Fit(ness) Designs

Meeting a Growing Need

By Jessica Royer Ocken


t's official. We could use some exercise. As testament, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America's Health titled their 2009 report F as in Fat. Need we say more?

Despite the ongoing discussion about the need for improved fitness for kids, for those in the workforce, for, well, a lot of us, the adult obesity rate dropped in exactly zero states last year, and it rose in 23. At least 30 percent of children are overweight or obese in 30 states.

But there are a few positives to report (and not just that we're positively getting fatter). Those who are already hitting the gym are likely to continue doing so. "They realize exercise is an effective form of prevention," said Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). As more and more people come to this realization, McCall believes they'll reconsider their position on the couch and start showing up at fitness centers. "Be ready for a greater diversity of people coming in as awareness is raised," he said.

The newest federal guidelines for exercise (released in October 2008) identify physical activity as a preventive tool and component of healthcare, he explained. "That's a huge policy shift…. There's going to be a long-term trickle down as people adjust to that model: Exercise is not just to be fit, it's necessary to maintain health and avoid illness," McCall said. "It won't happen overnight, but facilities will start to see new people."

So, start planning now for an influx of new patrons (some of whom may already be arriving), and consider that they're not all going to be consummate athletes. In fact, some may be directed to work out by their doctors, not their own desire, so a little extra effort could go a long way in winning them over. Some may be younger than you're used to (those rounder-than-they-should-be kids or a crop of little ones coming along with their newly invigorated parents), some may be older (seniors are living longer and are more active than ever), and some may need help getting started.

It's not likely you'll be all things to all people—especially with a budget to manage and a finite amount of space—but as you hone in on the users you're most likely to encounter, use the guide below for suggestions on ways to match your facility setup, equipment and programming with what they'll need to succeed at getting healthy.

Kids & Teens

Design solutions: "When you're looking at design [with kids in mind], dual or multipurpose rooms is a fantastic way to think about it," said Chris Conti of Atlanta-based Innovative Fitness Solutions (IFS), a full-service firm that offers clients assistance with everything from business plans to facility design to equipment to management. Pint-sized patrons are not likely your primary clients (someone has to bring them!), so create flexible spaces that can also be used for more mature exercisers.

A prime place to do this? The pool. "Those have dramatically changed," said Mark Hulet, senior vice president of membership services for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City. During a series of renovations in the late 1990s, several KC Ys built two pools—one for "warm-water activities" like group exercise and lessons and kids playing, and a cooler multi-lane pool for more serious swimmers, he explained. But now one pool encompasses both.

Lap swimming has been on the decline for some time, he added, so YMCA pools focus on kid-friendly fun with zero-depth entry, spray features, slides and shallower water overall. In fact, the last four new KC Ys include outdoor spray parks, rather than pools. "They're safer and have lower operational costs, but people are still able to gather and sun," Hulet said. "This centers not just on teens and kids—they drag their parents," he explained. Multipurpose water areas cater to the whole family.

Essential equipment: The key to engaging this group is to meet them where they are—and that doesn't mean smaller sets of free weights or tiny treadmills. "I grew up watching TV, but in the middle school [aged] target demographic…they were three the first year that video games were more popular than TV," noted Judy Barker, director of product marketing for a fitness company that offers equipment with a videogame-like component. "They've been using virtual reality since they could walk and talk."

And they'd prefer not to stop when they get to the gym—especially if it wasn't their idea to go in the first place.

This is why the company's bikes include interactive screens and an array of gaming-style features, including allowing you, via a ghost rider, to visually compare your current ride to your past performance on the same route. The bikes are also part of a computer network, so if kids (or adults!) log in, they can race the willing rider of any other bike in the room. The newest member of the family is sized for the junior-high set, making it even more comfortable for kids.

Interactive video games like the Wii Fit also offer some real benefits. ACE research found that 30 minutes of Wii Fit boxing or tennis "can be an effective way to burn a couple hundred calories…about like a 30-minute walk," McCall said. "It shouldn't be the only thing you do, but it's a way to take something teens are familiar with and get them interested," he added. "Whet their appetite to help introduce them to the benefits of exercise."

On the analog equipment front, your youngest exercisers may not be ready for strength training, but balls, ramps and foam play forms can captivate their imagination and get them moving in the process, Conti suggested.

Programming potential: With its mission-based call to serve all segments of the community, the YMCA of Greater Kansas City is careful to include activities for their youngest constituents. "We feel kids at age 9, if they fit the exercise equipment, should be allowed to exercise," said Brian Haines, senior director of health and wellness. But it wouldn't be safe to simply turn them loose, "so we have programs where we teach 9-to-12-year-olds how to use the cardio equipment properly, and the weight machines that are appropriate for their age and height," he added. "We teach them about etiquette on the fitness floor and the principles of exercise. Then they can come in and work out with their parents, and if it's not cool to do that, we also have group classes."

Summer is a great time to start a "fit kids" program, he noted. "We do games indoors and out—things that are more about having fun, creative play." Some are designed as ways "to be active and move and exercise without realizing you're exercising," while others are more traditional activities like swimming and tumbling and youth sports.

But even more important than the programming may be the staff facilitating the activities. "Energetic, motivational—it takes a special kind of person to work with that age group," Haines said.

Getting Active

Selected Suggestions from the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see for more details)

Children and Adolescents (aged 6 to 17)

Children and adolescents should do one hour or more of physical activity every day. As part of their daily physical activity, children and adolescents should do vigorous-intensity activity on at least three days per week. They also should do muscle-strengthening and bone-strengthening activity on at least three days per week.

Adults (aged 18 to 64)

Adults should do two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity, or an hour and 15 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, preferably spread throughout the week. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week.

Adults (aged 65 and older)

Older adults should follow the adult guidelines. If this is not possible due to limiting chronic conditions, older adults should be as physically active as their abilities allow. They should avoid inactivity. Older adults should do exercises that maintain or improve balance if they are at risk of falling.

For all individuals, some activity is better than none. Physical activity is safe for almost everyone, and the health benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks.


Design solutions: For older adults, a welcoming environment may be one of the most important elements your facility can provide. "They want to feel comfortable, not like a bother," said Anne Pringle Burnell, fitness instructor and creator of Stronger Seniors exercise programs ( "They tend to go at the same time every day, then meet people and get to know them," she added. This crowd may migrate toward private clubs or community centers where they can get personal attention and interact with other seniors.

In some cases, this translates into a seniors-only facility, said Conti. "A lot of times [older adults] are not wanting to be around younger kids and babies," he noted. "They have been through that part of their life, and they're looking for those of like mind and like age. That's one reason 55-plus health clubs are doing well." If you're not in a position to exclude the sub-55 portion of the market, segmenting locker areas and bathrooms into family areas and adults-only areas may be helpful.

Essential equipment: Many seniors already have some exercise experience, and "if they've been working out all their lives, they can use [standard exercise equipment] like anyone else," Conti noted. However, those who are new to exercise or who are not as strong as they once were may merit some modifications. Sturdy chairs can be a helpful addition to exercise classes for added stability, and recumbent bikes may be another favorite, Haines said. As another means of making seniors feel welcome, Haines noted that the YMCA of Greater Kansas City keeps all its pools at temperatures within the Arthritis Foundation's recommended range (which younger swimmers may appreciate as well).

Burnell suggested providing resistance bands as an alternative to free weights, as they promote both strength and flexibility. And, "little dumbbells are good, but light, weighted balls—1 and 2 pounds—are better because they increase hand strength."

Programming potential: This is again an area where some seniors will feel perfectly at home in standard adult classes, while others may want something gentler. Adjusting can be as simple as demonstrating a modification in class, McCall said. "Give them options, but they don't have to be totally separate."

However, Burnell's business and experience centers on those at an age and ability level that does merit something a bit different. She suggests an element of resistance training to build strength and adds that many seniors "need to feel more confident in their gait and balance." Flexibility is a focus of Stronger Seniors, and "our program really talks about posture—using those core muscles. It's designed [to address] balance, strength, flexibility and breathing."

An element of fun is also helpful in engaging seniors, so she suggests dance-based activities, including Jazzercise and Nia. "Choose things that you can adjust the difficulty level," she suggested. "Advertise them as work-at-your-own-pace or own level."

Practically speaking, seniors will likely appreciate seeing instructors their own age at your facility. Also, "seniors may be bothered in group classes if they can't hear," Burnell said. So providing a good view of the instructor, turning down the tunes a little, and including lots of lead time into transitions from one activity or movement to another can help. She also recommends that once a class for seniors has developed a following, "don't change the time slot. Be consistent," she said. "Older adults become very religious about their schedule."

Fitness Beginners

Design solutions: "When you walk in, we didn't want the exercise areas to overwhelm someone who had never been to a gym before," explained Rob Bishop of Elevations Health Club in Scranton, Pa., a facility that was extensively retooled starting in 2005. "It's almost like a hotel lobby—non-intimidating, not high energy and a friendly staff," he said. "Then we give a tour where we gradually introduce the exercise areas."

If your goal is to make your gym inviting to former couch-dwellers, try to format the building so they're not hit over the head with everything they haven't been doing the moment they arrive.

Alternately, you can "design" your fitness offerings to meet new exercise converts where they're likely to be found: workplaces. In recent years the YMCA in Kansas City has stopped building big-box facilities. Now they pair smaller gyms and sports centers with onsite activities in corporate spaces from fitness centers to converted conference rooms. "This is something that has really picked up over the last couple years," Haines said. "Businesses are more interested in a healthier workforce, and employees' time at work has increased. By bringing programs to them onsite—lectures or group classes or individual sessions—we can adapt to the individual…. It looks different at each location."

Essential equipment: When working with beginners, "the big trend is moving away from equipment and using more resistance bands and medicine balls because they're not as intimidating," said ACE's McCall. Many health clubs are trying to open up floor space so there's more room to move and exercise dynamically. But open floor space and people new to exercise won't get much done on their own, and machines can be excellent assistants to those learning how to get fit. "Provide tools for trainers to work with clients, so clients can learn to do a program and use your equipment on their own," suggested McCall.

Programming potential: The ideal activity for a new exerciser is likely an introduction. The YMCA offers "one program for all our new members, but it's nice for this particular person, who we consider a health seeker—wanting to make a lifestyle change but doesn't know how, or has been told by their doctor to do so," Haines said.

The Y Fit program is a series of four appointments in 12 weeks, which begins with a health history and discussion of exercise likes and dislikes, as well as setting some goals. "It's a baseline starting point with one-on-one discussion and lots of listening to help them find best path for them," Haines explained. The second appointment comes shortly thereafter and is designed to move the new member down the fitness path they've selected. "If they like water fitness, we introduce them to the pool and the aquatics director and instructor," he said. "If they want to do strength training, we help them develop a program and find the equipment that best suits them." The third meeting is a check-in to see whether the person is meeting set goals, find out if changes are needed, and make modifications as necessary. Then, after 12 weeks—hopefully 12 weeks of working out—the final meeting revisits the initial assessment from the first session and measures change in areas including blood pressure, strength and flexibility. "There may be not as much success as they'd like, so we try to motivate and reenergize them," Haines said. "Lifestyle change doesn't happen overnight, and support makes a big difference."

McCall agrees and added that a big part of what the ACE teaches personal trainers is how to help people change their behavior and attitudes before they get into a regular exercise program. "People come in that haven't exercised for 10 or 15 years, and they now want to do it every day," he said. "Don't set that goal. Set a realistic goal. Try two or three times a week for 20 minutes to start…. They don't need to come in and do a boot camp. People don't gain 20 pounds in four weeks, so they're not going to lose it that way."

The relationships—with staff and with others new to exercise—that can be created during an introductory session are also an important programming component, McCall said. "That way when you join you're not just being patted on the butt and sent through the door," he said. "Instead you establish a peer group to achieve your goals. That's a big trend—group exercise classes or small-group personal training. You develop relationships that encourage adherence [to your fitness plan]."

One final programming note: Don't be afraid to resort to trickery! "Everyone knows they need to exercise, they just need to get there," Burnell said. "Maybe introduce [the idea] with a luncheon lecture, [because] if they don't exercise at all, they may need something else to get them there—an education thing with a little introduction to the movements."

Make sure potential guests don't feel pressured or put on the spot, and they just might have a good time, said Burnell, who herself has hosted "Wine, Dine, and Align Your Spine" events. "We talk about posture, and then you get those who would normally not go to a fitness thing," she explained. "You have to trick those people."

Parents & Children

Design solutions: As noted previously, kids don't bring themselves to the gym, and they're not the only ones using your facility, so there's a sensitive balance to be struck. "One thing we tried to do in our design is [be] kid-friendly, but we didn't want to destroy the adult culture," said Barry Klein of Elevations Health Club. "We were able to set up our facility so kids are dropped off at the front desk for the babysitting area, and adults go on [in]. If kids need to be in the pool, it's a straight shot from the babysitting room to the locker room to the pool. So, there may be some disruptions in the locker room, but there are no kids downstairs. That's a sanctuary," he explained.

But other design choices tip the scales toward family needs. "We made the decision that our pool is for lessons and group fitness," Klein said. People are welcome to swim laps, but they do so in 3 to 5 feet of water. "If you want to be a serious swimmer, this is not your place," he said.

Essential equipment: Rather than specific equipment needs, parents and children are likely to appreciate a broad range of possible activities housed in a comfortable environment. When Elevations was renovated, the owners shifted their target demographic on purpose, explained Bishop. "We didn't want to be a lower-priced, hard-core gym, we wanted to be health club for professionals." This decision led them to raise rates, but also provide more family-friendly amenities.

Programming potential: A spectrum of options—something for everyone to do—is a big part of making your fitness center appealing to parents and kids, and the childcare and children's programming you offer can be an especially important aspect. IFS's Conti suggests a childcare program where kids can engage in physical activity, not just spend time watching TV or playing with blocks in small room. Because if the point of coming to the gym is the pursuit of fitness, everyone should be getting involved.

Meeting Diverse Needs

Meeting the needs of a diverse population can be more than a little challenging, and in some cases may prove impossible—as elite athletes will likely vacate your premises for a more performance-focused facility as you tailor your scheduling and programs toward those new to exercise. But as these experts have pointed out, your best bet for serving your community and your mission is to be as flexible as possible—beginning with the way you use your space. As the Kansas City YMCA has grown, "we made spaces multipurpose," Hulet said. "We didn't just lock down into a racquetball court or exercise room, we made the design open. We have a senior population in the mornings, then transition to a teen center, and we have overflow space for crowded childcare. The space transitions back and forth, depending on demand."

Another good way to provide what participants are looking for? Ask them what they want. "Really try to get member or participant feedback," McCall said. Experiment with a few changes, then find out what people like and dislike. "You can try things, then throw them out, or continue long term."

Also remember that no matter what expansive space or fancy equipment you have, your staff is still the face of your facility and the experts who are going to help link newcomers to the fitness they desire. "Do you have a staff with the education to provide these services?" McCall asked. "You may want to schedule some education so trainers feel more comfortable working with different groups," he said.

Ultimately, training your staff to build relationships and offer expertise to kids, teens, seniors and those new to exercise "may be a better investment dollar for dollar" than any design overhaul or equipment upgrade.

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