Feature Article - March 2004
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Innovative Exercising

What’s hot and what’s not in the health-club industry

By Kyle Ryan

Old news

According to IHRSA, Americans over the age of 55 are the fastest growing segment of health-club members in the United States. From 1987 to 2002, there was a 350 percent increase in their numbers. In 2002, there were 6.9 million of them.

With an older demographic, you're going to see fewer and fewer high-impact classes. Howland concludes the heyday of dance-oriented, high-impact aerobic classes—never mind Zumba—has passed.

"To a certain extent, it makes sense if you look at the demographics," Howland says. "More than half of health-club members are over the age of 35, and for folks in their 40s and 50s, the real high-impact classes are tough on your joints."

Spinning, once a major force in group fitness, has come down in participation significantly over the past couple of years.

"I don't think it's going away," Bryant says. "In terms of when it was hugely popular a few years back, you certainly don't see that anymore."

Although it may seem surprising, Holland suggests that the Pilates bubble is closer to bursting than you may expect. In fact, he's surprised by its longevity. The major problem? It's not cardiovascular exercise, meaning calorie expenditures are relatively low—that is, Pilates won't help you lose weight.

"I used to have women coming to me saying, 'Gosh, I want to look like the women that take the Pilates classes,'" Holland says. "Well you know what? They walked in that way. They didn't walk in as 300-pound women and walk out 110."

Considering the vast majority of people want to lose weight through exercise, Pilates and core training might be on the verge of a steep decline in participation.

"If you're doing core training, you're going to get really strong at the expense of burning some calories and reaching your goal," Holland says.

Staying relevant

Thinking ahead like that is the key to remaining successful as a health club, regardless if you're a 40,000-square-foot, full-service facility or a tiny independent gym.

"The best clubs innovate constantly," Howland says. "There's planning, there's thought, there's attention—continuing to innovate, to create programs to provide services that have a basis."

Bryant sums it up simply: Never stop learning.

"The fitness professionals have to see themselves as being lifelong learners," he says. "It's not a situation where you get a degree, and the learning stops. It's the start of a lifelong process."

That doesn't just mean keeping up on fitness research and trends; listening to the people in your health club is just as important.

"I believe that most of the suggestion boxes have a garbage can underneath them because they don't get anywhere," Holland says. "If you're speaking from a purely gym-owner perspective, show the people that you care. It's the age-old adage that if you do something bad, that person tells 10 people. If you do something good, they tell two."

For example, Holland says the No. 1 complaint women have about health clubs is the cleanliness of the locker rooms. People also complain about lack of parking or paying for towels, lack of water, and so on.

"You've got to be consistent and consistently excellent," Howland says. "It's the simple stuff: locker rooms clean, if people know your name at the front desk and smile when you come in. It's doable, and I think the consumer knows that."

It's not just a matter of inter-gym competition, either. You're competing with people's tendency to avoid exercise. Americans know they should exercise, but they don't, no matter how cool your classes sound or how many celebrities credit Pilates for their toned bods. Two-thirds of the people who joined a gym in January have stopped going by now. People think they won't fit in at a health club. They think they need to lose 10 pounds before they even step foot in one.

"It's important not only from the fact that you want to differentiate yourself from the competition by providing a superior experience," Howland says, "but you've got to do it so that all these people, who are trying to get started and stick with a healthier lifestyle, when they come through the door, they're looking forward to being at your club instead of dragging themselves in for a workout."