Feature Article - November 2003
Find a printable version here

Special Mega Section:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Designing and Outfitting Fitness Centers

By Margaret Ahrweiler


Although ellipticals have been around only since 1995, they've gained a high-profile position in cardio areas. Among their selling points: They offer a similar motion to running without the impact, making it easy on aging joints. Unlike treadmills, most require no electrical outlet. They include fewer key components and take up less space, especially with the introduction of rear-exit models. Ellipticals vary less than treadmills in price, with most commercial models ranging from about $3,500 to $5,000. Overall, ellipticals and treadmills have an average life span of about three to five years.

And while the choices for ellipticals don't vary as much as treadmills, they, too, require a practiced eye to size them up.

Among the considerations for ellipticals:

  • What is the size of the footpad? Can it accommodate a population whose feet seem to get bigger each year?
  • How long or short is the stride of the elliptical? Some models may seem more comfortable to shorter users, while other favor longer-legged clients.
  • How high does the resistance and incline go to provide an intense workout?
  • Does it have handles for arm movements, railings or both? What do your members seem to prefer?
  • How easy is entry and exit?


While they've long lost trendy status, stationary bikes continue to attract a steady stream of users. Their appeal to both clients and owners remains. Bikes take up little space compared to other cardio equipment, don't need a power source and mimic the movement of outdoor cycling. They often prove more durable than treadmills or ellipticals: Connors notes he sees some exercise bikes still in service after 15 years.

While recumbent bicycles are more comfortable, friendlier to deconditioned guests and easier on the back, Connors says some still people prefer the uprights because "they want a bike that's more like a bike."

Many industry pros suggest a two-to-one recumbent-to-upright ratio. Current bike prices, depending on manufacturer, line, and bells and whistles, range from $2,000 to about $4,000.

When shopping bicycles, ergonomics is key among the points to consider:

  • Does the placement of the seat allow for the proper knee position when pedaling?
  • For an upright, are the handlebars designed for proper posture? Do they have comfortable grips? Can they be adjusted forward and back?
  • Does the seat have an angled post for greater comfort and durability?
  • How comfortable is the seat for a range of users? For uprights, does it reduce pressure?
  • For recumbent bikes, how far back or forward does the seat go to adapt to short and tall riders?


    And while these three components make up the meat of a cardio floor, fitness managers should leave room for other types of equipment, that, while less popular, still have a place in a gym. While stair climbers were eclipsed by ellipticals, they still have a loyal following. In Downers Grove, for example, Bahr purchased two stair steppers and a step mill—a moving staircase—to meet the training needs of the village's emergency personnel and added rowers and an upper-body ergometer. Upper-body ergometers, or UBEs, work the upper body (hence the name), and while they haven't gained the following of, say, ellipticals, fitness pros rave over the machines and encourage their use.

    Many ergometers made their way into gyms for their popularity with rehab workers and seniors, who appreciate the machines' swivel-out seat design. But their upper-body emphasis can add a new dimension to clients' training programs, says Joe Shank, co-owner of Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif. At Downers Grove, Bahr encourages trainers to incorporate them into center introductions and into training sessions since many younger members don't realize their benefits.

    Occasionally, new cardio products appear. Shank has added incline trainers, which look like treadmills, only with a shorter deck and steeper incline and decline to mimic climbing, for an intense workout without the impact of running. Arc trainers, which function similar to ellipticals, were introduced in early 2003 and may prove popular as well.


    Once the domain of Hollywood starlets, Pilates has long gone mainstream in a big way, trickling down to even the most modest of recreation centers. If considering a Pilates program, managers need to take into account space requirements, storage issues and equipment costs. But at least one club owner, who calls himself a former "nonbeliever" on the discipline, says it has turned into a major profit center for his facility.

    Joe Shank, owner of the Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif., introduced a manufacturer-sponsored Pilates system in his club in 1999 with great skepticism. He hired one instructor and watched the program grow in popularity and start filling up holes in his group fitness schedule. He then took it to the next level and began offering his club as a training and certification site for the Pilates manufacturer. Shank says the Pilates classes program generated $154,000 in gross revenue last year, while the certification classes net $200 an hour for the club.

    Space and equipment—and then storage—is an issue for those considering Pilates. The practice, which was founded more than 70 years ago by its namesake German immigrant, uses a "reformer," a 6-foot-plus long, rectangular wooden frame with a nest of cables, pulleys, springs and sliding boards. The reformers, can cost upwards of $1,000 and take up a fair amount of space. However, Shank says that manufacturers have begun offering stackable reformers, and increased class revenues can pay off the equipment investment.