Feature Article - March 2005
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Fresh Fitness Checkup

Fitness equipment and programming: One doesn't work without the other, and both are changing

By Kyle Ryan

Ellipticals raid, stair-climbers fade

IDEA's 2004 survey showed in numbers what many people in the industry knew anecdotally: Elliptical trainers are about to eclipse other cardio equipment in popularity. In terms of growth, 70 percent of fitness centers use them, up from 41 percent in 1998. In the same timespan, treadmills declined in usage 1 percent (to 74 percent of facilities having them), and stair-climbers declined 15 percent (to 59 percent). Elliptical trainers dramatically reduce the impact on joints and muscles during workouts, making them good matches for people who have knee problems.

"I think it's because they're so easy to do," Davis says. "You can get upper body and lower body, and they're so low-impact, and any fitness level can really benefit. You don't really feel like a klutz or anything."

Of course, there was a time when stair-climbers reigned supreme. In the late '90s, they enjoyed treadmill-like ubiquity in fitness centers, according to IDEA's survey. Holland, a die-hard stair-climber fan, says ellipticals don't quite provide as intense of a workout as stair-climbers.

"I'm always getting calls from writers who want me to say that an elliptical gives you the same burn, but it just doesn't," Holland says, "simply by the fact that your body is more supported. You do have to work a little harder to burn a similar amount of calories."

Other people apparently feel the same way, which means stair-climbers will most likely never become extinct.

Holland offers the cross-country-ski track machines as a similar example.

"I remember the gyms where I worked at that wanted to pull those, but the gym owners wouldn't be able to because four of the die-hards loved them," he says. "You can always say that, although they won't be as popular, these things will always have their corner of the gym."

Elderly, disabled and youth equipment

In another case of old exercise theories coming undone, old prohibitions about children lifting weights have since been disproved. Holland, 35, remembers how well-meaning adults kept him and other kids away from the gym.

"Back when I was younger, they said you couldn't lift weights until you were 16 because it would stunt your growth," he says. "Well, all of those things have been thrown out the window. All the important research says 10- to 12-year-olds should and could lift weights, but do one set at moderate weight."

The nationwide obesity epidemic also has affected children, meanwhile many schools have cut physical-education programs because of tight budgets. That has led to a rise in youth-exercise programs elsewhere, including kids' gyms and youth-specific exercise equipment.

For most clubs, the machines may lack profitability, as adult equipment occupying the same space would get more use. But Holland thinks kids-only gyms could make kids' equipment and programming financially sustainable, while a traditional health club may not have a huge amount of floor space to devote to kids' stuff.

"That's just the bottom line," Holland says. "It's too expensive."

The numbers from IDEA reinforce that. According to the 2004 survey, only 9 percent of respondents' clients/members were under 18. However, 20 percent were over 55. In 2000, the survey showed that 13 percent of clients/members were 65 and over. (The 2004 survey only measured 55 and older.) That number only will grow as Baby Boomers age, and it could dramatically affect the fitness industry.

"There's a whole new generation of products that are being adapted and created for this market, and it's not just, you now, people in nursing homes," Catlin says. "You're going to see clubs that are geared to the over-50 crowd, just like you see Curves and Cuts."