Fit With the Trends

Updating Fitness Offerings to Meet Everyone's Needs

By Dawn Klingensmith

The so-called "seven-minute workout," consisting of 12 high-intensity exercises deploying only body weight, a chair and a wall, received a lot of media coverage after a study on its effectiveness ran in the May-June issue of the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. News of the "scientifically proven" express exercise routine quickly went viral, making the social media rounds and taking the blogosphere by storm. It wasn't long before apps became available to time the series of exercises. As it turns out, the routine is meant to be repeated two or three times in a row to total at least 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training, according to the original ACSM article. Still, it's a quick workout, and the excitement it generated is just one more indication that when it comes to exercise, as with so many other things, Americans want what's quick and convenient. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) delivers. Perhaps that's why, in a separate report, the ACSM named HIIT the top fitness trend for the upcoming year.

The fitness industry has responded to consumer preferences and demands in a number of ways, including the proliferation of "express" gym franchises and an overabundance of HIIT classes lasting no more than 30 minutes. Planet Fitness franchise locations have specially equipped "30 Minute Fitness" and "12 Minute Abs" zones. Anytime Fitness offers 24/7 keyed access to members, who can park, get an effective workout and be out the door in just 32 minutes total, according to a video on its website.

Even as demand for quickie workouts grows, the fitness industry, as well as consumers, is looking at wellness more holistically, with exercise being just one component. As more people embrace wellness as a way of life, fitness centers have begun to address nutrition and mind-body connectedness. Fitness Quest 10 of San Diego offers onsite massage, chiropractic and physical therapy (the practitioners rent the space), as well as workshops on health-related topics such as hormones and ergonomics, said General Manager Julie Wilcox.

Though it may never be standard, complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) is seen much more today than in times past, with many newer fitness clubs embracing it from the start as part of their mission to help people stay healthy and active, according to Stephen J. Tharrett, founder of Club Industry Consulting in Highland Village, Texas.

Other trends besides quick workouts and holistic offerings include:

  • Small-group personal training and boot camps
  • Functional fitness, or training the body for everyday activities
  • Body weight training
  • Extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) that are similar and sometimes indistinguishable from HIIT, including copycats and knock-offs of CrossFit, P90X and Insanity
  • Opening up space in the gym for these newer programs, which require room for small groups, changeable equipment and movements that cover some ground, such as walking lunges
  • Boutique fitness centers dedicated to a niche audience or specific discipline such as Flywheel (indoor cycling), Barre Bee Fit (ballet barre training) and Iron Tribe (members believe physical fitness is critical to best serve God, family and community)
  • Budget fitness franchises with bare-bones amenities and low monthly fees ($10 or less)
  • Population-specific (senior, youth) zones and programming

HIIT Takes a Hit

The popularity of HIIT has skyrocketed in the past year only to be targeted by critics who say its risks and injury rates are too high. The ACSM annually conducts its "Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends," and topping the list for 2014 is HIIT, which came as a "big surprise" to the report's author, Walter R. Thompson, an exercise science professor at Georgia State University. As a result, the report comes with a "big warning" about the risks associated with HIIT, Thompson said. (The full report was released after press time.) Those risks include musculoskeletal injuries and cardiovascular events, particularly for newbies. Health practitioners are seeing muscle strains, torn ligaments, stress fractures, and mild to severe cases of exertional rhabdomyolysis, a potentially life-threatening syndrome that occurs when broken-down muscle fibers release their contents into the bloodstream, overworking the kidneys.

A 2011 consensus paper authored by the ACSM in conjunction with the Consortium for Health and Military Performance examines extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) and finds among military personnel and civilians an "apparent disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk from these demanding programs, particularly for novice participants." The authors' definition of ECP is synonymous with HIIT.

Citing CrossFit, Insanity and Gym Jones as examples, the authors describe ECPs as "high-volume aggressive training workouts that use a variety of high-intensity exercises and often timed maximal number of repetitions with short rest periods between sets."

With gyms and trainers putting their own spin on it, there are now countless variations of the concept. Common components are body weight exercises (No. 2 on the ACSM's list of fitness trends for 2014), core training and plyometrics. These programs promise quicker results by taxing the metabolic and cardiovascular systems.

While fast results explain the widespread popularity of ECPs among the average Joe, there's more to it for your hardcore G.I. Joe type of guy, the authors concede: "The demanding exercise pace, overall difficulty and perceived potential for 'getting ripped' are appealing, exciting, motivating and appear to target a niche of otherwise unmet training needs and desires."

Adding to extreme conditioning's appeal, there is typically an emphasis on functional fitness, which is generally understood to mean everyday movements. Of course, that means something different in the military than it does at the senior living center. The consensus paper describes functional fitness as "the ability to repeatedly perform, under highly fatiguing conditions, a variety of multi-joint and total body movements in multiple anatomical planes." For soldiers, the idea is to "elevate combat readiness."

Function and Dysfunction

Traditionally, though, functional fitness training uses natural movements (as opposed to gym-based movements like a bicep curl) for strength training in order to support movement for everyday activities. There's an emphasis on biomechanical correctness, which cannot be upheld when performing certain exercises to exhaustion.

"It's not really functional fitness when you're throwing tires around," Thompson said. "Originally, it was developed for the elderly and is supposed to mimic everyday activities," such as reaching overhead or carrying sacks of groceries.

"Not all the stuff those folks are doing is functional, and some of it is dangerous, exposing muscles, joints and soft tissues to harm," agreed Tharrett, adding that repetitiveness is also a concern. "It's like carpal tunnel syndrome. If you do 10 sets of 10 reps of anything, it can injure you."

Some so-called functional fitness programs do the opposite of what they should, worsening rather than addressing existing problems. If someone has a musculoskeletal imbalance, doing stairs with a kettlebell in each hand could exacerbate the problem, Tharrett said.

When administered correctly, functional fitness reflects actual activities done as a function of daily living and can improve balance, coordination, force, power and endurance to support those activities. "It doesn't have to be an aggressive movement to be an effective movement," Wilcox said.

At Fitness Quest 10, participants use bands, kettlebells, balls and their own body weight in functional fitness training, which starts with a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) test. "We assess the mobility of body and design a program around that to correct weaknesses or imbalances," Wilcox said.

Functional fitness is not just for frail elders. It can also be used to help very active individuals and athletes. Serious cyclists develop back pain by leaning over and pedaling, which engages the legs without activating other muscles. Their FMS tests could indicate a need for an exercise prescription to develop core strength.

Keeping Up vs. Building Up

In the consensus paper on ECPs, the authors warn against "repeatedly performing maximal timed exercise repetitions without adequate rest intervals between sets," which violates recognized safety standards for developing muscular fitness and leads to "unsafe movement execution … especially with multi-joint exercises that demand precise technique" (power cleans) or other advanced exercises requiring considerable skill, balance and strength (suspended rings and hand-stand pushups).

Also violating safety standards is the lack in many cases of "a clear approach for initiating an ECP and safely building up to higher levels progressively," the authors write. In other words, individual pacing and progression is not necessarily encouraged, so those who are new to an ECP may do too much too soon. Even experienced participants may end up performing advanced exercises with excessive fatigue and undue injury risk. The risk of injury is compounded by the fact that exercise sessions can be very competitive. Even when the participants aren't outwardly competitive but have a team mindset, there's an understandable reluctance to do less than the others. Pushing too hard can lead to poor body control and, ultimately, to injury.

That doesn't mean there's no legitimate place for HIIT, or that all components of it are bad. But even the "seven-minute workout" sanctioned by the ACSM (in circuits of three) is not recommended for everyone; in fact, the journal article states that "proper execution of this program requires a willing and able participant who can handle a great degree of discomfort."

Body weight training—commonly used in interval training—ranks No. 2 on the ACSM's list of fitness trends for 2014, right after HIIT. This was the second big surprise with this year's survey, Thompson said, because the craze came out of nowhere. Although the recession sparked a back-to-basics trend in fitness, "Before 2013, when it first made the list, no one was offering body weight training," Thompson said. Many boot camps and classes centered on calisthenics, core training and other exercises that don't require equipment, but body weight training didn't really stand alone as its own class of exercise. This is not to say that body weight training has not been used previously; on the contrary, it dates back centuries as a form of resistance training for obvious reasons. It's the packaging of body weight training as an exercise program that is new, Thompson clarified.

Body weight training involves some of the exercises many of us grew familiar with in gym class (rope climbing, squat thrusts, pushups) and through presidential fitness challenges (the dreaded chin-up bar). As with HIIT as a whole, there's a "correct," or safe, way to perform body weight exercises that needs to be taught.

Goal Setting

Fitness centers and consumers alike have begun to embrace customization. "People have a specific goal or interest in mind when they join a club, and their experience is tailored accordingly," Tharrett said. The goal (weight loss, toning) or interest (a specific sport) becomes the focus of their training.

Some group programs center on a shared goal. Thompson knows of a program that plans a "wild trip" each year for which participants need to develop strength and stamina. Fitness Quest 10 offers a six-week bikini program leading up to summer, so women can comb the beach with confidence. Anytime Fitness Goshen recently graduated its first Biggest Winner Challenge class, achieving a total weight loss of 640 pounds for the group.

Anytime Fitness is the fastest-growing fitness franchise, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Franchises and chains with similar value propositions—convenience, no frills, low monthly dues—are undoubtedly trending, but market saturation and high turnover could diminish their staying power. Compact budget gyms (Tharrett calls them "boxes") probably won't last, he said, citing a number of challenges, including insufficient staffing.

While it's true there are times when Anytime Fitness Goshen is unstaffed or minimally staffed, "Building relationships and engaging with our members is key. The better we get to know our members, the more we are able to help," said franchise owner Joel Koeneman. "We're always striving to go above and beyond to build community in a variety of ways both inside our four walls and out in the local community. We have lots of strategies, including free group fitness classes, special events, sponsoring teams and nonprofits, giving back to our local community, and member-only appreciation events, all of which help foster the community aspect."

Besides its Biggest Winner Challenge, Anytime Fitness Goshen has an active Facebook page, with more than 1,200 likers, to encourage social interaction and support outside the gym. Koeneman uses this forum to share member success stories, issue quickie exercise challenges (kind of like a nicer version of "Drop and give me 20!") and congratulate individual members on their accomplishments, such as completing a 10K run for the first time.

Companywide, Anytime Fitness extends its reach with, focusing on meal planning, tracking workouts and sharing members' successes with others. And if Anytime Fitness were to end up not making it, there will be at least a thousand people who will have permanent visual reminders—this is the number of folks to date who have accepted Anytime Fitness' offer to foot the bill for getting a tattoo of its purple running man logo. According to a Fortune magazine article chronicling Anytime Fitness' success, the tattoos help foster a sense of community and allegiance.

Because they are open 24/7 and cannot offer group classes around the clock, Anytime Fitness locations have kiosks with fitness videos, which members can select and use in a mini studio. "Virtual group exercising" or "fitness on demand" is available at a number of other clubs, as well.

Programming for the Ages

When it comes to programming, Tharrett deems barre classes not only popular but "important"—there are boutique studios that offer nothing but, and most major chains offer classes. Another fitness trend involves combining what might seem like opposing exercises, like yoga and aerobics. For example, Cy-Yo combines yoga and speed cycling.

Zumba, along with its various knockoffs and copycats, is still holding on, Tharrett said. However, it hasn't held onto a Top 20 slot on the ACSM's annual list of fitness trends. Although it ranked No. 9 in 2012, Thompson never saw Zumba as a trend: "I predicted it was a fad and, sure enough, it fell off the list in 2013. I've been watching fads for a long time. Whatever you see on late-night infomercials between Halloween and the first of February won't last long."

Due in part to the extra equipment and certification it requires, "Pilates slipped and slipped and slipped and fell off the list in 2011," Thompson said.

Stability balls are rolling into obsolescence as well, he added: "They fell off the list about the same time. Now, if you see them in the gym, they're off in the corner."

One trend that's still going strong is fitness programming for older adults. Programming aimed at children and teens also remains popular. Baby boomers have discretionary income and a willingness to invest in their health, Thompson said, so fitness clubs should capitalize on this growing market by providing age-appropriate exercise programs in an age-appropriate atmosphere. "Some of the really smart for-profit commercial health clubs across the country are using the dead zone to offer programming for the elderly and afternoon programs for kids," Thompson said, adding that the "dead zone" consists of those bleak mid-morning and mid-afternoon periods when "nobody shows up."

At some clubs, the entire atmosphere changes between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. to create an inviting atmosphere for older patrons—so much so that "it's almost unrecognizable," Thompson said.

Parks and recreation facilities have done a better job catering to kids, but commercial fitness centers are finally following their lead, offering dedicated kid zones and kid-friendly programming. In fact, in districts that no longer teach physical education, commercial clubs are sending personal trainers to schools to offer optional fitness programs. The school supplies the facilities (a gymnasium, playground or sports field), and parents pay the fee.

Facility Design Trends

Notwithstanding the no-frills "boxes" that house most budget gyms, many newer fitness centers are designed with lots of windows to allow natural light into the space—unless the fishbowl effect is a concern to their target audience. This design element enhances the use of large open spaces in modern fitness facilities. "We see a lot of open space these days because it's more welcoming. If you cram the space with equipment, it looks intimidating and overwhelming," Wilcox said, adding that vibrant colors "are huge" as a design element, and that invigorating colors are taking the place of soothing spa-like hues.

"Smells, colors, visuals—these are all important," she added. "If you walk into a dark dingy gym and it's hard to see, there's lots of metal and it smells, you won't spend a lot of time there. You have to cater to the senses."

Open space is desirable not just for aesthetics and atmosphere but also for programming flexibility. Patrons need free space for certain parts of their workout, such as planks. Trainers need roomy sections for small-group and functional fitness instruction. Open, unallocated space allows clubs and their patrons to change things up.

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