Survival of the Fitness
Adapt to Evolving Fitness Trends and Demographics—or Be Left Behind
By Kelli Anderson
As hard-core fitness users over the decades have come to expect a sophisticated experience, fitness facilities have stepped up to the plate to offer this seasoned demographic the complex equipment, multipurpose environment and creative, challenging programming they demand.
Enter a growing demographic of first-time users, however, who require just the opposite—ease of use and non-intimidating equipment and programming—and you have a seemingly impossible task: to be all things to all people.
When Janet Kotynski, a 49-year-old fitness novice, entered a health club in her Geneva, Ill., neighborhood for the first time last year, she described her experience as intimidating.
"I ran from it, it was so scary," Kotynski explained. "It was so crowded with machines all close together—and noise and colors and excitement—I just felt intimidated."
After continuing her search for an environment and fitness program more suited to her needs, Kotynski and her husband finally settled for a fitness center with a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere and where social interaction was less high-pressure sales and more casual.
Although not yet 50, what she experienced was a typical reaction from the fastest-growing segment of first-time fitness facility users when faced with a club still geared to cater primarily to the see-and-be-seen user.
"We've seen a big jump in 55 or older," said Thomas Doyle, vice president of information research with the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) out of Mount Prospect, Ill., which provides research and information on trends and issues impacting those in the sporting goods industry. "Ten years ago it was at 8.9 percent, and now it's 14.4 percent. Above half are baby boomers, so that makes sense—they seem to be a health-conscious bunch."
Not only is the fitness industry seeing more beginners from the older spectrum of the population, but the younger population's participation is growing as well.
"We are seeing a rise in club use for the under-17s," Doyle observed.
In fact, thanks to the nation's growing awareness and concern over childhood obesity, coupled with a growth in young athletes' interests in sport-specific training, fitness facilities are experiencing a significant increase in younger users. With such a diversity of fitness seekers, the industry is changing the way it thinks about facility design, equipment and programming.
But not all facilities experience clientele the same way or in the same numbers. By far the facilities that are most affected by these broadening demographical trends are those that cater to the public at large. According to research conducted by IDEA Health and Fitness Association, parks and recreation departments; YMCAs, YWCAs and Jewish Community Centers (JCCs); and corporate and hospital settings attract the highest percentage of inactive or new exercisers.
Add to those a growing number of fitness facilities specifically targeting newbies like the recently opened Kids Action Fitness in Denver or 1-2-3 Fit neighborhood fitness centers across the United States, and the reason behind evolving equipment design becomes clear.
Strength-training equipment is morphing into more aesthetic, easier-to-use models with fewer, smaller incremental adjustments. The goal, to reduce the fear factor and frustration often experienced by younger or first-time users, translates into simpler-to-understand equipment.
Smaller incremental adjustments also mean less physical discomfort while letting users more easily measure their progress. The result? A greater sense of accomplishment and greater motivation. It's a win-win.
For Kids Action Fitness, which is the country's first all-kids fitness facility, equipment modification and especially motivation via both education and entertainment was a must.
"Some equipment was specially designed," said Rick Schliebe, owner and founder of the facility, which opened this July. "Everything is kid-friendly and fun. We have a Tazer that teaches kids how to react to different sports—like in soccer, how to respond to a goalie. Then there's Dance Dance Revolution or bicycles that take different trail courses where you can race friends—the screens stop when you stop, and so forth."
Some companies are developing kids' equipment lines that combine exercise with gaming just to meet the needs of this specialized and growing market.
Equipment designs also are responding by getting smaller and just plain "prettier." Smaller equipment is visually less intimidating while having the added advantage of opening up previously lost floor space. In addition, manufacturers are offering customizing options to allow equipment to become more a part of the general decor to provide members with a more pleasant workout experience.
For older users interested in workouts that simply are less stressful on joints and less painful, treadmills are still the number-one cardio piece, while elliptical machines are popular for their ability to provide a low-impact workout. Recumbent bicycles are designed to reduce lower-back stress, and smaller equipment pieces like bands, tubes and balls are props used by more and more trainers with older populations and young athletes alike.
Ultimately, the shift toward smaller equipment and away from larger equipment has been in the works for some time. With walking enjoying the lowest dropout rate of any type of exercise among fitness seekers aiming to improve their health, and with the continued popularity of programs like Pilates and yoga, it comes as no surprise that small equipment, according to IDEA's latest research, continues its dominance.
"Stability balls, resistance tubing or bands and balance equipment are the three most frequently offered types of equipment," the report says, concluding that "it doesn't take large expensive tools to help people become fit."
Additionally, with the fastest-growing population in the United States being those 55 years and older, IDEA touches on a significant paradigm shift in the fitness industry from exercising to achieve a certain body type to exercising for health.
This aging demographic's growing presence also is affecting the way interior spaces within facilities are being designed. It is not unusual, for example, for older members—or those simply intent on improving their health—to be uncomfortable watching their reflection in mirrors as they exercise. Nor do they typically want to be on display for others to watch, prompting a design challenge—how to offer them privacy when the overall design trends are embracing openness and transparency.
"Not everyone is as comfortable with their bodies," said Curtis Moody, FAIA, principal with Moody-Nolan Inc., a multiple-award-winning architectural firm. "You have to allow for privacy. You don't have to seal off areas with walls—you can do it with low partitions, or you can do it using mezzanines up high."
The Ohio State University Recreation and Physical Activity Center (RPAC) fitness facility, designed by Moody-Nolan Inc. offers one such example of running tracks on a mezzanine level where runners can exercise in the open environment but up and out of sight from users located below.
Changing areas, too, in the form of family changing rooms, cater to those with a need for privacy. Such spaces not only provide a place where older patrons might want to change in privacy, but these spaces are ideal for the privacy needs of families with small children and for those with disabilities
According to the top 10 fitness trend predictions for 2007 by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, Calif., programming will provide more specialized classes both for older and younger users. Citing expanded fitness programs for seniors as its number-one prediction, the report emphasizes the need for classes that condition those parts of the body to fight osteoarthritis and osteoporosis and that lower the risk of injury and enhance quality of life.
You need only peruse the latest fitness information posted by the AARP to witness the proliferation of programs targeting an audience eager to increase flexibility, strength and bone mass or to reduce pain. Modified forms of Pilates, yoga and a whole host of exercise videos promise regimens that keep older adults' special physical needs and health goals in mind.
Listed as a close second and third, ACE underscores the importance of specialized programming for youth, as well. Small group training classes for five or fewer individuals are ideal for families wanting a fitness experience that is both fun and demonstrates the importance of fitness as a part of daily life to their children.
Probably the most significant increase in children's programming, however, is found in those classes created as a direct response to parents' desire to help combat the obesity epidemic in their children. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids now watch an average of 5 1/2 hours of combined media every day—far more sedentary activity than is healthy—prompting concerned parents to fight back.
Resistance training, once thought to be harmful to kids' developing musculoskeletal system, is now understood to be beneficial, thanks to studies and research conducted by such experts as Wayne Prescott, Ph.D. Classes using colorful fun and games combined with bands, tubes, medicine balls and light free weights are ideal for kids of all ages.
Programming for kids often includes education about nutrition while making sure activities focus on essentials like endurance, flexibility or strength training. An exercise game for younger children, ages 6 to 9, as an example used by ACE, instructs children to hop, skip or run around a ring of chairs while music plays. When the music stops, they quickly find a vacant chair that has resistance equipment and instructions in the seat for them to follow.
If you thought this version of musical chairs seems to hearken back to the days of childhood yore, you'd be right. Programming in general is getting back to the basics, by many accounts, but with a hefty helping of fun. Dance classes of all kinds, basic step, hi-lo aerobics and sculpting classes, to name just a few, are "basics" finding their way back into the masses' good graces.
But basic good fun is not the only incentive bringing people through the doors. "Rewards training" is a concept also having its day in the sun.
"Kids get points for each piece of equipment," Schliebe said of his kids' rewards training. "We give away a huge gift each six months for the person who's worked the hardest, whether it's losing weight or getting into shape for a sport. First prize is a helicopter ride over the city."
Rewards for adults get even bigger. Some have been known to win an exotic vacation trip, while others are a more logical outgrowth of the programming activity. Do you provide a Broadway dance class? Offer participants a chance to win tickets to see a Broadway show. Class participants can also work toward a common goal like running in a 10K.
Programming also appears to be shifting to the short and sweet, the ACE reports with its prediction of the growth in shorter workout experiences of 45 minutes or less. In some cases, users even cut corners by skipping the locker room in order to speed up their in-and-out time.
"We're seeing a trend toward a lot more people, particularly in the afternoon and evening, skipping the shower," said Mike Cassidy, district executive director of The Valley of the Sun Association of YMCAs and managing director of a Scottsdale, Ariz., branch facility. "I think it's geographic—people work out close to their homes and it's not so inconvenient," Cassidy explains of his patrons, despite the pristine conditions of private showers and stalls of the newly renovated locker rooms at the Scottsdale YMCA. Furthermore, he suggested that for people on the go (with the exception of those who exercise in the mornings before heading straight to work), locker rooms are simply not the amenity they used to be.
Even more significant, a paradigm shift is occurring in the manufacturing world as it tries to accommodate the growing numbers of people looking for faster ways to get fit. It's about efficiency and making the equipment meet the needs of the user.
"The number-one trend I think we're seeing is about balance," said Bryan Green, president and founder of consulting/design and fitness supply company, Advantage Fitness Products in Los Angeles, Calif. "Cardiovascular health has been prevalent for a long time. Then it was strength training for men and women. Now we're seeing a battle of working out smarter, not harder. Not only are people crunched for time these days, but we also need to understand it's just not as important to spend time in the gym. The prevailing direction is about quality and shorter intervals, more frequently in the way personal trainers work with clients and the way exercise manufacturers are beginning to target equipment toward needs."
One such example, which Green sees as the next evolution of exercise equipment, was on display at one of 2007's biggest trade shows. The concept of acceleration training—speeding up workout and modality—was greeted with raised eyebrows with the introduction of a vibrating plate based on technology developed to train Russian cosmonauts 30 years ago to retain muscle mass in space.
Users of the plate can either stand passively on the unstable plane while blood flow and circulation and the entire muscle system are stimulated, or the user can accelerate his or her usual training routine of, say, squats and lunges, to get an incredible workout in just 20 minutes.
Green believes this kind of equipment and its concept of more workout in less time will soon be incorporated across the fitness board.
"Consumers are more intelligent and educated than ever before," Green explained. "Manufacturers must find a way to accommodate the end user with low-impact and shorter time with equal-to-or-more benefit."
Evidence of some manufactures joining this movement can be seen in the functional training concepts in strength training where cables in equipment allow users to move in any direction, while other designs are creating simpler-to-use models no longer requiring adjustments between users, which shaves off more minutes from total workout time.
What if machines could simply adapt to each user without being told? Having machines identify each user, know what their workout history looks like and what their settings need to be for the next workout, is certainly one more dramatic step toward streamlining the process.
Some designs going back to the early '90s are still very effective and do just that by having a user enter a multi-digit personal code into each piece of equipment in order to track individual workouts. Such user-friendly designs increase user motivation, simplify the workout process and take the intimidation and guesswork out of the new-user experience.
In Japan, a controversial but logical next step in this equipment revolution is the introduction of the RFID wristband, a device that can handle everything from checking in and out of a facility to communicating personal workout information to each piece of equipment as the user approaches. Like the automatic communication that gets us through tolls more easily on the highway, these systems for fitness centers handle a cashless payment process as well. It remains to be seen whether they will ultimately migrate out of Japan's fitness facilities into their stateside counterparts.
Then there's simply the matter of square footage. Equipment is getting smaller, and fewer pieces are required to achieve a full-body workout. That is impacting the amount of space required in fitness facilities, which used to have to dole out far more square footage for cardiovascular and strength training equipment. And that's good news as more studio space than ever is being used for the kaleidoscope of group activities coloring the ever-changing fitness landscape.
That's not to suggest that all equipment is going the way of the universal user. By contrast, some pieces are becoming more specialized. As kids enter the market, more equipment is geared to making exercise a byproduct of fun. Dance competition games allow users to follow dance routines, virtual-reality games have kids jumping, dodging and ducking before a screen, and interactive bikes create a racing game experience.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the user spectrum, the senior market is experiencing equipment designed specifically for their needs. Large-text instructions and controls, extra-comfortable seating and aspects that underscore low-impact, back-supporting and ergonomic features abound.
Users with specific impairments can enjoy specialized equipment features as well. The visually impaired are aided with such features as tactile buttons, audio instructions, large graphics or text and color-contrasted pieces of equipment. Wheelchair users have equipment such as treadmills and strength-training circuits designed to accommodate the wheelchair.
Whether users require specifically tailored equipment or demand more universal designs, they all want the fitness experience to be more fun. In the never-ending search to find ways to encourage more people to use fitness equipment, the increasing combination of entertainment with fitness isn't hard to miss.
From the primitive reading racks attached to stationary bicycles in the '80s to the virtual-reality-based "play" as exercise of today, entertainment has gone high-tech in its quest to make the personal workout more interesting.
Entertainment can be passive or active. Passive refers to those kinds of equipment where users watch TV monitors, DVDs or the Internet, while active entertainment requires physical, interactive response.
Seamless iPod integration in some designs now allows users to watch videos, control their music and surf the Internet on large LCD screen consoles.
"Entertainment is huge," Green said. "We're seeing manufacturers accommodating the user's preference. They're listening."
They also are listening to the needs of a potentially huge population of fitness users—the disabled. As more and more accessible designs are becoming available, it's evident that times are changing, but it's been a slow improvement since the 1990 ADA incentive to make facilities accessible to all.
With only 7 percent of the population fitting into the usually-targeted healthy 19-to-35-year-olds, it seems almost ludicrous that the aging and increasing disabled populations in the United States have not gotten more attention from the fitness industry.
According to the National Center of Physical Activity and Disability (NCPAD), 35 fitness facilities were investigated in 2005 to measure their effectiveness in the areas of equipment, pools, overall environment, facility information, and policies and professional behavior as it pertained to the needs of the disabled. The result? All were rated low to moderate. Ouch.
But improvements are being made. The Ed Roberts Campus in Berkley, Calif., due to open in two years, boasts that it will be the most accessible building in the world. The Ed Roberts Campus will contain offices and a community center with a café, a fitness center, child care facilities, an art gallery and more.
However, although it is being designed from beginning to end with accessibility in mind, its ultimate goal is that in making it accessible for all, it will by its nature blur the lines of distinction between "abled" and "disabled." After all, goes the reasoning of the board president, Dmitri Belser, if all buildings were designed to be completely accessible, who would think of people in wheelchairs as any less able to perform?
Iconic of the building's inclusive ambitions will be a central spiraling ramp seeming to float within the large, airy openness of the two-story lobby. The seven-foot-wide ramp is a dramatic focal point whose inspiration springs from the similarly dramatic flair of the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Although not every fitness facility can follow in such attention-grabbing footsteps, taking leads from this project's accessible design is well within most fitness facilities' reach. From the automatic doors and elevators operated by foot paddles to Braille maps, the design allows the disabled to be independent.
The visually impaired will have the ability to realize their location from both touch and sound. The floors of each distinct area will have a different texture while distinctive music and water fountains will give them audio clues from which to orient themselves in their surroundings. Ensuring that all signage falls within a minimum font size for easier reading is a step any facility can take.
Therapy pools, great for those recuperating from an illness or injury, or those maximizing their ability to live healthier lives as they age or suffer from permanent conditions, are a great addition to any fitness center. Underwater treadmills, hydro-lifts and long-entrance ramps with hand rails enable these pools to address the needs of many kinds of users.
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Helen M. Galvin Health and Fitness Center is another facility dedicated to fitness for the disabled. This 4,000-square-foot facility has been a magnet for the disabled and has had a monthly average attendance of almost 2,000 for several years.
Thanks to a Web site provide by NCPAD, a virtual tour of the facility with tips and suggestions for everything from design ideas to equipment is available. Visit www.ncpad.org/get/VirtualTour/Welcome.htm to learn more.
According to this site, things as simple as spacing pieces of equipment to allow easy wheelchair mobility can make a big difference. In looking for more accessible equipment design, they also suggest seats that swivel to the side for wheelchair access or providing wrist cuffs and activity mitts to allow those with gripping difficulties to grasp weight machines or barbells.
Other features to look for include control panels within arm's reach for making adjustments and equipment that allows small incremental changes for the user. For cardiovascular equipment, like treadmills, something as simple as a design that doesn't require a high step to begin exercising is a step in the right direction. A harness for treadmills even helps support users with hip and knee problems so they can begin to return strength to their legs.
With such an enormous population in need of fitness outlets, it just makes sense to accommodate them. Getting the word out is key. Advertising accessibility through more than just text mediums—think radio and television—reaches a wider audience, as does publicizing to organizations that work with the disabled. If you advertise it, they will come!
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