Feature Article - November 2013
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Fit With the Trends

Updating Fitness Offerings to Meet Everyone's Needs

By Dawn Klingensmith

The so-called "seven-minute workout," consisting of 12 high-intensity exercises deploying only body weight, a chair and a wall, received a lot of media coverage after a study on its effectiveness ran in the May-June issue of the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. News of the "scientifically proven" express exercise routine quickly went viral, making the social media rounds and taking the blogosphere by storm. It wasn't long before apps became available to time the series of exercises. As it turns out, the routine is meant to be repeated two or three times in a row to total at least 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training, according to the original ACSM article. Still, it's a quick workout, and the excitement it generated is just one more indication that when it comes to exercise, as with so many other things, Americans want what's quick and convenient. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) delivers. Perhaps that's why, in a separate report, the ACSM named HIIT the top fitness trend for the upcoming year.

The fitness industry has responded to consumer preferences and demands in a number of ways, including the proliferation of "express" gym franchises and an overabundance of HIIT classes lasting no more than 30 minutes. Planet Fitness franchise locations have specially equipped "30 Minute Fitness" and "12 Minute Abs" zones. Anytime Fitness offers 24/7 keyed access to members, who can park, get an effective workout and be out the door in just 32 minutes total, according to a video on its website.

Even as demand for quickie workouts grows, the fitness industry, as well as consumers, is looking at wellness more holistically, with exercise being just one component. As more people embrace wellness as a way of life, fitness centers have begun to address nutrition and mind-body connectedness. Fitness Quest 10 of San Diego offers onsite massage, chiropractic and physical therapy (the practitioners rent the space), as well as workshops on health-related topics such as hormones and ergonomics, said General Manager Julie Wilcox.

Though it may never be standard, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is seen much more today than in times past, with many newer fitness clubs embracing it from the start as part of their mission to help people stay healthy and active, according to Stephen J. Tharrett, founder of Club Industry Consulting in Highland Village, Texas.

Other trends besides quick workouts and holistic offerings include:

  • Small-group personal training and boot camps
  • Functional fitness, or training the body for everyday activities
  • Body weight training
  • Extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) that are similar and sometimes indistinguishable from HIIT, including copycats and knock-offs of CrossFit, P90X and Insanity
  • Opening up space in the gym for these newer programs, which require room for small groups, changeable equipment and movements that cover some ground, such as walking lunges
  • Boutique fitness centers dedicated to a niche audience or specific discipline such as Flywheel (indoor cycling), Barre Bee Fit (ballet barre training) and Iron Tribe (members believe physical fitness is critical to best serve God, family and community)
  • Budget fitness franchises with bare-bones amenities and low monthly fees ($10 or less)
  • Population-specific (senior, youth) zones and programming

HIIT Takes a Hit

The popularity of HIIT has skyrocketed in the past year only to be targeted by critics who say its risks and injury rates are too high. The ACSM annually conducts its "Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends," and topping the list for 2014 is HIIT, which came as a "big surprise" to the report's author, Walter R. Thompson, an exercise science professor at Georgia State University. As a result, the report comes with a "big warning" about the risks associated with HIIT, Thompson said. (The full report was released after press time.) Those risks include musculoskeletal injuries and cardiovascular events, particularly for newbies. Health practitioners are seeing muscle strains, torn ligaments, stress fractures, and mild to severe cases of exertional rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening syndrome that occurs when broken-down muscle fibers release their contents into the bloodstream, overworking the kidneys.

A 2011 consensus paper authored by the ACSM in conjunction with the Consortium for Health and Military Performance examines extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) and finds among military personnel and civilians an "apparent disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk from these demanding programs, particularly for novice participants." The authors' definition of ECP is synonymous with HIIT.

Citing CrossFit, Insanity and Gym Jones as examples, the authors describe ECPs as "high-volume aggressive training workouts that use a variety of high-intensity exercises and often timed maximal number of repetitions with short rest periods between sets."

With gyms and trainers putting their own spin on it, there are now countless variations of the concept. Common components are body weight exercises (No. 2 on the ACSM's list of fitness trends for 2014), core training and plyometrics. These programs promise quicker results by taxing the metabolic and cardiovascular systems.

While fast results explain the widespread popularity of ECPs among the average Joe, there's more to it for your hardcore G.I. Joe type of guy, the authors concede: "The demanding exercise pace, overall difficulty and perceived potential for 'getting ripped' are appealing, exciting, motivating and appear to target a niche of otherwise unmet training needs and desires."

Adding to extreme conditioning's appeal, there is typically an emphasis on functional fitness, which is generally understood to mean everyday movements. Of course, that means something different in the military than it does at the senior living center. The consensus paper describes functional fitness as "the ability to repeatedly perform, under highly fatiguing conditions, a variety of multi-joint and total body movements in multiple anatomical planes." For soldiers, the idea is to "elevate combat readiness."