Feature Article - January 2014
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Keeping Fit, Keeping Safe

Safety Elements Can Be Attractively Designed

By Rick Dandes

Owners and operators of fitness centers know that offering a clean, welcoming and, above all, safe facility is not just good for attracting new clients and retaining old ones. It also can protect you if injuries suffered by a member result in a claim being submitted to your insurance carrier or even result in a lawsuit being filed against your organization.

"You can offer the best, most modern equipment in beautifully designed spaces, but for most people, safety is of upmost importance," said Rudy Fabiano, design director for Fabiano Designs in Montclair, N.J. "There are several components of safety: There is the physical safety of the products that you are using, meaning a floor has the right coefficient of friction. This actually tells you how anti-slip it is, how resistant it is to slippage, and that is a requirement by code." Use a flooring with a very low coefficient of friction in a wet area and the probability of someone falling is greater than not.

There is also placement safety, or how the equipment is arranged. A crowded weight room, for example, would be unsafe if you don't have enough clearance or walkway space between areas. If the area is too crowded, it leaves no room for error if somebody drops a weight.

"I think safety is also about educating people," added Jeff Nagel, owner of NAGELSport, Nagel Design, in Edmonds, Wash. With all the emphasis on wellness, which companies are stressing as a way of keeping employee health care costs down, "some people are coming back into the gym who are extremely deconditioned or very unknowledgeable on how to use gym equipment. They need to understand from the initial walkthrough tour of a club that it's a safe place where they can go in and know they will learn how to use the equipment."

Space-Specific Safety

The keys to a great cardio room, said Stephen Tharrett, president, Club Industry Consulting, Highland Village, Texas, include:

  • Providing sufficient operational space for the equipment as well as for circulation. "Ideally," Tharrett said, "you want to provide approximately 50 square feet per piece of equipment. You want to make sure there is at least three feet of space behind each piece of cardio, and if possible, six feet. You also want to make sure you provide circulation corridors to the equipment with a width of at least three feet.
  • Place equipment in modules or sections rather than creating one massive line of equipment. In essence, create neighborhoods of pieces so people can socialize if desired.
  • Provide the proper levels of lighting. The lighting should be indirect and provide at least 40-, and preferably 50-, foot candles at eye level.
  • Provide entertainment alternatives. This might include some equipment with the newest embedded LCD screens, but also areas with large-screen TVs and possibly some areas with no external stimuli. Cardio is all about distraction, Nagel added. "I think proper fitness design should really encourage people to exercise and reach their goals, so we suggest providing an environment that helps with distractions, whether it is personal viewing screens or multiple screen options or all the above. I think the perfect environment is where someone can come in, get on a treadmill or bike and you can watch TV, surf the internet, watch people working out or just watch people."
  • Keep ambient noise at a reasonable level.
  • Provide the right type of flooring. Many clubs now provide a rubber surface. Carpeted floors lessen the ambient noise levels and can be a great option in some areas. Finally, especially in Europe, some clubs are using wood floors, which provide a more upscale environment.

The type of flooring used in group exercise is heavily dependent on the type of activity you are offering, Tharrett continued. "Cushioned wood floors—and bamboo is now used by many clubs instead of wood—work best for most group exercise classes. For group cycling classes you might consider using a high-quality rubber floor, as it does not show the wear from moving bikes and is easier to clean when it comes to the excess moisture produced in cycling classes. Another option used in some Pilates and yoga studios are cork floors or bamboo floors with an underlayment."

What are some of the general considerations in choosing the best floor for your fitness center gymnasium? Experienced athletes want the optimum give and slide characteristics to protect ankles and hips that wood and premium synthetic products offer, said Don Brown, technical director of a Mercer, Wis.-based athletic floor system manufacturer. "Those who care for the surfaces look for a product that is impervious to damage, so use and maintenance need to be considered. Using lifecycle guidelines to help develop cost-over-time predictions, a properly cared for wood floor should last 60 years with annual rescreening and periodic sand refinishing. Their synthetic counterparts usually need some refurbishing in 12 to 15 years, and will require either total replacement or an overpour at that time."

Maintenance is also a prime concern. Brown noted, given tight budgets and limited manpower. A walk-behind scrubber is a good investment, he said, making the routine cleaning process go more smoothly. With other attachments, a scrubber can be used in other areas of a facility as well.

For the free weight areas and the resistance machines, provide sufficient operational space, Tharrett, of Club Industries Consulting, said, "which is typically around 50 square feet per unit; with smaller pieces you can allocate less space. What you need to make sure to do is provide sufficient circulation space so members can easily traverse the space."

Centers should consider leaving a 3-foot corridor and or circulation space if they have lines of equipment, Tharrett said, and leave at least 18 inches between pieces if side by side. As for flooring, a cushioned rubber floor is a good choice to absorb sound and provide cushion.