Feature Article - June 2007
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Fit Facilities

A Look at Trends in YMCAs and Health Clubs

There's no doubt that the obesity epidemic is growing at a frightening rate. In findings that will be published later this year in the journal Public Health, the RAND Corp. revealed that the proportion of severely obese Americans increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005, twice as fast as the growth seen in moderate obesity. Because of this, Roland Sturm, author of the report and an economist at RAND, said that widely published trends for obesity may actually underestimate the consequences of the obesity epidemic, because illness and service use are much higher among the severely obese.

What's more, Sturm said the findings challenge a common belief that the obese are a fixed proportion of the population who are not affected by changes in eating and physical activity patterns in the general population. The report also showed that what some would consider drastic measures—such as bariatric surgery—are actually having little effect on the prevalence of obesity in America.

Could it be that good old healthy eating and exercise habits are still the best option? If so, there may be no better place to step up the battle against obesity and unhealthy habits than fitness-focused facilities like YMCAs and health clubs.

In a recent survey, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that nearly every American knows that exercise promotes and preserves good health, but most feel that the current culture of the country, including work, family and financial pressures, makes it hard to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

"These findings tell us that exercise is a critical component of preventive health care to most Americans," said IHRSA President and CEO Joe Moore in a press release about the survey. "However, they are losing the struggle to balance the demands of work and family with personal health and need greater support. Americans need access to the tools necessary to live healthier lifestyles."

And building a healthy lifestyle can start when you're young.

"Families are under increased stress, and they struggle to balance work, family and health," said President and CEO of YMCA of the USA Neil Nicoll in a press release announcing the 16th Annual YMCA Healthy Kids Day. "More physical activity through play helps children better manage stress, succeed in school, build energy and, most of all, learn skills that encourage a lifetime of activity."

For the purposes of our study, we combined many of the numbers reported by respondents from YMCAs, YWCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), health clubs and sports clubs. Many of these facilities include similar amenities, such as fitness centers, aquatic facilities and gymnasiums.

However, there are some drastic differences between these types of facilities, and where the numbers are vastly different, we will report those here.

For one thing, YMCAs and their ilk are generally private nonprofit organizations, while sports clubs and health clubs tend to operate on a for-profit basis. The vast majority of YMCAs we surveyed indicated that they were private nonprofit organizations, while nearly three-quarters of health clubs said they operated on a for-profit basis. Another fifth of health clubs indicated that they were public organizations, while 10 percent said they were private, nonprofit facilities.

Another glaring difference between the two types of facilities was their tendency to partner with outside organizations. Every YMCA, YWCA and JCC we surveyed said their facility partners in one way or another with an outside organization, compared to less than 70 percent of health clubs that partner.

In fact, many health club respondents cited unfair competition from nonprofit facilities offering similar services, but Susan Wallover, a principal with Recreation Planning Associates, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based firm that focuses predominantly on feasibility studies for community centers, recreation centers and swimming pools—both public and private, said that she expects this tendency to avoid partnerships to change among health clubs as facilities of all kinds look to do more with less.

"The health clubs tend to not want to help anyone who's a 501(c)(3)," she said. "I truly believe there is room for partnership there, but the right one hasn't been developed and publicized. But they each serve their different clients. I don't see it as tremendous competition, except maybe in a very small community, so I think partnerships will develop there."