Feature Article - March 2004
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Innovative Exercising

Whatís hot and whatís not in the health-club industry

By Kyle Ryan

Exercise expert Tom Holland, founder of Team Holland and a coach and lecturer on fitness, enjoys spending part of his Saturday mornings counting the infomercials he sees on TV. "They all say they do everything‚ÄĒnone do," Holland says. When it comes to fitness, we all know there are no magic bullets, just commitment and hard work. So what kinds of programs and equipment are dedicated (and wanna-be-dedicated) club-goers craving?

For starters, all things Pilates. The workout method created by Joseph Pilates nearly 100 years ago has enjoyed unprecedented popularity in recent years. The trend will likely continue in 2004 as health clubs scramble to include it in their classes. Pilates, functional core training, yoga and group-fitness classes are undeniably hot.

Take note.

"We're a consumer industry," says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sportclub Association (IHRSA). "We have to stay current with what's hot or what's popular. Better operators see what's going on, and they innovate. And they do so to address trends in the marketplace, but they do it with a plan and some attention."

IHRSA estimates that 9 million people will join a health club this year. Nearly 1 million of them joined in January alone. By the time you read this, though, nearly two-thirds of those New Year's newbies will have given up, according to health-club chain Crunch Fitness. They quit for various reasons, but if you pay attention to innovative ideas, they'll have fewer reasons to leave.

Not your older brother's health club

Today's health club isn't the same place it was in 1999, 1980 or 1970.

"The definition of what a health club is for many members has changed," Howland says. "I think that directly reflects the fact that consumers' expectations and needs have changed."

People aren't just exercising for vanity or to get ripped muscles. IHRSA estimates that 85 percent of people recognize that getting exercise is important for overall health.

"People are exercising for a broader variety of reasons," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "People are exercising for wellness needs. They're looking for a way to better manage stress. They're looking for a way to get some relaxation."

There will always be traditional gyms for hard-core fitness enthusiasts, Howland says, but they're just one of many options. Take the chain The Sports Club/LA, for example.

"They position themselves as urban country clubs," Howland says. "You show up, and there's an attendant in the locker rooms. You walk in, and you will be pampered, and that's not the stereotypical gym experience."

Crunch Fitness' new flagship club in Chicago has plenty of unstereotypical features. The three-floor, 50,000-square-foot facility has a life-size chess board, putting green, two-story "supersonic" slide for adults, fun-house mirrors, "chill-out" lounge with fireplace TV, a 1,200-square-foot stadium-seating theater and, of course, the chain's trademark "peek-a-boo" showers, where you can see the silhouettes of people taking showers. With Crunch's motto of "no judgements," you won't be called a pervert for watching, either.

While Crunch pursues a young demographic, other companies are going after families. Howland mentions Columbia Sports Club in Columbia, Md., which has a computer-learning center and after-school programs for kids. There is also the Life Time Fitness chain and the Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing, where the whole family can come and spend an entire day together.

"That's not just 'I go and put in my hour and do the right thing for my heart,'" Howland says. "It's where we go to hang out and recreate with friends."

That expanded focus beyond basic fitness needs has not come without a price, according to Bryant.

"Original health clubs tended to be very service-oriented," he says. "You had instructors on the floor who would tell people if they were doing things improperly and give them basic instructions that went beyond the initial initiation tour. You'd have an instructor there. Now the only instruction people get is if they contract with a personal trainer through the club."