What’s hot and what’s not in the health-club industry
By Kyle Ryan
Exercise expert Tom Holland, founder of Team Holland and a coach and lecturer on fitness, enjoys spending part of his Saturday mornings counting the infomercials he sees on TV. "They all say they do everything—none do," Holland says. When it comes to fitness, we all know there are no magic bullets, just commitment and hard work. So what kinds of programs and equipment are dedicated (and wanna-be-dedicated) club-goers craving?
For starters, all things Pilates. The workout method created by Joseph Pilates nearly 100 years ago has enjoyed unprecedented popularity in recent years. The trend will likely continue in 2004 as health clubs scramble to include it in their classes. Pilates, functional core training, yoga and group-fitness classes are undeniably hot.
"We're a consumer industry," says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sportclub Association (IHRSA). "We have to stay current with what's hot or what's popular. Better operators see what's going on, and they innovate. And they do so to address trends in the marketplace, but they do it with a plan and some attention."
IHRSA estimates that 9 million people will join a health club this year. Nearly 1 million of them joined in January alone. By the time you read this, though, nearly two-thirds of those New Year's newbies will have given up, according to health-club chain Crunch Fitness. They quit for various reasons, but if you pay attention to innovative ideas, they'll have fewer reasons to leave.
Today's health club isn't the same place it was in 1999, 1980 or 1970.
"The definition of what a health club is for many members has changed," Howland says. "I think that directly reflects the fact that consumers' expectations and needs have changed."
People aren't just exercising for vanity or to get ripped muscles. IHRSA estimates that 85 percent of people recognize that getting exercise is important for overall health.
"People are exercising for a broader variety of reasons," says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "People are exercising for wellness needs. They're looking for a way to better manage stress. They're looking for a way to get some relaxation."
There will always be traditional gyms for hard-core fitness enthusiasts, Howland says, but they're just one of many options. Take the chain The Sports Club/LA, for example.
"They position themselves as urban country clubs," Howland says. "You show up, and there's an attendant in the locker rooms. You walk in, and you will be pampered, and that's not the stereotypical gym experience."
Crunch Fitness' new flagship club in Chicago has plenty of unstereotypical features. The three-floor, 50,000-square-foot facility has a life-size chess board, putting green, two-story "supersonic" slide for adults, fun-house mirrors, "chill-out" lounge with fireplace TV, a 1,200-square-foot stadium-seating theater and, of course, the chain's trademark "peek-a-boo" showers, where you can see the silhouettes of people taking showers. With Crunch's motto of "no judgements," you won't be called a pervert for watching, either.
While Crunch pursues a young demographic, other companies are going after families. Howland mentions Columbia Sports Club in Columbia, Md., which has a computer-learning center and after-school programs for kids. There is also the Life Time Fitness chain and the Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing, where the whole family can come and spend an entire day together.
"That's not just 'I go and put in my hour and do the right thing for my heart,'" Howland says. "It's where we go to hang out and recreate with friends."
That expanded focus beyond basic fitness needs has not come without a price, according to Bryant.
"Original health clubs tended to be very service-oriented," he says. "You had instructors on the floor who would tell people if they were doing things improperly and give them basic instructions that went beyond the initial initiation tour. You'd have an instructor there. Now the only instruction people get is if they contract with a personal trainer through the club."
Even having "certified" instructors, though, may not be enough when it comes to what's popular, especially with Pilates and core training. Pilates, when practiced on its specialized machines, requires one-on-one supervision from a trained instructor, as using the machines incorrectly can be dangerous. With mat Pilates, the potential for danger decreases, but people can still hurt themselves.
Until 2000, the Pilates Method was a protected trademark, which helped keep instruction more regimented.
"As soon as that trademark got lifted, it got watered down to the point where anyone can get a one-day seminar and become a Pilates teacher," Holland says.
As clubs rush to offer Pilates, they might not train instructors properly.
"There are many individuals who are offering and teaching these types of classes and activities that may not have the proper training and background to do so safely," Bryant says. "The problem isn't with the disciplines of yoga and Pilates. It's who you get as an instructor."
To discourage that, Bryant recommends visiting the Web site of the Pilates Method Alliance, a nonprofit group that offers instructor guidelines (www.pilatesmethodalliance.org). In addition to adequate training, Bryant suggests that instructors know the fitness and injury history of each participant in a class.
Core training, that is, the strengthening of the body's "core" muscles (abdominals, lower back), has also become increasingly popular over the past few years. While Pilates works the core muscles as well, separate core training involves stability boards, specialized inflatable gym balls and other balancing equipment. Core training has become especially relevant for our increasingly sedentary society, which needs help with abdominal and back muscles that become weakened from sitting for long periods of time.
"It's one of those things where the concept is good, but the way it's employed is problematic," Bryant says. "There's a tendency for people to take things to an extreme and not employ the principles of progression. They'll have trainees trying advanced moves."
That, of course, can lead to injury. A previously sedentary person shouldn't just jump into core training or Pilates, according to Holland.
"Don't get me wrong," he says. "All of these disciplines, whether they be core training or Pilates, they're tremendously important. But in a society where we need to walk before we run, I think things like these are implemented too early."
Just as there are Pilates studios, places where the sole focus is the Pilates method, other types of clubs are becoming focused on a certain niche. That trend is perhaps best exemplified by what is now the world's largest fitness franchise: Curves. The women-only health clubs cater to a previously inactive, often overweight women who are just starting to exercise.
You won't find any of the frills of Crunch or Life Time Fitness at Curves. The clubs have only one workout: 30 minutes of circuit training. Women exercise on a set of machines and do basic cardio exercises (running in place, jumping jacks) in between to keep their heart rates up. A prerecorded message tells them when to move to the next station. There may not be any showers, massages or juice bars, but there's nothing to intimidate, either—a critical aspect to getting sedentary women active.
Curves' simple, effective and schedule-friendly workout has been replicated at other health clubs. In January, health-club chain 24 Hour Fitness introduced the "Xpress Zone," a 30-minute circuit program similar to one used at Curves. Participants move from station to station in predetermined order and finish with a simple cardio workout (riding a stationary bike, running on a treadmill or using a stair-climber). As participants' fitness levels improve, they can make their workouts more intense or move on to other equipment at the club.
Such circuit training provides exercise for the entire body, but more and more people want workouts that address specific parts of the body. For example, the "Pain in the Butt Workout" at Bally Total Fitness is a 30-minute group-exercise class that focuses on working your rear. Bally isn't alone; classes focusing on buttocks, abdominals, legs and thighs are springing up everywhere.
People concerned with their behinds might also want to check out Ramping, introduced last year by Gin Miller, inventor of step aerobics. Nicknamed "Cardio for the Butt" by Miller, the workout uses an inclined, semicircular 22-inch by 42-inch ramp. This ramp is color-coded in three sections so that exercisers easily can follow instructors without needing to look at them constantly.
Ramping essentially involves rocking on and off the incline—not stepping on platform like in step aerobics—so it's low-impact and easier for overweight people to try. Miller also uses this ramp for push-ups and lunge-type exercises.
Also making a debut of sorts last year was Zumba, a South American-style dance aerobics that mixes salsa, tango, flamenco, calypso, belly-dancing and hip-hop dancing. The workout was created by Alberto "Beto" Perez, a dance choreographer, and sells itself by assuring people: "It's not a workout; it's a party." Instructors began getting certified for Zumba last year, and it has begun showing up in health clubs around the country. People can also order Zumba clothing and videos online.
Videos, though, don't offer the same things classes do, and that's why group-fitness classes remain a common denominator among nearly all popular fitness trends. What people do in the class may change, but they do it together.
"It's a great way to introduce people to clubs," Howland says. "One of the things clubs offer that you don't get by popping a video in the VCR or building your own gym is the access to group exercise, whether it's aquatic or whatever. It creates a sense of community. It brings people in contact with others—that's a major benefit that the fitness center has to offer."
No one knows this better, perhaps, than Crunch. The chain's unorthodox group-exercise classes seem designed for fun and grabbing headlines, as their "Cardio Strip Tease" class did. The class uses stylized dance moves taken from strippers and creates a workout based on them (stripping pole included).
Cardio Strip Tease is just one of many unique classes at Crunch: "B-Yoga," where break-dancing meets yoga; "Bring It On," cardio cheerleading based on the movie of the same name; "X-Boxing," cardio moves based on popular video games; "Hip Hop Hatha," traditional yoga poses mixed with other poses inspired by rap culture; "Diva," a class dedicated to a different diva each week, complete with costume changes by the instructor.
While some club-goers seem to flock to all this flash and spectacle, Holland sees such classes as little more than ploys to get on the news, not necessarily workouts for the masses. It seems the more complicated classes or exercise regimens become, often the less effective they are.
"I think people are so discouraged and so misled that, inevitably, it has to go back to what works," Holland says. "And what works is the basic stuff…Unfortunately, a squat's a squat, and a push-up's a push-up."
People may eventually return to the basics, but Holland says science will play a bigger role in the future. With heart-rate monitors now selling for under $50, people can monitor their workouts more closely. As the technology becomes cheaper, expect health clubs to incorporate high-tech body-fat measurements and body scans into their membership packages.
"I think we will get more scientific, where you will know your body fat and know many more things about your body and chemistry so you can really quantify your results," Holland says.
According to IHRSA, Americans over the age of 55 are the fastest growing segment of health-club members in the United States. From 1987 to 2002, there was a 350 percent increase in their numbers. In 2002, there were 6.9 million of them.
With an older demographic, you're going to see fewer and fewer high-impact classes. Howland concludes the heyday of dance-oriented, high-impact aerobic classes—never mind Zumba—has passed.
"To a certain extent, it makes sense if you look at the demographics," Howland says. "More than half of health-club members are over the age of 35, and for folks in their 40s and 50s, the real high-impact classes are tough on your joints."
Spinning, once a major force in group fitness, has come down in participation significantly over the past couple of years.
"I don't think it's going away," Bryant says. "In terms of when it was hugely popular a few years back, you certainly don't see that anymore."
Although it may seem surprising, Holland suggests that the Pilates bubble is closer to bursting than you may expect. In fact, he's surprised by its longevity. The major problem? It's not cardiovascular exercise, meaning calorie expenditures are relatively low—that is, Pilates won't help you lose weight.
"I used to have women coming to me saying, 'Gosh, I want to look like the women that take the Pilates classes,'" Holland says. "Well you know what? They walked in that way. They didn't walk in as 300-pound women and walk out 110."
Considering the vast majority of people want to lose weight through exercise, Pilates and core training might be on the verge of a steep decline in participation.
"If you're doing core training, you're going to get really strong at the expense of burning some calories and reaching your goal," Holland says.
Thinking ahead like that is the key to remaining successful as a health club, regardless if you're a 40,000-square-foot, full-service facility or a tiny independent gym.
"The best clubs innovate constantly," Howland says. "There's planning, there's thought, there's attention—continuing to innovate, to create programs to provide services that have a basis."
Bryant sums it up simply: Never stop learning.
"The fitness professionals have to see themselves as being lifelong learners," he says. "It's not a situation where you get a degree, and the learning stops. It's the start of a lifelong process."
That doesn't just mean keeping up on fitness research and trends; listening to the people in your health club is just as important.
"I believe that most of the suggestion boxes have a garbage can underneath them because they don't get anywhere," Holland says. "If you're speaking from a purely gym-owner perspective, show the people that you care. It's the age-old adage that if you do something bad, that person tells 10 people. If you do something good, they tell two."
For example, Holland says the No. 1 complaint women have about health clubs is the cleanliness of the locker rooms. People also complain about lack of parking or paying for towels, lack of water, and so on.
"You've got to be consistent and consistently excellent," Howland says. "It's the simple stuff: locker rooms clean, if people know your name at the front desk and smile when you come in. It's doable, and I think the consumer knows that."
It's not just a matter of inter-gym competition, either. You're competing with people's tendency to avoid exercise. Americans know they should exercise, but they don't, no matter how cool your classes sound or how many celebrities credit Pilates for their toned bods. Two-thirds of the people who joined a gym in January have stopped going by now. People think they won't fit in at a health club. They think they need to lose 10 pounds before they even step foot in one.
"It's important not only from the fact that you want to differentiate yourself from the competition by providing a superior experience," Howland says, "but you've got to do it so that all these people, who are trying to get started and stick with a healthier lifestyle, when they come through the door, they're looking forward to being at your club instead of dragging themselves in for a workout."
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