Fitness Gets Personal

Find Your Niche(s) and Stand Out

By Julie Knudson

Today's fitness club members are looking for more than an off-the-shelf workout. They want programs and activities that address their individual needs and concerns. Here, we look at a handful of niche markets that are on the rise.

Kids and Teens

As childhood obesity reaches epidemic proportions, fitness and recreation centers are increasingly targeting youngsters with programs to get them fit and keep them active. At Rye YMCA in Rye, N.Y., kids have the option to participate in activities such as the Teen Strength Camp, or they can work with a trainer in private sessions if that's more their speed. Both offer intense workouts, and class leaders provide the kids with helpful feedback. "We are inclusive," said Ann E. Ivan, fitness center director at Rye. Participants range from accomplished young triathletes to overweight teens.

The team at Rye YMCA sometimes partners with school coaches to spread the word about available activities. In addition, they offer after-school programs and summer camps, some of which are held in other locations to encourage participation and facilitate easy access for the kids.

"We also have Healthy Kids Day once a year, and we make a big thing out of that," Ivan said. Marketing to kids isn't the same as marketing to adults, and Ivan said they come at it from a couple of different angles in order to reach the younger audience. They count on their web site and e-mail blasts to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but old-fashioned chatter is also important. "There's a lot of community word-of-mouth," she explained. "We rely on that quite a bit." Because they're part of a small, tight community, she said they've seen good results from parents and their kids recommending the programs to friends.

One thing to remember is that this demographic has some behavioral tendencies that can quickly turn participants off from exercising. "We will not tolerate any bullying or anything like that," Ivan stressed. "It's just not part of our atmosphere." It's isn't something that usually crops up in adult-only classes, so Ivan said it's something centers need to be on the lookout for as they roll out kid-focused activities.

At Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club in Greenwood Village, Colo., consistency and convenience are two keys to the success of their children's fitness programs. Kids' classes are scheduled at the right time—often shortly after school—and the calendar doesn't change much from month to month. "For the parents, they need to know it's something they can expect, and that it's offered on a regular basis," said Tiffany Levine, the club's director of sales and marketing. Different age groups enjoy different activities, but all are focused on keeping the kiddos active.

As they get older, the kids have more choices and more autonomy in their activities. Once they reach 9 years old, they can join their parents in cardio classes "as long as they're in visual contact with the parent," Levine said. At 14 years of age, the kids have the option to become "youth certified," which allows them to check in at the service desk and use the facilities on their own. Greenwood also offers the kids incentives for staying active, such as prizes for working out three times. "Now the parent doesn't have to say, 'Please stop playing your video game and come to the gym with me,'" Levine said. Instead, the kids know that if they stay active, they'll get a fun gift in return.

The real perk for grownups at Greenwood comes from the cost: Kids' activities are complimentary with the parent's membership until the child reaches 18 years of age. If they're enrolled in college, that age cap increases to 24 years. "We really promote it at the point of sale, so parents know right away when they're joining that they have this opportunity," Levine said. There's also a notable convenience factor, because it's a drop-in system for the kids—no sign-up or scheduling needed.


As with other age groups, seniors can reap significant benefits from even moderate exercise. Sheldon Zinberg, MD, founder of the Garden Grove, Calif.-based fitness club Nifty after Fifty, said that seniors are one demographic group with "a proclivity toward developing specific areas of deconditioning," something that makes specialized attention a must.

"An individually customized physical fitness program is going to give them a greater bang for the buck," Zinberg explained. "One that identifies not only their overall level of fitness, but also identifies and remedially addresses their specific areas of deconditioning."

Seniors at Nifty after Fifty begin their first visit with a complete physical fitness evaluation. "That includes balance testing, risk-of-falling assessment, flexibility, strength testing of every major muscle group, percent of body fat, percent of lean muscle mass, all of those things," Zinberg said. From that profile, the team develops an individually customized fitness program for the client.

The equipment at Nifty after Fifty is also geared specifically to the senior crowd's needs and preferences. "For strength—to address weaknesses—we use pneumatic resistance equipment," Zinberg said. One reason they went that route was to keep the noise level down in the center (Zinberg explained that they much prefer a quiet environment). Another was their desire to minimize inertia, which can be a significant problem for older exercisers.

"When you go to get a weight stack in motion, there is some inertia and difficulty getting the weight stack in motion," Zinberg said. "Then when you return to the starting position, you have to deal with inertia again. At both of these points you are liable to increase intra-articular pressure, cause ligament and tendon damage, and discomfort." Using pneumatics ameliorates the effects of inertia, and Zinberg said he believes pneumatic resistance equipment is particularly suited for the senior population.

The City of Albuquerque has also zeroed in on the senior crowd with their 50+ Sports and Fitness Program that encompasses several senior-only fitness centers. The program is broken into four categories—strength training, sports, fitness and outdoor recreation—and each area has its own manager.

Participants begin with an orientation program designed to help them become comfortable with the environment as well as the equipment. They can even request multiple orientations if needed. "If they go through one orientation and they've forgotten how to use the chest press, they can always come back and ask," said program supervisor Karen Baker. "We always have staff here available to answer questions or show people how to do things again."

Cost can sometimes be a barrier for seniors, and it's something the City of Albuquerque's Department of Senior Affairs has taken steps to overcome. "We only charge $13 a year for our memberships," said health and wellness specialist Dominic Saavedra, "and that membership includes all of the senior centers as well as the fitness centers as long as you're 50 and over."

That's a welcome fact for low-income seniors as well as those whose income is fixed. If the annual membership is still out of reach, individual workouts can be had for just 50 cents, but even that has some wiggle room. "If you can't afford it, you don't have to pay that amount," Saavedra said. "It's on a donation basis."

And rather than sticking to a handful of traditional activities, Baker said the wide variety of senior-focused offerings supported by the city has given older folks a way to have fun while also getting some exercise. They have classes ranging from salsa dancing to aquatics, and they even run outdoor events such as snowshoeing and hiking.

The approach has reached an eager audience. After starting with one activity, Baker said the seniors "come in and they do something else, and then they do more, and they get in shape." Participants report feeling better while also widening their circle of friends. It's one reason Baker's team tries to offer as many different ways for seniors to get involved as possible. "They'll come in and improve their health, their social life, their emotional life—the whole gamut," she said.

New and Infrequent Exercisers

Newbies are hardly a recent phenomenon in the exercise world, but the attention they're receiving from fitness centers has increased in recent years. It's something the team at Rye YMCA is investing significant energy in through their Group Active classes. "We want to make sure people get back on track," Ivan said of the center's infrequent exerciser program.

It can be a tough hill to climb, because the challenges usually start before participants even come through the door. "One of the things we battle with our health seekers is that people are intimidated walking into the gym," she explained. Simple but profound distress often keeps people away. "They don't want to be embarrassed in front of other people that are already better at it," Ivan said.

The Group Active classes are what Ivan called "an open door," and are designed to get people started. "It's going to be at your own pace, and the instructors are specifically prepared to offer modifications for every exercise," she said. Class size is based on room capacity, which can sometimes reach 25 people. Sessions are typically held several times throughout the week, so "there are plenty of opportunities for people," Ivan said.

A wellness coordinator is also available to help members plot out a roadmap that identifies intelligent goals, but also provides a realistic picture of where the member is and what it will take to achieve success. "People need to understand this is not a magic bullet," Ivan said. "You don't join the Y and in two months you'll have the body you always wanted. We don't try to pretend otherwise." This real-world approach helps participants focus on developing healthy habits while preventing them from becoming discouraged in the early days of their program.

Making new exercisers comfortable is also a primary objective for the team in Albuquerque. Saavedra said they focus on providing orientations that "familiarize all different abilities and experience types to the fitness world." Not only does this approach encourage new participants to become acclimated to equipment they've likely never used before, it's also a good way to ensure they're exercising in a safe and effective manner. Orientations are even available on free weights, something centers occasionally overlook. "It's especially important for people who are beginners, or who have never been in an exercise environment before," Saavedra said.

The design and layout of the facilities was something Baker knew would set the tone for new participants. "I wanted one of the first gyms we built and designed ourselves to be a beginner gym," she said.

One feature newbies appreciate is really the lack of something very often associated with gyms—mirrors. "I don't have mirrors on the walls," Baker said. The equipment choice was also driven by the need to make new exercisers feel comfortable and successful. "We have a full range of cardio and strength training equipment, but we keep it basic," she said. Orientations are also basic, so those not used to the gym environment don't feel overwhelmed.

Personal and Group Training

Personal training is a popular offering in many gyms, and it's where members can often obtain the best results for their specific goals. Not only do participants get more personalized attention, they also have their own cheering section. "You develop a relationship with that trainer, and the accountability goes both ways," said Whitney Proud, marketing director at The Cornerstone Clubs in Furlong, Pa. Sessions can be tailored to fit not only the client's goals, but also their energy level on that particular day, as well as any sore spots or areas of concern.

Proud said that Cornerstone's personal training participants are typically more eager to show up and stay on track, because they know the trainer is waiting for them. "It really becomes this great personal history between the trainer and the client," she said.

In addition to one-on-one training, Cornerstone also offers small group classes. It's a trend that many centers are following, and Proud said it's been a big hit with their members. "Team training has become a huge resource for our members across all clubs and all demographics," she said.

Team training sessions support between two and four people, allowing participants to forge a bond that helps keep everyone going. "You get the intimacy and the friendliness of the group, while also having that great small-session training work," Proud said. "You feel like showing up, because you know they're waiting for you."

The group classes offered at Greenwood have a specific training methodology or focus, said Vic Spatola, the club's director of personal training. This approach allows members to use group sessions as standalone workouts or as part of a larger program. "For instance, we do not address stretching in PowerFit, but we recommend participants supplement with Pilates," Spatola explained. Progress is also tracked individually, rather than by the trainer, and the metrics clients use to measure their success will depend on their goals and the classes they're taking.

With all the different options available to clients, Spatola said that one crucial element to a gym's success with small group sessions is finding the right instructor. "The classes only succeed if you have the proper coach and motivator to lead them."

In addition to the support and encouragement participants get from small group sessions, the reduced impact on their wallets is often a draw, too. "Due to economic factors, people enjoy and are looking for alternatives to the more costly one-on-one sessions," Spatola said.

The group environment offers clients a fun and compelling way to balance those cost concerns with the benefits of a personal trainer, all while staying on track with their fitness goals. Spatola reported that their group classes have been going over well with members lately, and that participant feedback has been very positive. "They love the camaraderie and social aspect," he said.


Technology is filtering into more facets of the world every day, and people's desire to be fit and to live healthy lives is among the areas benefitting from the tech invasion. At least one major smartphone maker is looking at developing an interactive fitness center application (no confirmed word on timeframe yet), and standalone programs are already available to keep track of workouts and act as pocket-sized personal trainers. One platform even charges users real dollars for missed workouts while rewarding others who stay on track. Some fitness centers have rolled out their own apps that show members where to find the nearest gym, display current class schedules, and give users the ability to document goals and track their progress.

In-center technology is also expanding. At Cornerstone, clients' fitness levels are gauged with the help of a trainer and then entered into the ActiveTrax system. From that information, a workout is generated each day that's tailored not only to an individual's fitness goals, but also to their level of ability. "It takes the angst out of coming to the club and not knowing what you're doing," Proud said.

For clients who don't want to (or aren't able to) do personal training every day, the system can be a great tool. But Proud said that centers shouldn't expect members to use technology in a vacuum. "These apps and programs are great to have, but you only really build a repertoire of data with them," she said. "ActiveTrax has been a big benefit to people who use it a couple times a week, but I think the real benefit comes from the person-to-person interaction."

These new-fangled tools aren't just for millennials, and folks familiar with the senior market will tell you that the stereotype of the technophobic old guy is quickly crumbling. According to numbers released by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, 40 percent of people aged 75 and older use the Internet. Drop the age range to 57-to-65, and that percentage almost doubles. Among the most senior group, 49 percent use the Internet for health information purposes, which could range from renewing prescriptions online to researching healthcare providers to getting advice from online patient groups about managing chronic diseases.

At Nifty after Fifty, technology offers members direction on reaching their fitness goals while also tracking their progress. "Each member has a key that's programmed for them for each machine," Zinberg said. "They insert that, and it tells them how much resistance they're supposed to use, how many sets of reps they're supposed to do, and it records everything." Once the workout is completed, the information can be downloaded and made available to the member, their physician, or even their children if appropriate.

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