Running the Trend Mill

The ever-evolving workout world

By Emily Tipping

A 40-year-old woman walks into a fitness center, climbs on a treadmill and walks for 20 minutes. A 12-year-old baseball player signs up for personal training with a Pilates instructor to help prevent injuries. A new mom goes to a gym that specializes in circuit training, works out for 30 minutes and goes back home feeling fitter and more confident. An 80-year-old man stops by the recreation center for a one-hour yoga class with participants of all ages and backgrounds.

What do they have in common? In one way or another, they are all seeking to boost their fitness level, improve their health and enhance their overall quality of life.

"Consumers are looking for one-stop shopping," said Chris Palumbo, COO and general partner of Elements for Women, a boutique fitness club for women with more than 25 clubs across the United States and 40 more in development. "They look for convenience, a higher quality than they have in the past, and I think they're more educated in general about health. I don't think you have to sell them on the benefits of being a member of a club."

Your fitness facility can't be everything to everyone, but by carefully considering what's driving people to work out these days—whether they've never picked up a dumbbell in their life or they can bench 300 pounds—you can ensure your facility will work out for your particular clientele.

You obviously should offer your patrons the tried-and-true fitness options that they'll expect to see on your gym's floor. These include typical cardio machines like treadmills, upright and recumbent stationary bikes, and even elliptical machines and stair-steppers. Also par for the course are options for strength training, including selectorized machines and a range of free weights and benches. Programming options like cardio dance, step classes and even kickboxing and even Spinning have become fairly common in fitness facilities.

Fitness facility clients know they'll find these options at just about any gym they check out. To really attract new patrons, you need to go beyond their expectations and really offer some "wow" ideas.

Design Time

Obviously, there are some differences in design issues between a private, for-profit fitness facility and one run by a park district or nonprofit organization. Budget issues will be of much greater concern for public entities and nonprofits. What should you take into consideration if you want to build a fitness center for your community?

Frank Parisi, an architect with Williams Architects who is involved in designing recreation facilities that include fitness centers, said that some programming types create unique challenges when it comes to design.

"Spinning is particularly challenging because a lot of community centers or fitness centers try to do Spin as an auxiliary, as in you can double up on a room, and they really need to dedicate a space for Spin classes," he said.

One way to deal with the budget crunch, Parisi said, is to design with longevity in mind.

"The way we tailor to that, considering the fact that market trends come and go, is to design more versatile spaces. So a space may be dedicated to Spinning, but then could be converted into a program room over time."

Targeted training

The one-size-fits-all fitness center is a thing of the past, at least among upscale clientele. Palumbo said he's seen a trend toward more niche-type developments in fitness clubs in the past five to 10 years.

"People are associating certain brands with certain types of consumers," he said. "As the marketplace grows, there are opportunities for brands to serve a niche and therefore when it happens, if they do it well, they're able to create a better consumer experience for their target market."

Elements itself is a niche player for 35- to 65-year-old women, seeking to offer its clients a single location to meet their health, fitness and diet needs. Each club offers customized fitness programming, ranging from circuit workouts to Pilates and yoga, as well as diet and nutrition plans that are tailored to each client's needs. Its offerings are not generic, and Palumbo feels that's critical.

"We're seeing a more sophisticated consumer who wants a more tailored solution," he said. "We incorporate total wellness, customized by each consumer, not the club."

Elements targets its market well. The strength equipment in the clubs, for example, progresses in 1-pound increments, letting exercisers build their progress gradually, and also reinforcing that progress. It also works well for women, whose strength gains might take place in smaller increments.

At other fitness facilities, it's not about tailoring the entire facility to a specific market. Rather, it's about providing targeted programming. For example, at the National Fitness Centers/Court South in Knoxville, Tenn., the Forever Fit courses are designed for the over-50 crowd that's just beginning to exercise. The course incorporates low-impact aerobics and some resistance training. But the club doesn't stop there.

According to Jennifer Vance, group fitness director, the club offers classes targeted for seniors, kids, and prenatal and postnatal women, among others. "Another program is a mommy-and-me kind of thing, with a mom and a child up to age 3, which is when they would start the kids' program."

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) reports that a focus on youth programming will be a key trend in fitness facilities this year. And the 2006 IDEA Fitness Program & Equipment Survey revealed that more than 60 percent of respondents offer specific services for children and teens.

Frank Parisi of Williams Architects has seen this trend in practice. "A lot of these facilities are including programs for youth fitness," he said. "Usually kids have to be at least 15 to take part in the fitness programming, but they're now organizing programs that have a combination of options for kids and preteens."

Of course, even if you offer fitness programming for kids, that doesn't mean they'll show up for class. The same IDEA survey revealed that only 9 percent of respondents had members or clients 18 years old or younger.

Vance said that recruiting kids can be a problem, despite the fact that most parents are aware of the growing problem of childhood obesity. "In this area, it has not completely come out that kids have got to start exercising," she said. "There's awareness everywhere, but we don't have a lot of participation. It's growing, and it's bigger than it's ever been."

Parisi said he's seen clubs attract younger patrons by incorporating popular videogames like Dance Dance Revolution, for example at a recently designed fitness center for the park district of Cuomo, Ind.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, programming is also taking off, according to ACE. Fitness programs targeted for older adults can help seniors condition their bodies and fight the diseases commonly associated with old age while improving flexibility and stabilizing joints to help prevent common injuries and enhance overall quality of life.

IDEA Health & Fitness reported in November 2006 that it's never too late for older adults to benefit from adding fitness to their lives. A study of 312 adults between 40 and 68 years old who had confirmed coronary artery disease revealed that those who became very physically active after age 40 were 55 percent less likely to be diagnosed with heart disease than inactive study participants.

At Pure Pilates LLC in Las Vegas, Suzanne Kelly, owner and certified Pilates instructor, has not only developed programming designed specifically for kids and teens, but also for older adults. For the elderly, she said, balance training and core training are extremely important. Her "Standing Firm" course helps people of all ages strengthen their core, and some people find muscles they never knew they had in the process. But it's especially beneficial for the elderly.

"With Standing Firm, we're taking it to a retirement home because the elderly have problems getting up and down," Kelly said. "They can do the whole class standing. Their hip flexors are strengthened, and we work with their core, which is exceptionally important and helps prevent some of the injuries that are common as we age."

Beyond treating people of specific age groups, there are other populations with special fitness needs, including patients in post-rehab situations. This is where medical fitness centers come in.

According to Colleen Young, mind-body coordinator for Cox Fitness Centers at the Meyer Center in Springfield, Mo., medical centers represent an important new trend in fitness facilities. The 90,000-square-foot facility provides programs for post-rehab patients and older adults in a mind-body fitness and relaxation program, as well as more traditional fitness offerings. Some classes are taught on a rolling glideboard and cable-pulley system that uses one's body weight as resistance on an incline.

Young has found that this equipment helps special populations achieve a safe, effective workout.

"They are able to accommodate so many different populations," she said. "We work with cancer recovery patients, heart recovery patients, anybody coming out of physical therapy into a post-rehab situation."

The center is about half rehab and half fitness and provides good synergy between a patient's or client's medical team and fitness staff. "We staff RNs," Young said. "How many gyms staff RNs? We have licensed dieticians on board. We have exercise physiologists. You're dealing with a real professional staff. We're set apart form the average gym, but when you look in, we look like the 'wow' gym."

And getting back to kids, Young provides fitness programming designed specifically for children and their families. "We're trying to set up a children's program where parents and children are involved," she said. "Family and community health is important—involving the entire family. We're trying to create more family-oriented fitness."

Technological breakthroughs

Many manufacturers of fitness equipment have begun to add technology-enhanced or interactive elements to their equipment. Now common even in smaller park district gyms (which generally have smaller budgets) is equipment with built-in heart-rate monitors, important for people who are new to exercise and therefore need to learn more about maintaining their target intensity level. Some equipment also lets users keep track of their pace. The user enters a desired time and distance, and the machine helps them stay on track by letting them know if they've fallen behind or gotten too far ahead.

But this is practically standard fare these days. Newer equipment is incorporating technology to make workouts more interactive, with screens showing exercisers their progress over a course of different types of terrain. One manufacturer offers users a choice of a track, a mountain course or a 5K nature trail. Some companies even offer Web sites that let users compete with one another and take part in virtual races and tournaments, so an exerciser working out on a rowing machine in Boston can compete with another rower in Anchorage, Alaska.

You also can find equipment manufacturers that have incorporated "speedpass"-like technology into their equipment. This allows exercisers to log in at the gym, at home or at work. "It really brings the trainer and user closer together by providing additional outlets for input," said one manufacturer's rep.

Elements has incorporated workout technology that allows members to plug in a smart card to the machine, providing immediate guidance and personalized feedback.

"So when a member comes in, she takes her card and puts it into the equipment, which 'knows' who she is," Palumbo said. "It tells her what to do, how many reps, and where to go next. It actually can track cardiovascular health over time."

But you're not completely on your own with your smart card, workout equipment and your own body when you step into an Elements for Women fitness club. "We also incorporate that with our lifestyle coaches," Palumbo explained. "We catch up periodically to review your progress. It's quantified, so you can say I got 10 percent stronger, or got my heart rate down by 5 percent. It tells you where to go next, so you can customize the workouts."

If you really want to get on the technology bandwagon, adopt technology that not only helps your users get more out of your facility, but also helps you run your facility with more smarts. Some technology lets you schedule programming, keep track of equipment and its usage, and manage staff, as well as help personal trainers and other staff members maintain a higher level of communication with your users.

Round and round the circuit

One type of training that has increased in popularity and can cater to clients of all ages is circuit training. This is training where exercisers alternate rapidly between strength and cardio machines or exercises. Their heart rates stay elevated and remain above a resting level while they work out. The benefits of circuit training include the shorter period of time required to complete a workout and improvements in general fitness, muscular endurance and strength, and cardiovascular fitness.

ACE reported a higher demand for classes and training that take less than 45 minutes—a response to Americans' ever-busier schedules. Circuit training programs generally take about 30 minutes—sometimes less.

Some manufacturers have tailored their equipment offerings to this trend, offering non-intimidating circuit training equipment targeted specifically at new and less experienced exercisers. If your facility caters to this user group, consider the following:

  • Look for equipment that is easy to use and has a non-intimidating design.
  • Look for equipment that is easy to set up. Newbies might not understand what to do with traditional weight machines. Easy setup means they can spend more time working out, and less time trying to figure out how to get started.
  • Look for equipment that offers low resistance and smaller increments. This provides quick reinforcement for beginners.
  • Look for equipment that fits different sizes. If it is lower to the ground, it will be more accessible to youth and the elderly.
  • One public school in Chicago has incorporated a circuit training program to help combat childhood obesity. The circuit they're using allows up to 12 students to work out at once without a great deal of instruction, so they can make the most of their workout time. The equipment they're using incorporates resistance bands into the machine instead of weight plates—safer for younger kids and teens.

    One other consideration: If your fitness facility gets most of its traffic from newbies, you can probably just incorporate your circuit into the regular gym area. On the other hand, if you've got a good mix of beginners and old pros, you might want to create a separate workout area for the circuit so new users will be less intimidated.

    Elements for Women also offers circuit training for its clients. "I think it's nice to have a structured program where someone can get a total body workout in a certain period of time," Palumbo said.

    It's all about balance

    ACE reported that health clubs are offering balance training programs for all levels and types of participants. These classes might incorporate things like stability balls, Pilates equipment, even new machines that are designed to strengthen tiny stabilizer muscles throughout the body.

    Vance of National Fitness Centers is definitely seeing this trend play out. "Functional training is important to people so they can lead longer, better lives," she said.

    "When we know that the foundation of your body is your feet and postural alignment, it brings us back to Pilates, range of motion and balance—those key things we have drifted away from for so long," Young said. "We're coming back to this."

    A gymnast, Kelly is a faculty member of Body, Arts & Science International, a method founded by Pilates Master Rael Isacowitz. She has developed training designed specifically for children and teens training for specific sports, zoning in on training their core, which she considers critically important.

    "It helps prevent injuries," she said. "The training also helps them recover when they get an injury. It assists them in whatever sport they're doing. Core training is not taught as part of any sport, but core strength is everything."

    Kelly believes that core training is important for people of all ages and works with students from 4 to 84 years old. She emphasizes that Pilates is intensive training, and therefore clubs and fitness centers that are considering incorporating Pilates classes should be careful.

    "You have a lot of people hopping on the bandwagon and making it open-gym," Kelly said. But it's important to hire instructors who are highly trained and certified. It's also crucial to be sure your Pilates students are getting the one-on-one attention they need.

    "If you do offer group classes, the group should be small so you can make sure everyone's body is properly aligned," Kelly said. "We have a second instructor walking around while one teaches, and no more than five clients at a time."

    The mind-body connection

    The IDEA Health & Fitness Association announced in November 2006 that almost 15 million people participated in a yoga or tai chi class at least once in 2005. And ACE reports that the mind-body connection will continue to dominate fitness programming in 2007. It seems we're all searching for something.

    "The whole mind-body thing is exploding," Vance said. "People can do it on into their older years, stop pounding on the floors. You can still get your heart rate up, but not beat up your body."

    Young said that the Medical Fitness Association has incorporated mind-body fitness. The Cox Fitness Centers won an award for mind-body fitness and relaxation programming, and the hospital incorporates healing touch, energy healing and other holistic services.

    "That's the future of fitness," Young said. Young looks holistically at fitness. "I think we're fantastic about offering a huge range of services, so when you come in, you're set up with everything—not just a milkshake bar and a personal trainer."

    She added. "I think people are begging to get their spirit back. People are going nuts about cleansing, and I think it's just a way to get back to their spirit. A physical therapist said to me today, 'I have a 15-year-old kid as my student. Can I get him into your tai chi class?'"

    Yoga in particular is popping up in various forms in fitness clubs across the country—whether it's pure hatha yoga or some hybrid combination of yoga and Pilates, yoga and cycling, or other exercise programming.

    "I think especially in the fitness environment, we're going to see more growth in yoga classes," said Beth Shaw, president and founder of YogaFit Inc.

    But in a fitness club environment, yoga—with its Sanskrit names for poses and its chanting—can seem intimidating to those who've never inverted their body into a downward dog. That's why Shaw developed her program.

    She began practicing yoga in 1989 and earned several certifications, but when she started teaching at clubs in Los Angeles, she realized that yoga was not completely suited to the health club. The bright lights, colder rooms and varying fitness levels of her clientele led her to create her own yoga style, combining traditional western-type fitness moves like squats and sit-ups with yoga poses.

    To make yoga less intimidating for beginners, YogaFit encourages accessibility and modifications and options for the different poses. "We teach the people we train to really emphasize that, and also the essence of YogaFit, which is breathing, feeling, letting go of judgment and sharing with students continually during the class, asking them to ask themselves, 'How can I approach my own yoga practice from a good place mentally?' The essence is not to compete, but just to enjoy my own body and be in my own space," she said.

    Fitting yoga into your fitness club is another matter entirely. "Yoga in the fitness club—and that's something we've been teaching people how to teach for over 12 years now—promotes challenges for the instructor," Shaw said. "You're always getting new people into your class. The instructor has to be well trained in teaching to a variety of levels at the same time. They also need to know how to do the options and modifications."

    Serving the Underserved

    According to research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), factors related to social class have a strong influence on people's activity levels. Things like education, family income and employment status all impact whether or not people are more or less physically active.

    Previous studies have revealed cultural trends. For example, some research has shown that blacks and Hispanics are more inactive during their leisure time. But these cultural factors are moderated by social class. In fact, the authors of the study say, lower income and lower education attainment likely explain these differences.

    "People in poverty are more likely to live in neighborhoods where public recreation is unavailable or dangerous," the study's authors reported. "We also know that wholesome food is likely to be less available or more expensive in low-income neighborhoods, which makes it even harder for the poor and uneducated to make healthy choices."

    It is extremely important to develop outreach programs to people in these communities. YogaFit's founder Beth Shaw has implemented several ways of reaching out to the community.

    In order to earn a certificate of completion, people participating in YogaFit Teacher Training are required to donate eight classes to people who normally wouldn't get the chance to try yoga, for example.

    Trainees in the program have worked with the handicapped, teens at risk, people who are HIV-positive, breast cancer survivors, seniors, children, teachers and others.

    Something for everyone

    While you can't be a one-size-fits-all fitness club, you can offer training options targeted to the people who use your facility. Whether it's balance training for older adults, Pilates for prenatal clients or yoga for beginners, there are plenty of ways to get everyone active and involved.

    "We don't believe that there's one set way to get into shape," Palumbo said, "You don't have to just come in and do a circuit. Someone may choose to do a cardio workout. Someone else may choose yoga or Pilates using their own body weight to strengthen their core. Someone else might just enjoy strength training. The consumer is always challenged and has options."

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