Focus on People

by Patricia Ryan, MS on Jul 01, 2006

Highlights of the 11th IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey.

When planned exercise became known as fitness, the developing industry concentrated on identifying activities that improved physical conditioning. Was interval training or steady state better? Which were more effective—strength machines or free weights? It was exciting for professionals to generate so many new or updated conditioning methods. But promoting a generic exercise mode does not take into account an individual’s needs or interests.

In this year’s IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey, the trend toward putting people first, then choosing the exercise mode, is implied throughout the study. People come to fitness with injuries, medical conditions such as diabetes, and differing levels of ability. They come with general health goals or sports goals. They are younger and older and all ages in between. Successful fitness programs look at the person first and then choose the activity that meets the individual’s needs—and there are many options to choose from.

The IDEA business and program director members who responded to the survey have something to teach us. They report that an average of 70% of their members/clients stay with the business for 1 year or longer. Both sweeping trends and small details are useful for planning the activities that inspire people to exercise.

Outreach to Inactive People Is Prevalent, but Results Are Ill-Defined

As in past years of the survey, 76% of respondents said they offer classes or programs to attract the inactive person or new exerciser. The YMCA/YWCA/JCC facilities are the leaders in reaching out, both with designated programs (100%) and with community outreach (92%). Both Ys (33%) and health clubs (32%) are planning to grow outreach to the community. More than half (56%) of respondents are willing to offer newcomers a free or discounted fitness assessment when they start.

This year we asked specifically about the programs geared to attract new exercisers or the inactive population. The most frequently offered programs are introductory fitness classes (11%) or beginners/basic Pilates (4%). The rest of the responses were a scattering among various types of classes, and 27% did not respond to the question.

To the question on which program is most successful in retaining newcomers, 29% did not respond. Personal training (10%) led the programs cited by those who did, followed by miscellaneous other types of classes.

“I think fitness professionals/program directors are all desperate to reach the 80% of the population who aren’t meeting the basic recommendations for daily/weekly physical activity, and [we] are trying programs we feel will entice the beginner or inactive person,” observed Teri Bladen, MS, assistant director of fitness and wellness programs at Arizona State University Campus Recreation in Tempe, Arizona. Bladen feels that many respondents could not define the most frequently offered or successful programs because they are unable to track retention for these activities.

She believes that “introductory classes themselves aren’t the solution, but a fully supported introductory program could be. To get a nonexerciser into a fitness facility, we need to go beyond a smattering of classes and have a full-blown effort to create a ‘safe place’ for the beginner, a program that supports the novice from initial outreach to graduating out of the introductory structure.”

Fitness Options Are Available for Kids and Teens (but the Kids and Parents Aren’t Coming)

With the headlines shouting about unfit and overweight youth, it’s no surprise that fitness businesses have programs available for this population. To explore kids’ fitness, IDEA added new questions to the survey this year. A majority (63%) of respondents—particularly family-friendly Ys—serve children and teens. It’s interesting to note that personal training for youth (60%) is available more often than after-school classes or camps (37%).

While fitness programs for kids may be on offer, the contradiction lies in the number of youth who participate. Only 9% of respondents estimate that they have members/clients who are 18 years old or younger. Grant Twible, regional personal training supervisor for Bally Total Fitness, points out, “It is difficult to fit kids into a typical health club setting with the issues of liability and supervision.”

The larger issue, believes Brian Grasso, executive director of the International Youth Conditioning Association, is that “health clubs don’t understand what to do with kids.” He feels that offering a few aerobics-type classes or putting kids on a string of strength machines for 6 weeks is not going to succeed.

Whether a particular child is interested in general conditioning or in sports conditioning, Grasso emphasizes the need for a long-term vision and plan for how the child will be trained to avoid injuries and improve fitness. “We can take kids for [a session lasting] 45–60 minutes that to them appears to be fun games, but we are hitting on key sensitive periods of development [in their age group] for balance or coordination. Once trainers understand how to do this, parents see results, and for the kids it’s brutally fun. Fun is the biggest component, without question.”

That element of fun may be why urban-street and hip-hop classes (offered by 31%) have maintained their prevalence for the past 3 years. The classes are contemporary and entertaining, so they appeal to teens and college-aged youth.

More youth fitness is on the horizon. Respondents who offer these programs feel that personal training for youth (60%) and kids’ fitness (37%) will continue to grow.

Personal Training Stays in the Lead, and Trainers Expand to Small Groups

Personal training remains the most frequently offered program. Trainers’ ability to first look at the person and then pick from a repertoire of activities may help explain this option’s enduring popularity. One trainer working with one client is still the most offered format (84%), and respondents are optimistic that one-on-one training will continue to grow.

However, sessions with 2 clients sharing are popular (68% offer), and 3- to 5-client sessions are offered by 44%, mostly in health clubs. These percents have held fairly steady for the past few years. While trailing group strength training (77% offer), multiclient personal training formats seem to be gaining ground.

At Bally’s, Twible says multiclient training (referred to as “small-group training”) is on the rise. “It is growing in popularity as people seek greater variety or value from their workouts, and as personal trainers or group exercise instructors increase their skills, offer more formats or seek greater compensation.”

Small-group classes of 8 people or fewer are offered by 45% of respondents, and the classes may or may not include group strength training, a format that has held steady over the years. Group strength training with background music is the most offered format (58%) and without music is the least offered (32%).

Which respondents were most confident that both multiclient sessions and group strength training will grow? Those working in personal training businesses.

Yoga and Pilates Retain Their Appeal and Identity

After a brisk increase in availability, Pilates (offered by 64%) and yoga (58%) appear to be leveling out. Yet, with an average of 10 classes per week and 14 participants per class, these mind-body offerings are important parts of the schedule.

These classes are popular, feels Kerry Silverstone, group exercise director at Walnut Creek Sports & Fitness Club in California, because people avoid injury “due to the nature of the slow, controlled, mindful approaches presented by the instructors. [Participants] are improving their strength and flexibility, developing core strength for function and balance, and relaxing/decompressing/destressing as well! Over time, because one sees and feels the benefits in their minds and bodies, why would they ever want to give up these practices?”

Pilates and yoga appear to remain independent activities. Only 32% report a fusion of yoga and Pilates, 29% a fusion of Pilates and traditional strength training and 23% a blend of yoga and traditional strength training—numbers that have not changed over the past 3 years. Silverstone tried to merge the activities in the past, without success. “The yoga and Pilates people both want their full hour or 90 minutes of yoga or Pilates. I do, however, provide yoga classes which have an emphasis on strength or flexibility, or PropPilates classes which use props in classes to make them appear a little ‘hybrid-esque,’ but they really stay fairly ‘pure,’ and the members prefer that.”

The “pure” forms are also offered by Lynn Frank, group fitness director and personal trainer at Andy Parker’s Health & Fitness Center in Poway, California, to provide the most benefit from the training. Frank’s option is shorter classes. She says it is “challenging to shorten the classes” and still “get the most out of a Pilates or a yoga workout. However, properly instructed, 20–30 minutes of either format [alone or] combined with other elements—such as Yoga + Cycle and Pilates + Strength—can be a great option for those who either need shorter classes or need to include more elements into their training in a shorter time.” A bonus is that shorter classes are less intimidating for inexperienced newcomers.

Small and Specialized Equipment Leads in Growth

While stationary pieces like treadmills, elliptical trainers and strength machines are offered by most respondents and remain popular with their customers, the growth has occurred among the small and specialized pieces of equipment. Since they started at a much lower point, the growth potential was great. (See “Multiple-Year Trend Comparison: Equipment” on page 15.)

Specialized balance equipment (+15), foam rollers and small balls (+10) have continued their popularity for the past 3 years, probably as more professionals learn how to use them and see the application to many types of clients. Weighted bars, offered by 64% of respondents, have almost doubled in usage over the past 9 years, nearly equaling the track record of stability balls (offered by 89%), which have more than doubled in usage since 1998.

These small pieces started at a lower entry point and so had more room to used regularly. But the small items have also gained because teachers have learned how to use them and because they can help achieve a particular fitness objective.

Frank points out that “properly performed, the work [with this type of equipment] is highly functional and produces tangible results. Class instructors and personal trainers are only too happy to ‘play,’ finding new and different ways to perform and create doable, targeted exercises for their clients. With exercise becoming a permanent, regular way of life for more people, professionals and consumers alike welcome variety and change. These ‘toys’ provide a great variety of options and gainfully serve an exercise population that is ever-increasing and diverse.”

Equipment Use Relies on Teacher Training and Effectiveness

Is the rise of the “new” or “newly rediscovered” equipment—like stability balls, balance equipment, weighted bars and indoor cycles—influenced by the extensive training offered by the equipment manufacturers? Yes, believes Bladen. “Teacher training has a huge impact on the success or failure of equipment use/class formats. If the personal fitness trainer/group exercise instructor understands and buys into the benefits of the equipment/class format, [he or she] can impart that knowledge and excitement to participants.”

Frank agrees that “awareness of these products and knowledge of how to use them have grown significantly through continuing education opportunities.”

Leading Group Classes Feature Core and Strength Conditioning

The IDEA survey provides a list of more than 30 types of classes. There are so many group classes that no one format appears to be dominant, although all are offered by a percentage of businesses. Traditional formats focusing on cardiovascular training—for example, step classes (offered by 50%) or cycling-based classes (39%)—have been overtaken by those emphasizing slower, more strength-based conditioning.

Group strength training (77%), Pilates (64%), core conditioning (62%), abdominals (61%) and yoga (58%) are offered most frequently. These numbers probably reflect the new demographics of fitness, bringing a rise in personal training and hence fewer cardio classes, which are outside a trainer’s primary domain.

The survey results for programs offered (see “Program Trends” on page 10) show the types of group activities available and the growth potential seen by those who offer them.

Lessons Learned

What are the lessons we can glean from the survey respondents? Having a plan to reach a group of people is one lesson. Whether your target audience is nonexercisers or kids or those with disabilities, a comprehensive look at your organization and a master schedule that clearly shows how people can see results are vital.

Another lesson is the importance of teacher training. The programs and equipment that are rising quickly to the top are surrounded by extensive and ongoing teacher training. Does a teacher’s repertoire of correct technique and enthusiasm for the activity attract participants? Yes.

An intriguing result is the de-emphasis of aerobic training. Is the industry offering consumers enough classes for cardiovascular conditioning, an important component of fitness? Or is it sufficient to provide treadmills, elliptical trainers and stair climbers and rely on people to train aerobically on their own?

When you look at the wide variety of activities and the dynamic ability of fitness to change and grow, there is fertile ground to customize activity to meet the needs of the people. That’s the most important lesson that survey participants teach us.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 18, Issue 4

Find the Perfect Job

More jobs, more applicants and more visits than any other fitness industry job board.

© 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Patricia Ryan, MS

Patricia Ryan, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Patricia Ryan is the Vice President of Education for the International Council on Active Aging, which is headquartered in Vancouver, BC.