Fit Facilities

A Look at Trends in YMCAs and Health Clubs

There's no doubt that the obesity epidemic is growing at a frightening rate. In findings that will be published later this year in the journal Public Health, the RAND Corp. revealed that the proportion of severely obese Americans increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005, twice as fast as the growth seen in moderate obesity. Because of this, Roland Sturm, author of the report and an economist at RAND, said that widely published trends for obesity may actually underestimate the consequences of the obesity epidemic, because illness and service use are much higher among the severely obese.

What's more, Sturm said the findings challenge a common belief that the obese are a fixed proportion of the population who are not affected by changes in eating and physical activity patterns in the general population. The report also showed that what some would consider drastic measures—such as bariatric surgery—are actually having little effect on the prevalence of obesity in America.

Could it be that good old healthy eating and exercise habits are still the best option? If so, there may be no better place to step up the battle against obesity and unhealthy habits than fitness-focused facilities like YMCAs and health clubs.

In a recent survey, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that nearly every American knows that exercise promotes and preserves good health, but most feel that the current culture of the country, including work, family and financial pressures, makes it hard to exercise regularly and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

"These findings tell us that exercise is a critical component of preventive health care to most Americans," said IHRSA President and CEO Joe Moore in a press release about the survey. "However, they are losing the struggle to balance the demands of work and family with personal health and need greater support. Americans need access to the tools necessary to live healthier lifestyles."

And building a healthy lifestyle can start when you're young.

"Families are under increased stress, and they struggle to balance work, family and health," said President and CEO of YMCA of the USA Neil Nicoll in a press release announcing the 16th Annual YMCA Healthy Kids Day. "More physical activity through play helps children better manage stress, succeed in school, build energy and, most of all, learn skills that encourage a lifetime of activity."

For the purposes of our study, we combined many of the numbers reported by respondents from YMCAs, YWCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), health clubs and sports clubs. Many of these facilities include similar amenities, such as fitness centers, aquatic facilities and gymnasiums.

However, there are some drastic differences between these types of facilities, and where the numbers are vastly different, we will report those here.

For one thing, YMCAs and their ilk are generally private nonprofit organizations, while sports clubs and health clubs tend to operate on a for-profit basis. The vast majority of YMCAs we surveyed indicated that they were private nonprofit organizations, while nearly three-quarters of health clubs said they operated on a for-profit basis. Another fifth of health clubs indicated that they were public organizations, while 10 percent said they were private, nonprofit facilities.

Another glaring difference between the two types of facilities was their tendency to partner with outside organizations. Every YMCA, YWCA and JCC we surveyed said their facility partners in one way or another with an outside organization, compared to less than 70 percent of health clubs that partner.

In fact, many health club respondents cited unfair competition from nonprofit facilities offering similar services, but Susan Wallover, a principal with Recreation Planning Associates, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based firm that focuses predominantly on feasibility studies for community centers, recreation centers and swimming pools—both public and private, said that she expects this tendency to avoid partnerships to change among health clubs as facilities of all kinds look to do more with less.

"The health clubs tend to not want to help anyone who's a 501(c)(3)," she said. "I truly believe there is room for partnership there, but the right one hasn't been developed and publicized. But they each serve their different clients. I don't see it as tremendous competition, except maybe in a very small community, so I think partnerships will develop there."

Facility Management

Respondents from YMCAs and health clubs were much more likely than the general population of survey respondents to report increases in the number of people using their facility from 2005 to 2006. They also were much more likely to expect increases between 2006 and 2008. Nearly 70 percent said that usage of their facility had increased from 2005 to 2006, and more than three-quarters expect increases from 2006 to 2007. Nearly 80 percent are anticipating increases from 2007 to 2008.

That said, these facilities were also more likely than the general survey respondents to report a decrease in usage from 2005 to 2006. While just over 6 percent of the general survey population saw a decline in the number of people using their facility from 2005 to 2006, nearly 11 percent of YMCAs and health clubs said they had seen a decline. (See Figure 39.)

As of 2005, there were 2,617 YMCAs serving 20.2 million members—adults and children in 10,000 communities across the United States. The Jewish Community Center Association (JCCA) has more than 350 sites in the United States and Canada. And according to IHRSA, health club membership in the United States increased by more than 3 percent in 2006 to 42.7 million members, while the total number of Americans who visited or belonged to a health club increased by more than 6 percent to 69.3 million people.

"While we are very pleased to see growth in membership, we understand that there is still a lot of work to be done," said Moore in a press release announcing the research results. "It's been a little more than a decade since the first Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity and Health. And while health club membership has grown by 63 percent since then, the number of Americans who exercise regularly represent just a fraction of the total population."

IHRSA also is supporting current legislation that aims to create tax incentives to get more people into health clubs to improve America's general physical fitness.

"By working to remove the barriers to exercise and increase the personal and financial incentives to exercise, we hope to encourage even greater growth in health club membership in the years to come," Moore added.

Many survey respondents said they were concerned about rising costs of energy and other economic challenges that might lead to declining memberships. One director of fitness and recreation for a New York-based JCC said, "As the result of the economy, discretionary dollars will decrease, ultimately effecting membership and program participation in the health, wellness and fitness industry."

YMCAs and health clubs were far more likely than the general survey respondents to charge a fee for membership or usage of their facilities. One-hundred percent of YMCA respondents said they charge a fee, while nearly 97 percent of health clubs and sports clubs said they charge a fee. This compares to less than two-thirds of the general survey respondents who charge a fee for membership or usage of their facilities.

But here the similarity between YMCAs and health clubs stops, with regard to fees. Far more YMCAs than health clubs raised their fee in 2006, and the same will hold true for 2007 and 2008, according to our respondents. Nearly two-thirds of respondents from YMCAs said they raised their fee in 2006, while just over a third of health clubs raised their fee. In 2007, 68.8 percent of YMCAs raised their fee, compared to just over half of health clubs. And in 2008, two-thirds of YMCAs are anticipating a fee increase, compared to less than half of health clubs.

Likely because of their private nature, YMCAs and health clubs were more likely than other respondents to report higher revenues for 2006, and also were far more likely to be projecting revenue increases for 2007 and 2008. While just over half of the general survey population said their revenues had increased between 2005 and 2006, nearly three quarters of YMCAs and health clubs saw an increase. By 2008, 83 percent of YMCAs and health clubs project revenue increases, compared to less than 65 percent of general survey respondents.

This likely explains why respondents from health clubs and YMCAs were far less likely to report budgets as their primary concern now, as well as in the next three years. While 67.6 percent of all respondents said budgets were their primary current concern, just 47.4 percent of health clubs and 52.7 percent of YMCAs said this was their top current concern. In the next three years, 56.5 percent of all survey respondents said budgets would be a primary concern, compared with just over 35 percent of health clubs and YMCAs.

Interestingly, while health clubs and sports clubs reported lower-than-average yearly operating expenditures, YMCAs reported much higher-than-average expenditures. In addition, while health clubs projected slower rates of increase in their operating expenditures between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2008, with an increase of 6.1 percent from $1,150,926 to $1,221,635, YMCAs reported faster rates of increase, at 11.3 percent, from $1.9 million to $2.2 million. (See Figure 40.)

YMCAs higher operating expenditures are likely due to the much greater number of people they employ than other facility types, while health clubs' lower expenditures may be due to the smaller number of people they employ. While the average facility currently employs 240.5 people, sports clubs and health clubs employ just 109.3, and YMCAs employ 389.7. YMCAs use far more part-timers and volunteers than average, and far fewer full-time employees.

YMCAs and health clubs also expected a slower rate of increase in the number of people they employ than the average survey respondent. YMCAs and health clubs both projected about a 7 percent increase in the number of people they employ between now and 2008, compared with more than 10 percent for general survey respondents.

Health clubs and YMCAs were far more likely than the general survey respondents to require their staff members to earn certifications. A full 100 percent of YMCAs require certification of some kind for their staff members, and 98.4 percent of health clubs require certification, compared to just under 83 percent of all facilities. The most common certifications required by health clubs were personal training certifications, which 98.3 percent of health clubs said their staff must have. Just under half of health clubs also required lifeguard certifications or aquatic or pool management certifications.

At YMCAs and health clubs, the most common certification required was a lifeguard certification, required by nearly 96 percent of all YMCAs surveyed. Another 86.7 percent require personal training certifications, and more than two-thirds also require aquatic and pool management certifications.

Facility Planning

YMCAs and health clubs were more likely than the general population of survey respondents to be planning changes to their facilities, but were less likely to have plans for completely new facilities. While a quarter of all respondents said they currently have no plans, nearly four out of five YMCAs and health clubs said they have plans to build. On the other hand, nearly 35 percent of all facilities had plans to build new, while just 27.6 percent of health clubs and YMCAs were planning to build new. YMCAs and health clubs were more likely to be planning additions or renovations for their existing facilities.

For those who do have building plans in the next several years, YMCAs plan to spend 23.1 percent more, on average, than other respondents, with an average amount planned of nearly $4.7 million. Health clubs plan to spend around 45 percent less on average than other respondents, with an average amount planned of nearly $1.6 million.

The most common amenities currently included in YMCAs and health clubs were fitness centers, included in nearly 90 percent of YMCAs, and in nearly 87 percent of health and sports clubs. Also common in these facilities were locker rooms, which could be found in more than 85 percent of YMCAs and health clubs. After this, the similarities fade. While more than three-quarters of YMCAs include indoor sports courts and indoor aquatic facilities, less than half of sports clubs and health clubs feature these amenities. YMCAs were also more than 20 percent more likely than health clubs to include playgrounds, bleachers and seating, running tracks, natural turf sports fields, park structures like shelters and restroom structures, and trails and open spaces like gardens and natural areas. On the other hand, health clubs were more likely than YMCAs to include concession areas, outdoor sports courts and amusements like arcades.

The top amenities YMCAs are planning to add in the next three years include:

  • Waterpark or splash play areas
  • Climbing walls
  • Playgrounds
  • Indoor aquatic facilities
  • Indoor sports courts

The top amenities planned for sports clubs and health clubs include:

  • Indoor sports courts
  • Climbing walls
  • Running tracks
  • Waterpark or splash play areas
  • Indoor aquatic facilities

YMCAs and health clubs were both more likely than respondents from other facilities to be planning to add both splash play areas and indoor aquatic facilities. The addition of splash play areas reflects a trend commonly noted among industry experts to construct family aquatic facilities rather than competitive swimming environments. The trend is to include more facilities for recreational swimming and aquatic exercise, rather than for competitive swimming. This includes splash play elements, as well as vortex pools and lazy rivers, zero-depth entry and other amenities more conducive to play in the water.

But that doesn't take away from the need for swimming instruction, a common programming option among YMCAs. For example, in testimony before the U.S. House Interior and Environmental Subcommittee, Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder" and chairman of the Children & Nature Network, said that according to a survey by Aquatic Adventures, a nonprofit organization, 90 percent of inner-city kids in San Diego, Calif., do not know how to swim.

Safety and risk management for aquatic facilities were commonly cited as concerns among aquatic directors at YMCAs and health clubs. One Chicago-area aquatic director cited "creating new programming with the safety issues that are out there," as a top concern. An aquatics director at a Maryland JCC said safety also hits home when it comes to protecting staff. He cited "complying with OSHA standards for protection of employees, especially in aquatics facilities (with chemicals, equipment, etc.)" as his top concern.

Todd Seidler, the coordinator of the graduate program in Sport Administration at the University of New Mexico and a facility planning consultant, said that many facilities of all kinds are taking a more proactive approach to safety and risk management.

"There's an increase in litigation throughout society, but also in sport and recreation, and I think a lot of organizations are seeing a need to do more and more risk management," he said.

He added that he expects the use of such programs to grow over the next several years, especially considering some of the high-profile, large-dollar awards that have been granted.

"It's definitely one trend I see expanding, especially doing more formalized risk management plans, putting together a committee and trying to be more proactive," he said. "In the past, all too often organizations have been more reactive—they don't do anything until there's an injury or a problem appears. I'm hoping the word is getting out that we need to do it more proactively."

Climbing walls were the second most common choice for both YMCAs and health clubs. Seidler said there were a couple of things to keep in mind when planning to add a climbing wall.

"One of the really important considerations with a climbing wall is that it should be designed by somebody who has the expertise to do it," he explained. "We've seen people just go in and slap up a wall and try to figure it out themselves."

Supervision is another key consideration, Seidler said. "Sometimes the climbing wall is put in the very front of the facility to try to attract people in, and sometimes it's hidden way in the back," he said. "During the planning process, you've got to give a lot of thought to the supervision of it. Is there a way to close it off when you don't want people to climb on it? This is especially important if you've got kids in the facility. If the kids get access to it and there's no one to tell them not to use it, how are you going to deal with the result of that?"

Facility Programs

The top issues of concern among health clubs and YMCAs tended to revolve around programming their facilities. For health clubs and sports clubs, the number-one current issue is fitness for older adults, followed by general fitness. For YMCAs and health clubs, the top issues were youth fitness and marketing and increasing participation. In the next three years, both types of facilities said their top issues would be creating new and innovative programming, followed by marketing and increasing participation. The third most common issue within the next three years for both facility types is youth fitness and wellness.

These issues are reflected in the top programming choices currently offered by both types of facilities. Among YMCAs, the top current programs include day camps and summer camps, active older adult programs, fitness programs, mind/body balance programs like yoga and tai chi, and swimming programming. Among health clubs, the top current programs include fitness programs, personal training, mind/body balance programs, active older adult programs, and nutrition and diet counseling.

Over the next few years, YMCAs are most commonly planning to add adult sports teams, therapeutic recreation programs, nutrition and diet counseling, teen programs and sports tournaments or races. Among health clubs, the most common programs selected for addition over the next several years included nutrition and diet counseling, teen programs, educational programs, adult sports teams, individual sport activities such as running clubs or swimming clubs, and programming for active older adults.

One respondent from a YMCA based in suburban Chicago said the need for creating new and innovative programming is affecting their facility due to community changes. "We are moving only one mile away from the current facility, but out of one community into another and closer to an underserved Hispanic population with different needs," the respondent said.

Others cite the need to better deal with youth fitness. But in this case, the YMCA has a leg up. According to a national poll conducted by the YMCA of the USA, 6- to 12-year-old children who belong to a YMCA are more physically active than the average American child. More than 80 percent of kids polled said they like play that helps them move their bodies, and only 1 percent said they don't like physical play at all.

"With all of the negative statistics about kids, obesity and inactivity, we were really pleased to find that kids engaged with a YMCA have positive attitudes about physical activity, and many are meeting or exceeding federal recommendations for exercise and active play," Nicoll said.

Several health club respondents cited the need to reach more youth with fitness, but said they were stymied by the fact that most facilities do not allow kids younger than 14 to work out without a doctor's order. This trend might be expected to change over the next several years, as more facilities look for ways to build their membership by creating creative new programs to get youth involved. In 2006, according to IHRSA, more than 10 percent of health club members were under 18.


hether it's in our parks and recreation facilities, local community centers, colleges, schools, YMCAs, health clubs or any of a number of other facilities that provide recreational outlets for people of all ages and abilities, there is a great push to get more people active and involved in their communities. This push is occurring in spite of the fact that most of these facilities are under increasing pressure from shrinking budgets, the need for facility improvements or updates, and staff issues.

In the next three years, the top issues of concern for all types of facilities include budgets, equipment and facility maintenance, staffing concerns, marketing to increase participation, and creating new and innovative programming to attract and retain members. Programs that target specific groups such as older adults, teens or youth are becoming more prevalent as the awareness of the need for a major change in Americans' health takes hold across the population.

Where will we be three years from now? Who could have predicted the current popularity of yoga and Spinning? Who could have foreseen improvements in playground safety 40 years ago? And 400 years ago, who would have expected cities and towns to take the lead to create public spaces where people of all backgrounds could gather in their leisure time for recreational activities?

Will budget crunching lead more recreation, sports and fitness facilities to engage in creative partnering to improve their facilities—and their reach? Will the need for equipment and maintenance improvements lead them to close their doors, or increase their fees for members? Will staffing pressures lead facilities to increase their requirements for certification or background checks?

Only time can tell what changes will be wrought in the recreation landscape.

And we'll weigh in with further research and analysis. In the meantime, we'd love to hear how these trends are affecting you. Drop us a line at editor@recmanagement to give us your thoughts.

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