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Would You Give Health Clubs a C+?

At the risk of playing into a company's desire for publicity and website hits, I decided to bite when a woman from emailed me to tell me that she had "a short video exposing the complete impact that gym memberships have on us, whether we use them or not."

So, I viewed the video and read the accompanying text. The group graded health clubs in three areas: health, environment and economy. I'll summarize the findings to save you the effort of reading the story and viewing the video.

This company gave health clubs a C+ for their impact on health since the number of health clubs "shot through the roof" in the 1990s, according to the company, but the obesity rate increased 30 percent during that time. I could not find out how many health clubs the industry had in the 1990s, but the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association's (IHRSA) website notes that in 2005, the industry had 26,830 health clubs. In 2012, that number was 29,960. I would consider that a pretty large increase in seven years. The obesity rate for adults increased from 19.4 percent in 1997 to 35.7 percent today, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

So, has the fitness industry done a poor job of making an impact on the health of Americans? A lot of factors have contributed to the growing obesity rate (technology, sedentary lifestyles, junk food). However, I would agree that even though the number of health club members has risen from 41.3 million in 2005 to 51.4 million in 2011, according to IHRSA, the industry still tends to cater to the already fit who want to be fitter. Not enough fitness facilities offer programming that speaks to the needs of the obese. Not enough clubs reach out beyond their four walls to meet people where they are. We expect them to come to us. We expect them to want to participate in our existing programming. We must start going to them, gently guiding and educating them, and offering them programming that will excite them about becoming healthier. Our impact on people's health probably deserves that C+. gave the industry a C on its impact on the environment, stating that gyms are energy "wasters" with their 24-hour access, 24-hour lighting and energy-sucking cardio equipment and TVs. The group also says that club members driving to the gym add to global warming. The company does note that more clubs are trying to go green by using lockers made from recycled plastic, installing LED lighting and purchasing equipment that generates energy.

I cannot imagine that fitness facilities are one of the main culprits for the increased strain on our environment. To me, the group's contention that use of an elliptical for 30 minutes "wastes" .75 kilowatt hours of energy (equivalent to keeping the lights on on a Christmas tree for six hours) is a little overblown in its impact, but if you consider that clubs might have 30 ellipticals plus as many or more treadmills plugged into the grid, the impact could be greater than we may have imagined.  

The group gave the industry a C+ for its impact on the economy, noting that 80 percent of club members are paying too much for their memberships since only 20 percent of gym members go to the gym at least once per week. Instead, they suggested that people would be smarter to go with a pay-as-you-go membership. pointed to the U.S. Labor Department's statistic that demand for personal trainers is expected to grow 24 percent annually, which is above average. However, it states that trainers have good-paying jobs for people who do not need a college degree, making an average of $31,000 annually. Earlier in its report, though, it notes that some trainers can make six figures. I'd say that few trainers make six figures, and I'd say that a $31,000 annual salary does not make for a sustainable career for most people.

The company's final grade on the fitness industry's impact was C+.

When I emailed the video's sender to find out more about this organization and who determined the grades, I received no response. (This blogger who questioned the group about its claims about bottled water also received no response.) The group has graded many industries and products in its Hidden Costs Series of videos. In fact, the group even graded toilet paper for its hidden costs. (Sadly, toilet paper tied health clubs with a final grade of C+.)

An online search revealed that offers news related to insurance, but I suspect that the news is really just the draw to the site, which also offers comparisons of insurance of all sorts. I must give credit for using social media in an interesting way that generates visitors to its website.

Regardless of the reasons for this group's video, what grade would you give the health club industry in the same three areas: health, environment and economy? What overall grade would you give the industry and why? Oh, and if you must view the video before you offer your grades, you can check it out here.

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