Special Mega Section:
Recreation Managementís Complete Guide to Designing and Outfitting Fitness Centers

By Margaret Ahrweiler

In a complex yet sedentary society, fitness means a return to the basics. People want to move. Give them some stuff to mimic the labor of life: running, lifting, pulling, pushing, bending, reaching. Then give them a place to wash off the sweat of their efforts when they're done.

Basic? Basic enough to have spawned a $12 billion industry that fills up some of the country's biggest convention halls several times a year. Putting together a top-notch fitness facility, from a hotel workout room to a stadium-sized megacenter, means making dozens of decisions on an amazing variety of necessities, amenities and luxuries. Decision-makers must winnow down hundreds of choices for the things their centers need and must also discover all the things they didn't know they needed.

On the bright side, when it comes to major equipment needs, it's pretty hard to miss the boat, according to one industry pro.

"When it comes down to it, your equipment needs are pretty basic," says Mike Connors, president of Optimal Fitness Systems International, a fitness industry consultant. "You can find what you need with the quality you need from a number of places. Most of your decisions will be based on sales and marketing."

The flip side of that, however: Those sales and marketing-oriented decisions can make or break your center.


But it all starts with the exercise equipment, exercise being the focus of fitness. For centers great and small, basic equipment needs never vary. A fitness facility must have cardiovascular equipment, which increases the heart rate over an extended time, and strength-training equipment. Strength equipment is split between circuit-training machines, known in the trade as selectorized equipment (users can select the weight level), and free weights: dumbbells, bar bells, and the machines and benches that go with them, along with the hybrid plate-loaded pieces that combine elements of both selectorized and free weights.

This equipment, after all, is what a fitness center is all about, and represents a huge chunk of a center's budget. On average, a 10,000-square-foot facility will spend between $175,000 and $200,000 on equipment, according to industry guidelines. At the University of Pennsylvania's new David Pottruck Health & Fitness Center, equipment and fitness accoutrements accounted for about $750,000 of the total $24 million tab of the 115,000-square-foot building, which features 50,000 square feet of rehabbed and 65,000 square feet of new space, says Dr. Michael Diorka, director of recreational sports at Penn.



Savvy fitness center managers know the most important equipment in the room isn't a treadmill. It isn't an elliptical. It isn't a weight bench. It's a spray bottle. Unfortunately, sweat is the acid rain of fitness—a toxic by-product that's the worst thing possible for exercise equipment. To fight it and extend the life span of equipment and keep them running, fitness centers should encourage a culture of clean by making spray bottles and boxes of gym wipes visible, accessible and usable. With new facilities, pride of ownership helps.

"The first thing people do when they approach a machine is pick up a squirt bottle and a rag," says John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. And when designing a new facility, architects need to add plenty of visible storage spots for those cleaning materials, says Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Boston-based Sasaki & Associates. He has even seen proposals for a cleaning caddy next to each machine.

"Quite a few people won't take the few extra steps to get something and put it back where they found it," he says.

Finally, fitness staff must encourage that culture of cleanliness by leading through example. Downers Grove's Director Mary Bahr encourages her staff to use the machines—and then very visibly clean them—twice a day.

Most industry pros agree that a fitness center should have between 50 percent and 60 percent of its facility devoted to cardio equipment and 40 percent to 50 percent for strength training. Client makeup will determine that 10-percent difference. And knowing and understanding the needs of that client base will drive smart equipment decisions.

For example, the Downers Grove Park District Fitness Center, which opened last year in suburban Chicago, crunched its population numbers before opening. Director Mary Bahr determined that Downers Grove's population of 49,000 had a mean age of 39. While the center planned to cater to ages 16 and up, they decided to allow children 12 and up with an adult and realized that women would make up a significant percentage of its users.

Client makeup can vary equipment needs dramatically, says Rob Romano, a former fitness industry consultant now with a manufacturer. A recreational center with a primarily female clientele may lean toward 60 percent cardio and go easy on heavy free weights in favor of smaller dumbbells and easy-to-use circuit training systems, he explains, while a college campus center might add more free-weight training areas. A commercial club that caters to the under-30 set will buy different equipment than a wellness center with a strong 60-plus population. When in doubt, it's often safe to err on the side of cardio due to the time element involved, Romano adds.

"People will stay on cardio equipment for a minimum of 15 minutes, upward to an hour, whereas people can work their way in and out of weights," he says.

How much do you need? There's no magic formula, unfortunately, but a few rules of thumb do exist. A 40,000-square-foot club with a first-year membership of 5,000 should consider about 100 pieces of cardio, Connors estimates, with an average of 40 treadmills, 40 ellipticals, 20 bikes and 10 other pieces.

Another rule of thumb is that for every 10,000 square feet, a facility should feature at least 40 cardio pieces. This may be conservative: Downers Grove's 5,200-square-foot facility, for example, features 15 treadmills, 12 ellipticals, four recumbent bikes and two upright bikes.

Finally, many major manufacturers offer planning tools on their Web sites and through their sales teams to help formulate a good estimation of equipment needed.


Most cardio areas are filled with the Big Three: treadmills, stationary bicycles and elliptical trainers, with a smattering of other equipment that has either fallen from fashion or attracts only a small core of passionate users. These include stair climbers, which have faded in popularity lately with the growth of ellipticals, rowing machines, and upper-body ergometers, which work like bicycles powered by the arms instead of legs. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, quirks, and passionate advocates for both machine type and brand. Most manufacturers offer lower-cost models designed for lighter use, such as in hotel centers, along with heavier-duty varieties. The extra features—such as heart-rate monitors, water bottle and stereo holders, and increasing numbers of programs—add to the price.


Treadmills will take up the most space, cost the most, get used the most and need the most maintenance, and as a result, require the most careful decision-making. Treadmills run from around $3,000 to $7,000 per machine, with machines designed for lighter use, such as those in hotel fitness rooms costing the least and heavy-duty, premium commercial models costing the most. When purchasing treadmills, test several different models, or better yet, Connors says, have devoted treadmill users test them.

Among the key factors to consider:

  • Comfort: How does it feel to walk on it? Run on it?
  • What is the size of the deck (which can run from 50 to 63 inches)? Runners may also prefer a longer, wider deck to handle the variation in their stride.
  • How are the handles and rails situated? This depends on how treadmills are used in your club: Generally, walkers prefer long rails, while runners favor an open design for greater arm movement.
  • What is the horsepower of engine? For heavy-usage areas, generally, the higher the better. Engines range from 3 to 6 hp.
  • How are the belt and roller designed? The goal here is to minimize friction. Also, how often do they need to be replaced?
  • How stiff or flexible is the deck? Flexibility matters more to runners than walkers, who don't mind a stiff deck.
  • What power source is required? Many treadmills require 220-volt outlets, with dedicated lines. A newer generation requires only 110 volts. Also the amount of power treadmills use can make a difference in electricity costs.
  • How noisy is it at a variety of speeds, and how important are noise levels to your club? A high-energy space may not require ultra-quiet operation the way a lower-key facility does.
  • Speed: Can it go fast enough to accommodate the hard cores? Some hit 12 mph.
  • What is the incline range? Is there a decline? Look at your club's usage patterns to determine if a range is needed.

When deciding on how many treadmills to purchase, facility managers need to take into account their own structures and their climate. Centers with running tracks may require fewer treadmills, while those in cold-weather climates may need more to accommodate runners forced to move indoors.


Although ellipticals have been around only since 1995, they've gained a high-profile position in cardio areas. Among their selling points: They offer a similar motion to running without the impact, making it easy on aging joints. Unlike treadmills, most require no electrical outlet. They include fewer key components and take up less space, especially with the introduction of rear-exit models. Ellipticals vary less than treadmills in price, with most commercial models ranging from about $3,500 to $5,000. Overall, ellipticals and treadmills have an average life span of about three to five years.

And while the choices for ellipticals don't vary as much as treadmills, they, too, require a practiced eye to size them up.

Among the considerations for ellipticals:

  • What is the size of the footpad? Can it accommodate a population whose feet seem to get bigger each year?
  • How long or short is the stride of the elliptical? Some models may seem more comfortable to shorter users, while other favor longer-legged clients.
  • How high does the resistance and incline go to provide an intense workout?
  • Does it have handles for arm movements, railings or both? What do your members seem to prefer?
  • How easy is entry and exit?


While they've long lost trendy status, stationary bikes continue to attract a steady stream of users. Their appeal to both clients and owners remains. Bikes take up little space compared to other cardio equipment, don't need a power source and mimic the movement of outdoor cycling. They often prove more durable than treadmills or ellipticals: Connors notes he sees some exercise bikes still in service after 15 years.

While recumbent bicycles are more comfortable, friendlier to deconditioned guests and easier on the back, Connors says some still people prefer the uprights because "they want a bike that's more like a bike."

Many industry pros suggest a two-to-one recumbent-to-upright ratio. Current bike prices, depending on manufacturer, line, and bells and whistles, range from $2,000 to about $4,000.

When shopping bicycles, ergonomics is key among the points to consider:

  • Does the placement of the seat allow for the proper knee position when pedaling?
  • For an upright, are the handlebars designed for proper posture? Do they have comfortable grips? Can they be adjusted forward and back?
  • Does the seat have an angled post for greater comfort and durability?
  • How comfortable is the seat for a range of users? For uprights, does it reduce pressure?
  • For recumbent bikes, how far back or forward does the seat go to adapt to short and tall riders?


    And while these three components make up the meat of a cardio floor, fitness managers should leave room for other types of equipment, that, while less popular, still have a place in a gym. While stair climbers were eclipsed by ellipticals, they still have a loyal following. In Downers Grove, for example, Bahr purchased two stair steppers and a step mill—a moving staircase—to meet the training needs of the village's emergency personnel and added rowers and an upper-body ergometer. Upper-body ergometers, or UBEs, work the upper body (hence the name), and while they haven't gained the following of, say, ellipticals, fitness pros rave over the machines and encourage their use.

    Many ergometers made their way into gyms for their popularity with rehab workers and seniors, who appreciate the machines' swivel-out seat design. But their upper-body emphasis can add a new dimension to clients' training programs, says Joe Shank, co-owner of Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif. At Downers Grove, Bahr encourages trainers to incorporate them into center introductions and into training sessions since many younger members don't realize their benefits.

    Occasionally, new cardio products appear. Shank has added incline trainers, which look like treadmills, only with a shorter deck and steeper incline and decline to mimic climbing, for an intense workout without the impact of running. Arc trainers, which function similar to ellipticals, were introduced in early 2003 and may prove popular as well.


    Once the domain of Hollywood starlets, Pilates has long gone mainstream in a big way, trickling down to even the most modest of recreation centers. If considering a Pilates program, managers need to take into account space requirements, storage issues and equipment costs. But at least one club owner, who calls himself a former "nonbeliever" on the discipline, says it has turned into a major profit center for his facility.

    Joe Shank, owner of the Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif., introduced a manufacturer-sponsored Pilates system in his club in 1999 with great skepticism. He hired one instructor and watched the program grow in popularity and start filling up holes in his group fitness schedule. He then took it to the next level and began offering his club as a training and certification site for the Pilates manufacturer. Shank says the Pilates classes program generated $154,000 in gross revenue last year, while the certification classes net $200 an hour for the club.

    Space and equipment—and then storage—is an issue for those considering Pilates. The practice, which was founded more than 70 years ago by its namesake German immigrant, uses a "reformer," a 6-foot-plus long, rectangular wooden frame with a nest of cables, pulleys, springs and sliding boards. The reformers, can cost upwards of $1,000 and take up a fair amount of space. However, Shank says that manufacturers have begun offering stackable reformers, and increased class revenues can pay off the equipment investment.


    But whatever the equipment selected, the most important feature on it is a piece of paper, according to seasoned equipment buyers. Warranties and service plans can sway buyers between one manufacturer and another and should be factored into any purchasing decision. What's more, say savvy buyers, those plans can be negotiated along with price. For operators who don't hold much experience in purchasing, a consultant may be able to use industry experience and connections to get a better program, especially if working with a variety of manufacturers.

    At Bridgewater State, Harper and consultant Romano were able to negotiate extended warranties with three-year rotations on cardio equipment and buyback plans after five to six years for selectorized equipment. At Penn, Diorka also negotiated for buyback programs, along with a replacement program for broken equipment: If a machine breaks down three times, the manufacturer must replace it.

    Warranties do vary from company to company and vary from part to part as well: A selectorized piece's warranty may cover the frame for 10 years but the upholstery for only 120 days.

    Leasing may work better than outright purchasing, Connors says, but that call is best made by your accountant. Servicing also comes into play. Diorka suggests buyers request an inventory of parts, especially for items like treadmill decks and belts, and training for maintenance staff.


    Choosing selectorized (a.k.a. circuit training) equipment depends on personal tastes, client preferences and ergonomics—comfortable design—as much as anything else, Connors says.

    "Predominantly, your strength equipment is going to be made pretty well, where not much is going to go wrong with it," he notes. "You're not going to see a huge difference in the quality of equipment. What you are going to see is differences in the designs. There are some unique pieces out there."

    Selectorized equipment also enjoys a longer life span than cardio equipment. Most industry pros agree that properly maintained weight machines can last seven to 10 years. Prices vary according to manufacturer and the level of sophistication but generally start at around $2,000 per piece, rising to $5,000 and up.

    Almost all selectorized pieces use a series of weight plates that are isolated and then moved by cables when exercisers perform a specific motion: pulling on a handle, lifting a lever, pressing with their feet or legs. From there, a few subcategories exist. Most selectorized systems use rigid designs—generally steel framing—to connect those weights and pulleys to users' handgrips. Some manufacturers, however, use cables, rather than rigid steel, routed to those pulleys. This makes it more difficult to push or pull, creating a more challenging workout and giving users greater flexibility in the exercises they do by providing a greater range of motion, according to industry representatives. Another strength option seeing growth in fitness centers is a system that incorporates adjustable-variable resistance through the use of an adjustable cam. This system allows the user to manipulate the resistance curve of each machine or, in other words, adjust where the load of the weight peaks within the range of motion.

    With a more recreational client base, selectorized equipment is especially important for its user-friendliness, Romano says.

    "Selectorized is the easiest way of getting someone who's deconditioned into a routine," he says. "They make it very efficient and very safe because there's not a lot of chance of dropping a plate on your foot."

    When considering selectorized equipment, buyers should consider several factors:

    • How is the weight stack designed? Is it easy to change the settings? How much of a risk exists for pinched fingers? Can older users handle it easily?
    • How do the seating, grips, footrests and other point-of-contact areas adjust to accommodate a range of body sizes?
    • Does the machine look easy to use?
    • Does it look appealing? Sometimes, the stranger the better.

      "We have some machines out there that are so unique-looking that members are just drawn to it," Connors says. "They're guaranteed use."

    • Are users comfortable with their body position? Bahr notes that while she favors hamstring curl machines that use a prone position, some people are put off by its derriere-in-the-air position.

    Buyers also need to account for the cross-training tendencies of their clients when buying this equipment, Bahr says. She chose two pieces of isolateral equipment because her golf-crazy population had a lot of upper-body concerns, especially rotator cuff issues.

    Finally, space considerations can dictate the type of equipment. Smaller fitness centers, such as those in hotels and resorts, should look for combination pieces that take up less floor space and often cost less.


    After selectorized, free weights make up the final component fitness equipment's Big Three. The weights themselves are divided into two categories: dumbbells, which are hand-held, and plates, which slide onto bars and weight machines.

    Free-weight areas need to be designed with user preferences in mind. Plate-loaded machines, such as crossovers, can take up a great deal of space, while dumbbells and traditional benches require less room. Noise reduction, comfort and durability are among the key points to consider with free weights.

    Industry tips include:

    • Look for plates with grips, which can offer users a safer and more comfortable way of picking up, carrying, loading and unloading them. Plates with two opposing grips make it easier and more ergonomically correct for users to carry as well as reduce the intimidation level for new lifters.
    • While more expensive, urethane- or rubber-coated plates reduce noise and help protect floors, walls and other equipment from impact with hard metal. Urethane often lasts longer and leaves no scuffs, while some users prefer the feel of rubber.
    • On the other hand, some gyms prefer the look of uncoated chrome as part of their design scheme.

    • Solid dumbbells are gaining popularity over "pro-style" or bolted dumbbells. While many users like the look and feel of pro-style models, solid models offer easier maintenance and improved safety since they do not require tightening and can be easier to maneuver with their smaller length.
    • Choose benches with an eye toward flexibility.

    Look for flexibility, especially with space-eating, plate-loaded equipment. Among the more popular plate-loaded pieces include isolateral equipment and crossover machines that perform a variety of motions for upper and lower body and full cage to accommodate squats and presses without spotters.



    ABS: Abdominal muscles. When highly defined, referred to as the six-pack

    DELTS: Deltoid muscles, which span the shoulders

    PECS: Pectorals, chest muscles

    LATS: Latissimus Dorsi, the central back muscles

    QUADS: Quadriceps, the front thigh muscles

    GLUTES: The infamous gluteus maximus muscles, made famous by Buns of Steel

    HAMS: Not the canned variety, but the hamstring muscles along the backs of thighs

    RPE: Rate of perceived exertion—look for a lower RPE in cardio equipment, so users can do more while feeling like their trying less

    REPS: Repetitions—how many times a user performs a particular exercise in a row


    With dozens of manufacturers, how can facility decision-makers possibly see all the choices and get a handle on their differences? The solution is unanimous: Visit the trade shows, use the equipment and then use it again.

    "You have to get out there early, visit every single booth, try out every single piece of equipment, and then come back the next day and try it again," says Shank, who has plenty of experience with equipment issues. His club opened in 1976 and has seen countless generations of fitness trends, products and equipment types come and go.

    This not only provides operators with a sweeping view of all the equipment possibilities, it can afford the opportunity to identify emerging trends and find new products—sometimes before the competition does.

    And while Shank generally sticks with major manufacturers, he says he's not afraid to stick his neck out occasionally to try something new, which has helped keep his club fresh.

    Trade shows provide a better marketplace because the manufacturers' big guns of their sales forces can better assist buyers. Penn's Diorka says he felt he was getting nowhere fast with the local sales offices of fitness manufacturers but was able to get the answers he needed from the corporate staff on hand at a big trade show. Corporate staff often have accrued greater product knowledge than a local sales staff, he theorizes, and are less concerned about reaching sales targets than satisfying the customer.

    Buyers also can see what kind of changes the manufacturers are making to equipment—and change may not always be good.

    "A lot of companies keep changing their product to keep it new, but those changes aren't always necessarily going to work," Connors says. And before rushing out to get the next generation of products, make sure your clients want change, he adds, since many people prefer the comfort of the familiar.

    Finally, operators need to survey their members repeatedly to find out what they like and what they want.


    One of the biggest decisions to make is whether to stock your facility with equipment from just one vendor or buy from several different manufacturers. Again, the choice depends on personal preferences and priorities. For some centers, convenience weighs heavily.

    "We decided to go all with one vendor mainly because we like the product and even better, we had a relationship that was now established," Diorka says. "I can pick up the phone and know who I'm talking to, and know I'll be taken care of."

    Diorka also based his picks on the performance of the equipment at Penn's old center.

    "The units that held up the most are the units we now have," he says.

    Finally, the Penn team chose a manufacturer based on its problem-solving abilities and accommodation.

    "We gave everybody a chance: We said, 'Here is the layout of the room, now tell me what we could do with it,'" Diorka says. "We had one group that would've had so much equipment packed into the space we couldn't move. But the guy we went with came back and told us what we wanted. He also told us why we wanted this, why we didn't want this, and what we needed to do to keep the room functioning smoothly."

    John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass., decided to work with a mix of different manufacturers, based on preferences and the opinions of his consultant.

    "It's a trade-off," he says. "We toured one college where they contracted with one manufacturer who came in and filled the room for them. The good news for that college was they got a tremendous cut in cost, but the bad news was that their center was basically a showroom."

    While the temptation to do the same was strong—Bridgewater is "just down the road" from a major fitness manufacturer, Harper notes—he decided to work with a consultant who could help him determine the best mix of equipment.

    Geography can sometimes come into play as well. The Downers Grove Park District fitness center ended up purchasing most of its equipment from one manufacturer, in part because its headquarters and plant were located in the Chicago area, making it easy to test equipment and cutting response and delivery time.

    And while manufacturers all claim that their equipment suits a full range of body types, they each have their own strengths, and some work better for certain body types and exercise profiles than others, says Romano, who helped Bridgewater select its mix of equipment. As a result, the 9,000-square-foot facility ended up with using seven or eight manufacturers for its 132 pieces of cardio and selectorized equipment, along with plate-loaded machines and free-weight benches and racks.

    Working with a number of brands can satisfy different segments and provide more diversity to beat boredom, but buyers should expect to pay close to list price if they're only buying one or two pieces from a company, Connors says.


    What began as a way for hard-core climbers to get additional training and as a marketing tool/testing area for outdoor stores has morphed into a beyond-trendy, must-have element for fitness centers if budget and design allow.

    Climbing walls are a great way to add visual interest to a facility and can serve as both a focal point and gathering place, such as the 35-foot wall at the UC Irvine Center, according to Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects. The Apex Center in Arvada, Colo., also sited its cardio and weight area around its 30-foot, multilevel climbing wall, again for visual interest.

    From a fitness perspective, walls provide a whole-body workout experience that emphasizes balance. Youth-oriented fitness pros like it because it gives kids who are not necessarily good at team sports an outlet to excel athletically. Climbing walls can promote problem-solving and team-building, as youth groups help a climber figure out the best way to the top. This youth focus is big: Even budget-conscious elementary schools such as Lowell Elementary School in Wheaton, Ill., are installing walls, especially "horizontal" walls, which can be used safely by younger kids.

    From a business standpoint, walls make a good marketing tool to position a fitness center as contemporary and adventurous. They also can help attract group outings and youth parties.

    What to look for in a wall? Flexibility is key, with holds and anchors that can be moved easily to create a wide variety of climbs, so the wall never gets routine. Manufacturers range from the huge to the boutique. Walls now come in prefab, portable and horizontal to fit into almost any space.


    Of course, none of this equipment can be purchased without first figuring out where to put it all. Good fitness center planning must incorporate visibility, accessibility, common sense and a strong sense of design.

    The same principles apply to both marquee clubs like Sports Club LA and small recreation centers, says Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects, a Southern California firm that has designed for both.

    "Keep the space as flexible as possible because fitness center needs are always evolving," he advises. This means adding as many banks of electrical outlets to accommodate treadmills and entertainment equipment as possible. And within that flexible program, he encourages high visibility, such as at the University of California, Irvine.

    "It promotes interaction and creates a social hub," he says. The 89,000-square-foot facility features a two-story lobby, from which most of its facilities can be seen. A 35-foot climbing wall provides more visual interest and serves as an "icon," he says.

    While not all facilities can afford a 35-foot climbing wall, they can take the cue to provide a visual focus, he says, especially for cardiovascular areas.

    "People use the cardio equipment for the longest time and they want something to look at so they don't get bored," he explains. "That's why you often make a facility transparent, to make it as exciting as possible."

    At Langdon Wilson's Sports Club/Irvine, equipment areas look out onto a multistory atrium, pool and basketball court, among other things.

    When configuring equipment and deciding how much to install, Keeler advises that facilities create a "zone of privacy" to give users a sense of space. He advocates arranging equipment with shorter rows and using higher ceilings—at least 11 or 12 feet if possible—to avoid the sardine feel.

    Properly spaced machines create greater comfort levels, adds Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Boston-based Sasaki Associates. While most codes dictate a minimum of 3-foot 10-inch corridors between machines, he suggests 5-foot corridors to allow users to pass easily. Along with spacing between machines, clubs need to provide enough space—at least three to four feet for treadmills—behind machines as well.

    Beyond proper spacing, strong design can make a visual impact without a high price tag, Dunkelberger adds. A recent Sasaki project for Boston-based Fitcorp came in at $85 per square foot, much lower than average, yet created an intense visual impact nonetheless.

    "Our society has gained a really strong design orientation with the success of shows like Trading Spaces and retailers like Target and IKEA," he says. "Design can give you an edge over your competitors."

    Dunkelberger likes bold color and inexpensive custom areas, such as information desks, to give a club a cutting-edge look. Service desks constitute an important but neglected design area, he adds.

    "You want the desk to be approachable so people feel comfortable asking questions or seeking help," he says. Service desks, especially at smaller clubs, should give staff a view of the entire space, with traffic patterns crossing in front of it. Larger centers should consider adding smaller, auxiliary service desks throughout the facility to make sure staff members, training records and accessories are easily accessible.


    A collection of web-like bars lurks near the exercise mats. Is a vintage jungle gym? A Gothic instrument of torture? No, it's the latest must-have for fitness centers: a stretching machine. Offered by several manufacturers, the stretchers have stopped trade-show attendants dead in their tracks and have proven a sure draw by their very appearance.

    "Users love it because it's exotic," says John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. "You watch them in it like it's a go-go cage but at the same time, they use it and they like the fact that it's passive."

    Beyond their bizarre appearance, stretchers appeal to fitness pros because they help users stretch properly, and equally important, help them remember to stretch—an oft-neglected part of exercise regimens. The cage-like apparatus start at around $1,200. Other manufacturers make bench-like models as well.

    Open design and visibility have extended to weight areas as well. Once dungeons of "grunt and grind," in Harper's words, they now accommodate older users and women. To keep weight areas accessible and less intimidating to lower-intensity users, Dunkelberger suggests putting light free weights close to cardio areas or interspersing the two. Keeler designs "islands" of free weights throughout centers to encourage convenient use.

    One area that doesn't necessarily lend itself to an open design, however, is group fitness space. Many clubs make the mistake of putting group fitness rooms too close to fitness desks or other high-traffic areas, creating a headache of nonstop musical pounding and the thuds of exercisers hitting the floor, Dunkelberger says. In these areas, extra soundproofing is key, Keeler says.

    In another emerging trend, designers are building in semiprivate areas for more reticent users and for personal training sessions, where clients can work with the pros without having other members (literally) breathing down their necks, Dunkelberger says. At Penn's three-level fitness center, the smaller third level features just a few pieces of cardio equipment, a small free-weight and one circuit of selectorized equipment. Along with providing personal training space, this gives those new to fitness a spot to work out without exposing deconditioned bodies and faculty members a way to separate themselves from students, Diorka says.

    Finally, fitness centers need to remember that good design transcends pretty spaces. Keeler advocates two areas in particular: Ventilation systems and plumbing fixtures, while hardly glamorous, make a long-term impact.

    Fitness centers, especially those with pools or spas, demand powerful, complex ventilation systems to suck out chlorine, body odor and humidity while keeping air fresh, and owners should seek experienced engineers and designers in that area, then spend accordingly.

    Many architects also expound on attention to locker room details. Keeler preaches heavy-duty plumbing fixtures.

    "We use prison-quality shower heads and mixing valves at all our centers," he says. "For lack of a better term, they're bullet-proof."

    People may laugh off its importance initially until he points out the consequences of oft-broken shower stalls. He also specifies epoxy grout for long-term easy maintenance. Similarly, Dunkelberger spends time with clients explaining why well-designed locker rooms, with wet areas well separated from dry spots, can attract and retain clients.

    TOP 10 DON'TS

    1. Only wire one place for televisions and treadmills. Instead, make your space as flexible as possible to allow for change and growth, advises Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects, a Southern California firm, and that means wiring for a variety of different positions.

    2. Pack your room with equipment from the get-go. Instead, savvy operators leave room for future growth and for changes in equipment.

    3. Keep the same cardio equipment in the same place all the time. Instead, rotate equipment regularly and keep careful records, so the favorite spot near the door boasts a different machine at frequent intervals.

    4. Make no allowances for moving equipment—especially in a multilevel facility. Instead, Dr. Michael Diorka, director of recreational sports at the University of Pennsylvania, made sure easily accessible freight elevators were part of his three-level center's equation.

    5. Buy equipment for yourself, not your clients. "By far the biggest mistake I see," says Mike Connors, a fitness industry consultant and president of Optimal Fitness Systems International. Will you, a 30-year-old, 6-foot fitness professional, like the same thing as a 45-year-old, 5-foot 3-inch mother of three or a 65-year-old retired accountant? Probably not.

    6. Focus only on the equipment. "Whatever machine is out there, your competitor can buy it too," Keeler says. Make your fitness center stand out in other ways.

    7. Put all your energy into your fitness area and neglect your locker room. Instead, Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Boston-based Sasaki Associates, says his firm has found locker rooms are "make or break" areas at all levels.

    8. Plan according to your personal desires instead of your market and economic conditions. "Yes, a racquetball court satisfies a need, but it takes up a heck of a lot of square footage that could be used elsewhere," Keeler says.

    9. Buy an entire line of equipment just because you like one piece. Instead, test it all to make sure everything suits your needs, and don't be afraid to buy just one piece, says Rob Romano, a former fitness industry consultant now with a manufacturer.

    10. Skimp on sturdiness. The lighter-weight treadmill may cost $1,000 less but may break down twice as much and need replacement sooner. Make sure equipment can take punishment, especially in round-the-clock usage areas.


    Beyond locker rooms and big machines, the little things count too when equipping a fitness center large or small. Those small pieces—accessories, group-fitness equipment and other accoutrements—make up a vital part of any center.

    First, the "toys," as Bahr terms them, have made great headway into regular fitness programs, in part through their introduction by personal trainers. By now, exercise balls, medicine balls and balance boards have made their way into even the smallest centers. Other popular items include body bars (weight bars), step stools, calf stretchers and resistance bands. Trainers want to train with them, and clients want to use them. What's more, these inexpensive items—most accessories top out at about $20—give a trendy spin on spaces that feature them.

    "It's an easy way to market yourself as current without investing in the latest generation of cardio, which you might not need," Connors says.

    Heart-rate monitors constitute another popular small purchase. Centers who cannot afford to purchase cardio equipment with built-in heart monitors can also consider offering individual heart monitors, now priced at less than $100, that members can check out from the front desk.

    Yet, while accumulating those toys, fitness operators need to find a place to put them all. As a result, fitness architects are preaching storage to their clients.

    "Storage needs to be as important a design element as the fitness space itself," Keeler says. At best, he says, architects can design storage bays and racks that blend into an interior scheme. At the most basic, though, clients must set aside areas for storage and, when buying accessories, purchase the storage units that go with them.


    If equipping your fitness center is all about marketing your image, your locker room is a good place to start. One way to distinguish your center is with personal-care products.

    Offering a full spectrum of products—from shampoos and conditioners down to Q-tips and combs—costs about 50 cents per person per month for a 2,000-member club (about $1,000 a month), according to Gary Robie, a representative of the personal products industry. Even at budget-minded facilities such as park-district fitness centers, toiletries can make a difference, with basic bath gel and shampoos starting at only about $6.50 per gallon.

    Robie offers the following tips:

    • Even the most budget-conscious facilities can offer hair and body gel in the showers. Better yet, offer shampoo and body wash separately. It appears more upscale but costs the same, and two dispensers need filling less often than one.
    • Make sure you get a quality dispenser. "Janitorial" style dispensers, such as those at lavatory stations, can break down quickly. Salon-style dispensers can cost the same, yet project a higher-end image and even feature logos for low-cost products.
    • Consider purchasing from a personal-care firm rather than a janitorial company. For the same price, you can get higher-grade products. You can find such firms through referrals from other centers, at trade shows or in advertisements in industry publications.
    • Look for high surfactant levels: This creates more bubbles, meaning people will use less of the product.
    • Soap is heavy. Factor in delivery costs, which can hike a $5 per gallon product to $8 per gallon.
    • Offer the products for retail. They often produce strong profits and create a cachet of exclusivity.


    Beyond the machines and the gadgets, centers of all sizes are expanding their definition of what constitutes fitness. Group fitness classes—from Pilates and yoga to step classes and kickboxing—require dedicated yet flexible space. Even basketball is being marketed as a group fitness experience, with many higher-end clubs decking out their gymnasiums with top-quality maple floors to cushion weekend warriors' knees. Pools have transcended from lap lanes that can accommodate a few people at a time to group fitness sites with much higher usage rates. Equipment for aquatic classes has grown with this trend. Instructors can choose from water dumbbells, special water walking "shoes," ankle weights and web-like water gloves to increase resistance.

    And at the bottom, each form of fitness requires a different flooring material. Centers can work with architects, consultants or manufacturers to determine how much resilience, shock absorbency, durability and cleanability is needed in each area. This may dictate wood floors in group exercise areas, rubberized sheet goods in a free-weight area and treated carpeting in cardio spots.

    While most codes dictate a minimum of 3-foot 10-inch corridors between machines, 5-foot corridors allow users to pass easily.


    Selectorized systems need to accommodate the following muscle groups: shoulders and cervical, upper body, arms, abdominal and back, lower body, and legs. According to the American Council on Exercise, these are the basic exercises needed to work the key muscle groups:

    Leg Press
    Leg Curls
    Chest Press
    Lat Pulldown
    Lateral Raise
    Triceps Press
    Biceps Curl
    Back Extension

    Quadriceps, Gluteals
    Latissumus Dorsi
    Erector Spinae

    Most manufacturers offer multiple machines for some areas, so that an entire selectorized circuit might comprise as many as 13 pieces.


    With all that fitness equipment, your members will be wildly entertained, right?

    Wrong. Increasingly, patrons are demanding sophisticated audio, visual and other high-tech entertainment to augment their fitness experience. Fitness centers must help users fight the boredom factor, especially in cardio areas where people stay on machines longest, with music and video choices. Costs and programs vary dramatically, from basic cable service to custom-designed club programming, but TV is a must, with closed captioning and limited frequency audio access to the sound. Ceiling-mounted TV banks should be a minimum of seven to 10 feet from equipment. For a more personal video experience, manufacturers now offer video screens individually mounted on cardio equipment. These screens can cost from $600 to more than $1,000 apiece but may become the next must-have, notes Connors, who advises clients that the more bells and whistles they can get, the better, from a marketing standpoint. A caveat: Centers should equip all cardio machines with them, not just a few, he cautions, lest riots break out over the few coveted machines with screens.

    On the audio end, zoned programmable music can keep the peace in fitness centers with a variety of age groups. At Penn, the audio system kicks out oldies and lighter fare in the mornings, when faculty and staff tend to exercise, and plays more current sounds in the afternoons and at night for students.

    Of course, silence is always a golden option—and an inexpensive one at that. Bridgewater's facility doesn't include a single television screen—the budget called for adding it later—but so far no one has complained, Harper says.


    Once the fitness and audio/video items are out of the way, facility planners can turn to the myriad items vital to keep a room running smoothly.

    Management software can oversee both the business end and clients' fitness programs. Club management programs can streamline operations and help identify usage patterns and membership trends. Maintenance spreadsheets can be a vital tool in servicing equipment, keeping it rotated and tracking troublesome machines. Client-oriented software programs are gaining popularity as well in tech-oriented centers. They can give users a more sophisticated way to track their exercise programs than the traditional clipboard, workout chart and file cabinet. Some systems can even interact with cardio equipment and users' personal digital assistants. While many industry pros have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, others are using it as a sales tool.

    "We've had mixed reviews from clients," Dunkelberger says. "People like the gadget-y nature of it, but many of our owners feel like it's not quite there yet."

    Connors, on the other hand, says that clubs can use tech to separate themselves from the crowd.

    To help clients create good habits with or without computers, fitness centers also can look into a variety of written and taped training materials that teach fitness regimens, proper technique, physiology, nutrition and cross-training. These materials are available from a variety of nonprofit organizations, including the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or through industry-oriented marketing agencies. Used as mailings, written materials and newsletters can help retain clients as well.


    Scratch the surface of any fitness center, and you'll find kids lurking. Kids play a large part in the design and equipment equation from the size, amenities and location of babysitting rooms to their emerging position as fitness center clients.

    Children's rooms have progressed geometrically beyond spaces with a television, a few toys and tables with crayons. Now, fitness center operators must account for a range of ages, from toddlers through teens, with an eye toward fitness and stimulation. For the younger set, soft climbing pieces encourage activity. Older kids appreciate activities like air hockey, which can also be enjoyed with adults post-workout. For all ages, video games are taking the place of televisions, for their interactive nature and sheer popularity.

    Children's programming has progressed as well. Clubs with swimming, tennis and other lessons can now purchase incentive programs to reward students for progress. Kids can earn items like water bottles, hats and T-shirts emblazoned with such pop icons as SpongeBob SquarePants and Scooby-Doo.

    Beyond the toys, clubs are marketing to future members while creating healthy habits with programs like mother-daughter personal training sessions and selectorized equipment designed specifically for kids. In addition to its smaller size, the selectorized equipment features kid-friendly designs such as enclosed weight stacks or spaced weights to avoid finger pinches and lower resistance levels to nurture growing joints.

    While the youth equipment makes good sense to build future fitness center members, it also fills a gap in children's programming, says Tom Ouren, a manufacturer's representative.

    "When you get to the 'tweens,' they consider themselves too old to be in a babysitting room," he says.


    When proper technique goes astray or disaster strikes, fitness centers need to plan for the worst with a variety of first-aid equipment.

    Industry organizations and safety groups all sell prepackaged first-aid kits. Centers also may consider adding AEDs—automated external defibrillators—especially if they service an older or rehabilitation-oriented population at greater risk of a heart attack. The machines deliver an electrical shock to help re-establish the heart rhythm during a cardiac arrest. They are somewhat expensive, and some in the fitness industry questioned the legal liabilities involved with them, but with increased support from health-oriented groups, they are steadily gaining acceptance. With or without AEDs, however, fitness centers should always schedule a staff member certified in first aid and CPR on the floor at all times.


    A hot, darkened room hums with the sound of thousands of insects. Is it a beekeeper convention? No, it's a Spinning class, filled with intense exercisers pedaling nowhere fast, urged on by an instructor. One of the highest-intensity programs around, Spinning attracts a devoted following but creates its own set of equipment and space issues.

    First, the bikes themselves cost about $1,000 apiece, which again, can pay for themselves with a successful class rotation. When shopping for Spinning cycles, fitness managers should look the following:

    • Frame design that promotes stability
    • Belt or chain drive that can withstand the friction and sweat of high-intensity workouts
    • Ergonomically correct handlebars that provide a variety of comfortable positions
    • Light weight and easy portability
    • Easily adjustable resistance levels with a wide enough range to satisfy Spinners
    • Easy maintenance and durable construction to combat the buckets of sweat dedicated Spinners emit

    Next, Spinning is hot in more than just popularity. Above all other fitness classes, Spinning generates "an incredible amount of heat gain" between the cycles and the bodies, says Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects, a Southern California firm. As a result, dedicated Spinning rooms are a plus, so architects can design in the additional ventilation the hot classes require.


    Even for the smallest centers, owners can purchase touches of perceived quality to make a big difference in customer satisfaction, Dunkelberger says. Linens are one area that's easy to upgrade, he says. While it's up to each center to choose between a laundry service that removes the hassle and the dirty laundry and self-service that can cut staff "down time," fitness centers should purchase the highest quality towels possible.

    Another upscale touch is water, everywhere: Water coolers strategically placed will help ensure your clients stay well hydrated while they appreciate the perk of cool water. Coolers notwithstanding, centers great and small need to ensure that food and drink supplies—be they vending machines, juice bars or full-service restaurants—are accessible and centrally located, Keeler says.

    From these smallest details to the largest machines, it takes a dizzying array of equipment and supplies to provide a basic need: a way to move the body. But if your brain starts to spin like the cycles in a group fitness class while pondering all the choices, remember that quality items abound. And with a good game plan, a willingness to take a trip to take a spin on assorted equipment, and a handle on what your patrons want and need, your fitness center will shine with the right choices. It's pretty basic.

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