellipticals, rowing machines, and upper-body ergometers, which work like bicycles powered by the arms instead of legs. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, quirks, and passionate advocates for both machine type and brand. Most manufacturers offer lower-cost models designed for lighter use, such as in hotel centers, along with heavier-duty varieties. The extra features—such as heart-rate monitors, water bottle and stereo holders, and increasing numbers of programs—add to the price.


Treadmills will take up the most space, cost the most, get used the most and need the most maintenance, and as a result, require the most careful decision-making. Treadmills run from around $3,000 to $7,000 per machine, with machines designed for lighter use, such as those in hotel fitness rooms costing the least and heavy-duty, premium commercial models costing the most. When purchasing treadmills, test several different models, or better yet, Connors says, have devoted treadmill users test them.

Among the key factors to consider:

  • Comfort: How does it feel to walk on it? Run on it?
  • What is the size of the deck (which can run from 50 to 63 inches)? Runners may also prefer a longer, wider deck to handle the variation in their stride.
  • How are the handles and rails situated? This depends on how treadmills are used in your club: Generally, walkers prefer long rails, while runners favor an open design for greater arm movement.
  • What is the horsepower of engine? For heavy-usage areas, generally, the higher the better. Engines range from 3 to 6 hp.
  • How are the belt and roller designed? The goal here is to minimize friction. Also, how often do they need to be replaced?
  • How stiff or flexible is the deck? Flexibility matters more to runners than walkers, who don't mind a stiff deck.
  • What power source is required? Many treadmills require 220-volt outlets, with dedicated lines. A newer generation requires only 110 volts. Also the amount of power treadmills use can make a difference in electricity costs.
  • How noisy is it at a variety of speeds, and how important are noise levels to your club? A high-energy space may not require ultra-quiet operation the way a lower-key facility does.
  • Speed: Can it go fast enough to accommodate the hard cores? Some hit 12 mph.
  • What is the incline range? Is there a decline? Look at your club's usage patterns to determine if a range is needed.

When deciding on how many treadmills to purchase, facility managers need to take into account their own structures and their climate. Centers with running tracks may require fewer treadmills, while those in cold-weather climates may need more to accommodate runners forced to move indoors.