Fit to Be Tried

New Trends in Fitness Programming

By Joe Bush

Does your facility have packed Zumba classes, a waiting list for Pilates sessions, a need for brand new stability balls because the old ones are worn from use, additional indoor cycling instructors to handle the extra demand?

Walt Thompson, Ph.D., can make a really educated guess that it has none of those, as 2015 begins. Thompson is the author of the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2015, the ninth such report commissioned by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Instead of those fads, he said, fitness facilities should invest in less equipment, more space for natural movement exercise, well-educated and certified personal trainers, and the top trend for 2015, which replaces high intensity interval training, body weight training. Professional and experienced personal trainers had been the top trend for eight years, and now sits at No. 3, while high intensity interval training dropped to No. 2.

ACSM sent nearly 30,000 health fitness professionals worldwide a list of 39 fitness-related items, asking them to rate their trendiness from 1 to 10, with room for comments. Twelve percent responded, and the results, in order, are:

1. Body weight training
2. High-intensity interval training
3. Educated, certified and experienced fitness professionals
4. Strength training
5. Personal training
6. Exercise and weight loss
7. Yoga
8. Fitness programs for older adults
9. Functional fitness
10. Group personal training
11. Worksite health promotion
12. Outdoor activities
13. Wellness coaching
14. Circuit training
15. Core training
16. Sport-specific training
17. Children and exercise for the treatment/prevention of obesity
18. Outcome measurements
19. Worker incentive programs
20. Boot camp

Thompson said the large group classes like Zumba and indoor cycling are popular still, but in pockets rather than in a mainstream way. He said one of the secrets of the endurance of trends, as opposed to fads, is creativity.

"Pilates, Zumba, indoor cycling, those groups just didn't re-invent themselves, because the opposite side of that argument is yoga," Thompson said. "Yoga typically is larger groups, but what the yoga folks do is they reinvent themselves. They're always developing new forms of yoga, new presentations of yoga. You go to a Zumba class, it never changes. When they introduced it, it became very popular. It was different but they didn't change it.

"Same thing with Pilates, they just didn't change it up enough to keep people's interest. Yoga is consistently in the top 10 because it keeps reinventing itself every year."

He said changes like smaller groups, back to basics or functional exercises needing less equipment have their roots in an economy that squeezed consumers. Fitness expense is a luxury expense, one of the first to get cut from a family budget. DVDs of intense workouts became popular, substituting for gym memberships, and gyms adapted, said Thompson, who is Regents' Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research at the College of Education at Georgia State University.

"During the downturn in the economy clubs had to start reinventing themselves," he said. "They came up with these low-cost exercises; the heavy ropes and kettlebells fall into that category. You'll notice that our No. 1 trend for 2015 is body weight training. You can't get more basic than body weight training.

Fitness facilities should invest in less equipment, more space for natural movement exercise, well-educated and certified personal trainers, and the top trend for 2015, body weight training.

"It's a different kind of conversation because what I had indicated a while back when we had this downturn is that we were going back to basics. We saw the popularity of boot camps, we saw the invention of small group personal training, where personal trainers were giving deep discounts to a personal training client if they brought a buddy.

"The fitness industry came through the recession very, very well. Those that are doing the best reinvented themselves and started emphasizing low-cost kinds of programs, boot camps and body weight training. Those that didn't do well are these smaller single form of exercise studios."

Pete McCall thinks that there will be a domino effect of the trends Thompson speaks of. McCall, a former national director of education for a health club chain, speaker, consultant and science officer at the Institute of Motion, said as health clubs adapt to the movement toward natural movement and body weight training, they will draw people from the boutique fitness businesses that capitalized on the small-group personal training trend.

Larger clubs will save money on large equipment, he said, shifting the savings to ropes and kettlebells and even artificial turf in larger spaces once occupied by equipment. In that space could be tires, even weighted sleds, in place of traditional fitness equipment.

"Health club operators are getting a little more savvy and a lot more are putting in CrossFit type workout spaces," said McCall, who also blogs at the website of the American Council of Exercise. "They need to make space for people to move. A lot of clubs have started to listen to the market; people don't want to sit down at machines for an hour, they want to come in and be challenged. If clubs are willing to make that investment and take a risk to move equipment out, get rid of 10 treadmills, and create a space for people to move, it's one way they can be with or be ahead of the trend.

"As health clubs create that extra space, why would (a consumer) want to pay one studio for this and one studio for that when you could have a membership for a multi-use facility and have it all under one roof?"

In addition, money previously spent on equipment should be invested in making sure training staff is well versed in the newly popular forms of exercise.

"A lot of facilities lease equipment on three- to five-year contracts," McCall said. "Move some of that money to kettlebells, jungle gym and medicine balls and see how your members like it. The trick is having the trainers who know how to use them properly. Instead of spending $80,000 on equipment, it might be $20,000 on equipment and another $2,500 to $5,000 for a couple of workshops to get the trainers up to speed."

Melissa Rodriguez, a senior research manager with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) said consumer data in the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report shows that roughly 48 percent of group exercise participants do yoga (10 million people) and 40 percent (8.5 million) indicate that they participate in high impact group exercise (8.5 million).

The same report shows that personal training, both private and small group, remains popular; 13.5 percent of health club members (7.1 million) use a personal trainer. Rodriguez said generational preferences should be paid close attention, as well as the growing use of technology in fitness.

"We've seen some trends that are a repackaging or an extension of longstanding activities and some impacted by surrounding factors, like technology," she said. "We still see functional training, fitness technology and group-based exercise/training as strong trends. Some of these are evident in extreme cross-training style activities, fitness trackers, mobile apps with workouts/programs, personal training and group-based activities, inside and outside of the club."

Rodriguez doesn't see certain exercises as waxing and waning as much as demographic shifts from activity to activity. She said the IHRSA Health Club Consumer Seasonal Trend Report fall edition shows that baby boomers tend to engage in aerobics and resistance machines while millennials do yoga and bodyweight training.

"It looks like what you grow up with has an impact on what you participate in for exercise throughout your life," Rodriguez said. "Club operators can benefit from this development by designing programs and messaging specific to generational groups, which savvy managers already do."

These same managers need to study how consumers are incorporating technology, both traditional and wearable, into their fitness regimen. Websites and mobile apps help with nutrition, workouts, data gathering and analysis; social media motivates and raises awareness and broadcasts accomplishments.

Club operators and trainers can embrace this independence, rather than fight it, meshing consumers' increasing familiarity with technology into their programming.

"Consumers can use fitness trackers, including and beyond heart rate monitors, stream workouts online or via mobile phone, and access an online membership portal to hold them accountable to their goals," Rodriguez said. "Some clubs have integrated fitness tracking capability into their programs or offered equipment that can sync up with heart rate and activity tracking devices.

"For clubs that develop online membership portals and smartphone apps, they can continue connecting with members outside of the club and encourage them to stay focused on exercise and healthy choices. Rather than interfering with personal training business, fitness professionals and program directors can integrate fitness trackers and mobile apps into their business/department to keep clients engaged and accountable."

In 2013 participation in alternative races, like obstacle and mud events, topped participation in half marathons and marathons combined. Much of the popularity is attributed to the organizers of these events leveraging social media. Rodriguez said club operators and trainers can also engage with this phenomenon.

"The rise of social media and outdoor activities like running, obstacle racing and similar events have contributed to the group-based and community approach to exercise," she said. "So there are online and offline running and athletic groups and clubs and social media outlets, as well as online forums, all used to keep group members engaged. In response, club operators and fitness directors are designing training programs to help members stay in shape for activities outside of the club as well as cultivating a presence on social media."

There's another trend in fitness that's technology-based, and that's on-demand fitness classes. Simply, facility users can choose from a library of classes on video through a kiosk, then exercise along with it. Additional features include data analysis and schedule management for operators. Garrett Marshall, development director for a Chanhassen, Minn.-based provider of this type of service to health clubs, university and park district rec centers, YMCAs and more, said everyone wins with a product like his company's.

The consumer can work out any time the club is open to fit his or her schedule, the club gets business at all hours, without using live instructors, and with a web portal dashboard, can analyze and control all aspects of the product's use.

"[It] provides you with the capability to make better cost/benefit decisions for your fitness department, which translates into potential savings or earnings," Marshall said. "Since it's digital it's capturing analytical information, what types of classes, who are attending those classes, and that applies to live programming as well as video classes that are prescheduled or classes that get played on demand at 9 p.m. with a skeleton crew or no staff in the facility at all.

"If you're looking at the income statement of the fitness operator it's one of the more expensive departments of the club to run and one of the most challenging departments to run because of supply and demand. You've got different demand at different times of the year. It's constantly changing. It's labor-intensive with managing instructors, it's cost-intensive because of the salaries that are associated with instructors, and if they're not driving a steady attendance to their class then that cost is working against you as an operator, so by capturing all that digital information it provides our operators with a tool they can use to really make the process of managing that department effective."

The importance of trainers in the new open-space, less-equipment, functional-training world cannot be overlooked.

Erin McGirr of a Rhode Island-based fitness equipment distributor focused on functional training, rehabilitation and sports performance is on the front lines of what clubs are ordering and programming; her company has started helping facilities design their spaces as well as selling equipment.

McGirr backs up what all the studies say: Open space is being filled with unusual and new items, like MoveStrong functional training stations for multiple users to perform functional and body weight training exercises. Personal trainers educated in this format can serve several clients at once, McGirr said.

"A couple years ago we saw one or two of those at IHRSA (trade show), and now it seems that every company has a version of a functional training station," McGirr said. "Besides saving space, you're able to get more people in and using that piece of equipment at one time, so now you're training more people in an hour as opposed to one-on-one training."

McGirr said the importance of trainers in the new open-space, less-equipment, functional-training world cannot be overlooked. They need to stay up-to-date on trends in general and understand their clients in particular.

"A lot of it's going to come down to programming," said McGirr, who has also been an exercise physiologist and a strength coach. "You can have one person looking for fat loss, one person that's a weekend warrior, one looking for general fitness, and everyone's going to be on different fitness levels.

"From a trainer's perspective, they need to be flexible enough to know what they can and can't do. Everyone should not be on a cookie-cutter based program in my opinion, and if you're getting a program based on what you need, no matter who's running it, if somebody's sick or somebody needs time off or somebody can't make it into work that day, your clients aren't going to suffer from having someone different run that because you're keeping everything routine based on what you're going to run that day."

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