Get with the Programs

The latest trends shaping up in the fitness arena

By Mitch Martin

PHOTO COURTESY OF CRUNCH FITNESS
BOSU Bootcamp at Crunch Fitness

Program schedules at fitness clubs and health centers are starting to rival the course schedules of small colleges for heft and length.

The diversity of fitness programming across the country is only increasing. In addition to a simple need to be creative, the trend is driven by a desire to reach out to younger and older age groups—and to keep core clientele interested.

According to experts and recreational managers, mind-body and alternative fitness programming remains the predominate trend in 2002. At the same time, old-school training, such as boxing-based fitness and "boot camp" training, remain popular, though they may be plateauing.

Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist and vice president of educational services for the American Council on Exercise, says fitness programming is moving toward a philosophic basis of functionality: Fitness geared toward the ability to perform a certain task, sport or performance goal.

A major concern, Bryant says, is that trainers must be careful not to force-feed beginning clients the workout routines of elite, professional athletes. However, done correctly, Bryant says functional-based training can improve retention.

The trend is forcing fitness programmers to develop new offerings at an increasing rate. Fitness managers believe it is important to make sure the quality and true fitness value of programs are upheld despite the accelerated development process.

Many insiders say maintaining high-quality, flexible instructors is therefore more important than ever. And providing prospective participants with clear, easy-to-read class descriptions is also a key ingredient to a well-run program.

The diversified fitness environment presents new challenges for the recreation facility manager. However, many in the industry say just as new programs provide a refreshing change for the clients, it is also providing a similarly refreshing challenge for the people designing and deploying the new programs.

"Much of the work our membership does is aimed at the 20 percent of the population that is fit," says David Gilroy, spokesperson for IDEA Health and Fitness Association. "Variety is important because it's one way to help lure the 70 to 80 percent of people in the market that are unfit. To fill that huge gap, to reach them, you have to be creative."

Bryant says diversified programming has a primary goal of attracting participants outside of the 35- to 50-year-old range that make up the bulk of most the regular adherents. Once new clients are attracted, diversity can help retain current clients.

"One of the biggest challenges is helping people deal with boredom, which sabotages long-term adherence," Bryant says.

Reaching out to younger fitness participants is a big part of the job of Washington State University's Robin Bell, the coordinator of Fitness and Instructional Programs. She says diversity and orientation are two important things for providing programming for college-age fitness instructors.

The idea that young and fit always goes together can't be taken for granted, she says.

"I would say most of our incoming freshman have never taken an aerobics class," Bell says. "We try to offer free previews of classes regularly. We give them the opportunity to get that introduction in a small class setting where there's not a lot of pressure."

Yoga bared
PHOTO COURTESY OF WSU PHOTO SERVICES-SHELLY HANKS
Striking some yoga poses at WSU.

Yoga, in its purer form, was one of the major philosophic and spiritual doctrines of ancient India. It emerged as a spiritual force in the United States as far back as the 1920s.

In health clubs and other recreational facilities, yoga has developed largely into an exercise program, a point of some chagrin to yoga purists.

Paradoxically, it is the very fact that yoga offers both spiritual and mental benefits in addition to physical exercise that appears to be a source of its popularity.

Indeed, few fitness classes offer the combination of health benefits that yoga can offer, including cardiovascular training, body sculpting and flexibility. And yoga is a decidedly low-impact exercise. (However, injuries can occur with either over eager students or poor instruction.)

With this combination of benefits, it is perhaps not surprising that yoga is the trend leader in the 2002 IDEA survey. In the survey of about 300 fitness facilities, IDEA found a 54 percent increase in yoga classes over the last six years. In 1996, only 31 percent of survey respondents offered yoga, but the figure rose to 85 percent of fitness facilities in this year's survey.

At Washington State University, for example, yoga is one of the hottest fitness classes around. Bell says she has tried to remain sensitive to both the purists and those primarily interested in exercise.

"We are hoping to accommodate both sides," she says. "One thing we've worked on is being very careful about the class aims in the descriptors we put out in the class schedules."

Though it might make yoga purists fall right out of their dog poses, as an exercise class yoga is likely to move more and more away from its original form as practiced in health clubs and fitness centers. Power Yoga and Yoga-Pilates combinations are already proliferating.

Donna Cyrus, national group fitness director for Crunch Fitness, says the hybridization of yoga will continue to grow in order to accentuate sculpting and strength components.

"People have really embraced the changes in wellness they get from yoga, but I think they will want to see a little more dynamism," Cyrus says. "I think people are really ready to go to the next level with yoga."

Other nontraditional fitness programs

No matter how much yoga classes will change in the near future, they are unlikely to match the shock factor of some of Crunch gyms' fanciful creations. Known for edgy and creative programming, Crunch is showing exactly how diversified fitness programming can be.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CRUNCH FITNESS
Crunch's Cardio Striptease class

The gym received a lot of attention for its BOSU Balance Trainer. BOSU participants workout on a device similar to half an exercise ball that flips over during a workout to give participants differently shaped platforms on which to workout. The theory behind the exercise is that by making unique demands on balance, BOSU forces muscle groups to "fire" in new ways.

Much more outrageous is Crunch's Cardio Striptease class, which is an aerobic workout done complete with feather boa. The one-hour workout is lead by instructors with actual stripping experience. Crunch promotes the class as improving both fitness and sexuality.

Cyrus says a big key to Crunch's success is an overall nightclub atmosphere to the gyms, which helps attract and retain younger clientele.

"We're located in highly urban areas, usually close to colleges or college-aged people," Cyrus says. "We try to have a health club that looks like a night club."

Quality trainers and other challenges

Even a bold programmer like Cyrus says there are limits to non-fitness activities that can be transformed into a workout.

"There are some activities that require physical skills where the learning curve is too steep," she says. "You have to make sure it is adaptable to the masses and, basically, not too specific."

Bell says she adapts programs using the guidelines of several accreditation groups. The guidelines proscribe such exercise fundamentals as seven to 10 minutes of pre-aerobic warmup and 20 to 60 minutes of continuous activity for each class.

As programming diversifies, the quality of instructors becomes more important.

"It used to be that every instructor did one thing. Only yoga. Only step aerobics," Cyrus says. "It will be very difficult for an instructor to continue that way because the demand is for variety."

Cyrus says she places a premium on hiring and retaining quality, flexible trainers.

PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY RECREATION STAFF
Cycling and yoga classes are big on campus at Washington State University.

"You really have to support the idea of continuous training for your people," she says.

Cyrus has the advantage of a densely populated location. Bell says finding qualified instructors in more rural locales like eastern Washington can be problematic.

"We've had students come in who think they can teach a class without any formal training," she says. "It can be difficult to find people with the right mix of experience and training for newer classes."

In Napa, Calif., Recreation Coordinator Samantha Holland says the instructors are particularly crucial. The parks and recreation department has sponsored one of the current rages in fitness, belly dancing, for more than 10 years. Devotees of belly dancing say the dance form increases flexibility, muscle tone and relaxation in an activity tailored for the female body. It also dovetails nicely with "core" exercise, concentrating on the abdomen, trunk and pelvis of the belly dancer.

Holland says the program is sustained and grows based on the student's appreciation of instructor Sharyn Fuller.

"Really I think the popularity of our program is based fully on her work," Holland says.

The boxer rebellion

IDEA's Gilroy says boxing-based classes appeared to be plateauing, though they showed a 47 percent increase in the organization's survey.

Full-contact boxing, in particular, is viewed as problematic because of the possibility of injury.

"I think were seeing a little plateau because there have been some lawsuits and injuries and that sort of thing," Gilroy says.

But boxing remains popular in niches, in large measure because it has a unique combination of glamour, adrenaline and history combined with a prodigious workout.

Crunch Fitness, for example, offers contact boxing and kickboxing classes. Cyrus says boxing is a good draw as a niche program, often with one-on-one instruction.

Boxing has long had a particular appeal in the urban environment. In Pittsburgh, Pa., the legendary Chuck Senft has run the Brookline Boxing Club for 45 years. Senft says boxing programs can be run safely by very experienced professionals.

Boxing can attract trainers who don't have a "fitness and fun" attitude, which can be particularly dangerous because training often starts at the age of 8, says Senft, a former U.S. Army champion.

"I'm the type of guy that if one of my kids doesn't show up, I'm going to talk to his parents and find out what the problem is," Senft says. "You really need someone that's genuinely interested in kids, not just trying to find the next Sugar Ray Robinson."

Senft says the rewards of boxing are unique, instilling a high degree of self-confidence, pride and discipline. He says the benefits of boxing can be profound for disadvantaged or troubled children. And, besides, Senft says, it's a heck of a workout.

"I've had very in-shape Marines come here and not be able to go to work the next day," Senft says.

Because of the unique demands of the workout, Senft says one of the most important things is not to let young boxers into the ring until they are in top physical shape.

"Sparring is the icing on the cake," he says.

The next thing

It is difficult to judge the future hot trends in fitness—and perhaps even more difficult to judge which new programming initiative will have real staying power.

PHOTO COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY RECREATION STAFF

For example, some experts say that Pilates is still expanding its interest base.

More generally, Cyrus says fitness trends, like many cultural trends, would continue to develop from the two American coasts. She is developing a new regime that combined an apparatus workout with a traditional aerobic/dance style class. She says she wasn't ready to reveal the workout, but says it would be a departure from previous classes.

"It's going to be a workout involving cables and a tower," Cyrus says. "It will be based on a very free, dancing-style motion with a lyrical-type feel to it."

ACE's Bryant predicted a melding of indoor fitness with outdoor activities. He predicted the organization of indoor workouts would increasingly go toward the outdoors.

"One of the real possible antidotes to the problem of boredom and long-term adherence is use of the outdoors," Bryant says. "You are seeing a lot of fitness facilities taking people outside for biking, climbing and that sort of thing. And I think, in the future, you will see more of that."



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