Feature Article - November 2005
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Fit Facilities

Mixing old and new ideas to fulfill fresh niches

By Kyle Ryan

HealthWorks Fitness Center
El Dorado, Ark.

When the SHARE Foundation took over an old YWCA in El Dorado, Ark., and created the HealthWorks Fitness Center, it had to do a lot of work. The not-for-profit organization shared the community focus of the YWCA, but the building required significant renovation. Executive Director Mike Dupuis organized that in three phases, beginning with closing the 10-lane, 25-yard pool for six months.

"We had folks, when they heard we were shutting the pool down, you'd have thought I had a lynch mob outside my office," Dupuis says, laughing. "I mean, they were just ready to kill because they'd been swimming here for 17 years. They didn't want to mess with it, [saying] 'How can you do this?'"

Dupuis planned for that reaction, though, by placing all swimmers in land-based personal-training programs for no charge.

"Several of the more adamant swimmers I don't believe have stepped foot back in the pool," he says.

That's a surprise considering the pool's transformation. When the renovation finished, it created a multiple-zoned aquatics center with a lazy river, 120-foot water slide, water-walking channel, 60,000-gallon warm-water pool and competitive swim area, all of it indoors. The result? "Record numbers" for swim lessons (kids over age 8 can swim alone if they pass a test) and HealthWorks' most popular program, a warm-water arthritis class for seniors. The zero-depth entry helps make it easy to get them in, and a Jacuzzi bench helps keep them there. Dupuis says up to 50 seniors use the pool at the same time, a key design element for the pool.

"Most facilities undersize them," he says. "We took four lanes of that 10-lane pool and dedicated them for that. I can actually have about 10 or 15 of them doing water walking at the same time a class is going on for 45 to 50 of them. We've been real fortunate that it ended up designing out very well and also that our participation has been great."

The aquatics center renovation was just one phase of HealthWorks' rebirth. Dupuis also redid the locker rooms, creating six altogether: two family, two for kids up to 14 and two for adults. A new three-story building houses the group-exercise studios, a 12,000-square-foot fitness area on the second floor, and a café, conference room, mammography suite, pro shop, nursery and baby-sitting area on the first floor.

More facilities have implemented that "all under one roof" approach, and in HealthWorks' case, the results have been dramatic. According to Dupuis, the club went from 750 members when it took over the YWCA to 4,300 now. Not bad for a town with just 21,000 residents.

The club's programming—the usual mix of group exercise, aquatics and specialty classes—has a lot to do with that. One of its newest programs addresses a previously ignored age-group: kids ages 8 to 13.

"The notorious problem that fitness centers have is you take kids up to about the age of 8 in the nursery, which is what we do, but at 8 you kind of get rid of them," Dupuis says. "They come out of there because they're too big. We had to figure a way to develop a program for them to be safe and to be able to use cardiovascular equipment as well as use the pool, so we did that."

The program, which began after the final phase of expansion, first takes children through a fitness assessment using a body-composition unit. After that, they receive a 30- to 45-minute orientation with the cardiovascular equipment. Once a staff member signs off on them, children can use the cardio equipment in the fitness area as long as a parent is in the room.

"We've dramatically improved our utilization," he says. "It's very convenient. If you have children, you understand it's hard to do anything and not have them do it with you. It's worked out real well. We've got plenty of equipment; we've got plenty of space. It's all an open environment, so everybody can see everybody. It's been win-win for us."

Beyond that, HealthWorks also offers sports-specific training clinics for kids, and Dupuis hopes to begin nutrition classes soon. With the third phase of expansion now complete, Dupuis has no plans for further expansion in the short term.

"We're sitting tight right now," he says. "I've got the ability to build out of both other ends of the building, and you know, if the demand warrants it, our foundation is very, very successful and very supportive of community wellness. So if we came up with another need or something like that, I've got the abilities to expand."