Identifying and Overcoming internal barriers that keep facilities from true community collaboration.
Are you interested in leveraging your club’s resources to impact your community in some meaningful ways, yet unsure if you are ready to take that step? Do you want to move beyond fundraising events and 5K races but not really know what else to do? Have you ever thought, “Hey, someone really should . . .” and then realized that someone could be you? Do you feel there is an opportunity to make a difference in the health of your community but think you could use more guidance in what to do and how to do it? If so, you’re not alone.
Many professionals in the fitness industry inwardly desire to do more than just train clients. We want to use our skills and talents to reach out to people beyond our club members, and put programs in place that will serve the greater good. In fact, these are reasons many of us entered this industry in the first place and the reason why many of us stay. We want to make a difference and we love what we do! But we also recognize that there are numerous barriers to breaking free from the traditional commercial fitness facility mold, which is often insular, competitive and distanced from the needs of the community.
In the fitness industry, we are quick to point fingers at those we blame for our current healthcare crisis. The fast-food industry—with its deep-fried, empty-calorie meals—is an easy target of our derision. The tobacco industry makes flavored cigarettes to appeal to a broader audience. Everyone knows that beer commercials are the funniest on television. The government spends billions on disease treatment and a fraction of that on prevention, while simultaneously taking physical education out of schools. Yes, there are certainly a lot of people to blame.
But is our own industry beyond reproach? Are we, individually and corporately, doing enough to stem the current tide of inactivity? Are local clubs communicating enough with other community organizations; taking part in initiatives to promote physical activity; providing resources and expertise; and collaborating with a wide array of partners? If not, there are likely many reasons. In some ways it seems that the fitness industry views the physical activity movement as a potential threat. After all, if the government starts providing free places to work out, then club memberships will decline. If the local senior center offers fitness classes, then club programs will suffer. If a great trail system is in place, then why would people pay to walk on a treadmill?
I believe that these fears are unfounded, and that increasing physical activity overall in a community (even if by means outside your own facility) will actually help the industry. What would happen to our facility memberships if the number of exercisers in this country doubled over the next 10 years? Obviously our clubs would be overflowing with members. Programs would be packed. Fitness services such as personal training would be heavily used. We can progress swiftly by focusing on the upside of the physical activity movement rather than the potential negatives.
What changes could be made within our facilities to help us get outside of ourselves, form collaborative relationships with other organizations, and support local efforts to get people moving more? Let’s take a look at some fundamental workings at our facilities that may be weighing us down.
We Focus on Business Rather Than Purpose. We absolutely must protect our business interests. Fitness facilities are certainly a financial risk, and the bottom line needs to be nurtured. However, should making money be our sole purpose? Unfortunately, there are those who have entered this business purely for the financial gain. I believe this detracts from our sense of purpose. Aren’t we also here to give back? Can’t we also use our resources to extend beyond the boundaries of walls and membership status?
We Mistake Activity for Productivity. Just because we may be involved in a lot of “good” events or activities doesn’t mean that what we are doing is having a real impact on the health of our communities. Letting the Girl Scouts sell cookies on your property is nice (and delicious), but we can do more. Health fairs, fundraisers, presentations and similar activities are all commendable, but the truth is that they have very little sustained impact on physical activity behavior. Single, standalone events just don’t cut it. It is time to move toward an ongoing, sustained process of change rather than a one-time activity. What can we do to be more productive in our efforts to get people into active lifestyles?
We Don’t Fully Understand the Science and Art of Promoting Physical Activity. I contend that, through no fault of our own, most owners and managers do not understand a community-based perspective on exercise. We haven’t been taught. Health promotion specialists encourage people to “just get moving” and tell them that being more active during your day can lead to many benefits. Does this discredit or devalue exercise? Not at all. In fact, people who are physically active during the day are more likely to adopt a regular exercise program. We need to support efforts and messages that encourage activity in general rather than arguing about which exercises, methods, programs and equipment we feel are the “best.”
We Don’t Know How to Work With Diverse Groups. These outreach and partnership ideas may be pretty new to some of us. Working with organizations requires time, skill, effort and patience (for starters). But just because it takes effort doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile. It is essential that we move beyond ourselves and begin having conversations with our peers about the health and well-being of our communities. Communication can lead to partnership, which can lead to action.
There are certainly other barriers not mentioned here—and you will probably find that some or all of the ones listed might not apply to your facility. The take-home message is to look at your facility as honestly and objectively as you can when it comes to outreach.
Regardless of how well (or not) your facility is doing when it comes to community collaboration, what are some ideas to help us all improve? The following list is a result of my experiences over the past few years, working on a number of initiatives with other community groups.
Make It Your Mission and Tell Others About It. Is it part of your facility’s mission to reach out and serve the community? Is that mission clearly communicated to the staff, the members and the community as a whole? Does that mission extend beyond events and activities that are self-serving (i.e., provide free advertising, allow contacts with potential members, show off your expertise)? Are you willing to invest some time and energy in an ongoing process?
Research What Is Happening in Your Community. Are there ongoing initiatives or groups that are addressing lifestyle behavior promotion? Are there partnerships already in place? What are the needs of the community (more sidewalks, trails, parks facilities; lack of access to facilities by low-income families; high prevalence of certain diseases; etc.) and who is working to fill those needs?
Set Expectations. Expect your staff to become involved in community initiatives (such as fitness councils, bike and pedestrian committees, health- related task forces, forums) and reward that behavior. Encourage them to share their experiences and what they’ve learned with other staff. Be a leader by participating yourself.
Brainstorm With Other Leaders. Invite community professionals to come to staff meetings and talk about their center, mission, programs and efforts to get people more active—including how your staff could provide assistance to their efforts.
Share the Challenges. Partner with another group to solve one specific problem or address an issue in your community. The synergy that can flow out of even a small success can lead to bigger and better things down the road.
As you attempt to reach out to other groups, realize that you may be viewed with suspicious eyes. Although some professionals (health, allied health, health promotion) think positively about the fitness industry, many do not. The image of muscle-bound jocks, thongs and loud music has been perpetuated too long and, unfortunately, some clubs continue to uphold that image. So there are barriers that may exist within the community itself that you will need to address as you move forward with your efforts. In the next issue we will identify and address some of those barriers.