Survival of the Fittest
Meeting Demand in Fitness Programming
By Rick Dandes
Consumer demands on a high-intensity ever-changing trillion-dollar fitness industry almost ensure that what's "hot" in fitness programming last year won't necessarily be trending this year. Even the big-box chains have had to adjust to the demands of a generation for whom change is expected.
When it comes to fitness and wellness today, it's more than just a routine; it's become a change in lifestyle for men and women across all demographics. The numbers don't lie: According to research by the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness industry is a $3.72 trillion business. It grew 10.6 percent from 2013 to 2015, and could grow 17 percent in the next five years.
Training rooms crammed with treadmills and exercise bikes have been on the way out for some time, said Samantha Coles, communications director of a Peterborough, U.K.-based company that began as a fitness equipment supplier but now also offers instructor training, group programming and gym design. "People are choosing training facilities based on the variety of equipment and exercise possibilities," she explained. "They are being replaced by much more exciting spaces with a blend of equipment, frames, free weights and functional training tools—which is why we have seen the significant rise in the number of boutiques."
What is popular today, said experts from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is a mix of some old standbys, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and functional training, group walking and small-group "express" 30-minute programs geared toward people whose busy lives make it hard to accommodate longer sessions.
"Walking for fitness is something we see more people doing," said Chris Gagliardi, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer with a degree in kinesiology. "Walking is still big because it doesn't require equipment and doesn't require a facility. This holds true across all demographics. What we see when looking at reports from URSA (University Research
Services Administration) and SFIA (Sports and Fitness Industry Association) continues to show that interest in walking and fitness programming continues to grow. There is a group aspect to it, where a fitness professional is leading the walk. Walking in a group also serves as a way for people to connect."
Small group training is also still very popular. "Personal training, one-on-one, remains a mainstay, but there is some cost-effectiveness and camaraderie you get from working in a group that people seem to be gravitating toward," Gagliardi explained. "We're definitely seeing more small-group training taking place. Martial-arts-inspired workouts, whether it be combat sports like conditioning classes or boxing, has moved to high-end studios. The use of kettlebells as part of fitness programming is also popular."
Gagliardi said that "Cross training, where you incorporate several modalities into the program, such as a resistance training class, is one of the top trends. You might have different stations in a space, with multiple uses of equipment where you might have things to climb on and pull on and push on within a single setting. We're seeing this in particular within small-group training. Group cycling is another type of programming that is popular now and we see growing."
Coles agrees with Gagliardi. HIIT training and group training have increased massively in popularity over the past year, she added, and the need for sophisticated, challenging, motivating and consistent programming has grown to create that ultimate "experience."
"It's a bit hard to define," said Tony Maloney, ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist. Maloney is a trainer and one of the Fitness Center managers at the National Institute for Fitness and Sport in Indianapolis. "Being in a group helps up the intensity of a session. But it's no longer just about going to the gym. For some people it is all they need: going to a gym and knocking out some reps, hitting the cardio. But people these days want to come to a facility, have an experience and enjoy fitness. It's more like a party in a sense. And that is what keeps people coming back, when the experience is fun and memorable.
"Here's where the social aspect of all this kicks in," he added. "The class becomes a social experience where you might have music and lights when you're working out, and the instructor and coaches are lively and high energy. It's almost like putting on a show."
Cycling has even made this move, Maloney said. "If you look at your smaller boutiques, it is not just riding in a group anymore. Instructors will turn the lights off and participants might feel like they're in a disco. I've seen some studios that have a huge screen behind the instructor, and it's like they are all riding down a road."
Along with an increased focus on group training, Coles said, "will come an increasing trend toward tailored boutique-type concepts within mainstream gyms, such as a club within a club, to combat the rising competition of boutique clubs. These are delivered either as an additional added-value feature to the current membership or an additional revenue stream to the operator. We are also seeing changes in design to accommodate the variety of 'club experiences' offered."
For example, Coles' organization recently worked with a facility in the U.K. (Fitness Space Guildford) to support them in fusing two very different forms of group exercise in one space in their flagship facility—a boxing class area with a yoga space—to maximize return on investment and enhance the member experience.
"The space marries two polar opposite training styles in one upscale luxury studio," Coles explained. The space creatively provides the ideal ambience to alternate both classes in the same footprint. The solution—a black color scheme with strategically placed lighting—creates a dual-purpose atmosphere. Emphasizing the boxing bags with lighting makes the space right for boxing, while subduing the lighting allows the bags to blend into the background to enhance the mood for yoga.
Gagliardi believes that there has been a transition from focusing so much on the outcome of a class—for example, doing a class for 12 weeks to lose weight—to an emphasis on the experience a member is having in the class. "We see these types of classes where you get a sense of flow, where you are in the moment, working out, and you are not thinking of the clock and how much more time you have," he said. "It's not just about crushing it and making it the hardest workout ever. It's about getting people into the zone, feeling really good about what they are doing. And you see that across different types of workouts."
Kettlebell workouts, martial arts and combat-like training and conditioning are also growing in popularity, Gagliardi said. "I think boxing is becoming part of hard training. It is part of an experience, you are hitting a bag, speed bags, doing jump ropes. It's an experience you wouldn't get in just a normal circuit class. There are several good training aspects to hitting a bag, stress relief being one of them. And training like in mixed martial arts will continue. You might see a boxing class where between rounds you'll be doing other types of very intense training."
Maloney agrees that high-intensity interval training, one of the hottest trends of the past several years, will continue to grow in interest and remain a staple in fitness programming for the time being.
In addition, Olympic lifting workouts will continue to grow in popularity, Maloney added. "And we'll see an increase of interest in strength training for women. We [the ACSM] host a power lifting event here, and half of our athletes now are women. Women know that it is OK to lift weights and that stereotype is gone where if you lift weights you are somehow not feminine. That has changed a lot. Weight rooms have been a guy thing, and now we see a lot of women there."
Maloney, Coles and Gagliardi all see the experiential aspect of workouts as growing. "In the past, getting physically fit has been seen by many people as more like a chore," Maloney said. "But when participants can find a way to make it more enjoyable, where the workout doesn't feel like it is something they have to do, they'll want to do it more."
Ensuring dynamic and personalized programs that are delivered consistently is key to engaging an audience and keeping them coming back, Coles said. "Group training," she added, "doesn't need to be in a studio, and when held in the focal point of the functional training area, these sessions are the heart and soul of the gym floor and have the ability to create a palpable, engaging atmosphere. Incorporating a frame as a striking focal point to your training space can be a great enhancement to group training."
Also consider programming solutions that have an online educational element, Coles said. "The online component minimizes the amount of time that staff need to be out of the business and explained the 'why' behind the products and programming solutions. The face-to-face training is the 'how': how to set the sessions up, hold the room, manage and motivate the 'experience' that is being delivered to ensure that the members return to the sessions time and time again. Our experience shows that not only do members becoming more engaged, but staff retention increases as physical trainers develop their skills in learning how to deliver innovative new programs that enhance their classes."
Often, in interviewing fitness programmers, the idea of "flow" comes up. Gagliardi explained, "Flow describes a class that combines just the right amount of skill and challenge. It's the point where the participant is in the zone, not concerned with all the other things going on in his or her life. Because when you are in the zone, you have to be present in the moment. It's when time seems to fly by."
Instructors and personal trainers are either getting more creative these days or will have to get more creative, Gagliardi explained, "because programming is becoming more about the experience, with people wanting to come back to have the experience itself. From the beginning the instructor is building a connection with the participants or the individual clients and then they look forward to coming back. It's not necessarily about making it the hardest workout ever and how sore I as a trainer can get the participants. You need to create the experience so that the participant goes home and talks about it, and feels like they had a good time working out. The focus is on the experience as well as the outcome."
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