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The Changing Face of Fitness

The halcyon days of muscle beach are over. Where once only suntanned bodybuilders dared to tread, or some diehard spandexed aerobics disciples, is now the haven of retired grandmothers, middle-aged businessmen and working moms. Not that the bodybuilders and aerobics devotees are gone, but today's health club welcomes in a more diverse crowd than 20 or even 10 years ago. And, as the demographics and workout fashions have evolved (remember leg warmers anyone?), so, too, has the facility design. More specifically, club design (which includes everything from the actual architectural choices to interior design to program offerings and equipment) has evolved in order to keep up with the changing (and more discriminating) face of fitness.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, the gym was a box with equipment in it. Now it's an environment,” says Rudy Fabiano, founder of Fabiano Designs International in Montclair, NJ, an architect and design firm specializing in health clubs.

“The perception was different then [in the 70s],” agrees Stephen P. Roma, president of the New Jersey-based WOW! Work Out World. “Back then it was about bodybuilding. Now, it's about wellness.”

And that environment is increasingly becoming a complex ecosystem in which the message of fitness is “softened” to include health and wellness, as well as social aspects. “We are not as reliant on the [age] 29 and below crowd as we once were,” Roma continues.


Statistics support Roma on this as well. The senior market (age 55 or older), now accounts for approximately 7.4 million club members (or 22.5% of the total market), according to the Health Club Trend Report (HCTR). This report — which provided statistics collected from the 14th annual Superstudy of Sports Participation conducted by American Sports Data Inc. (ASD) and sponsored by IHRSA — ranked seniors as the third-largest population in clubs today (behind ages 18-35 and 35-54, respectively).

If you don't know what your club's demographics are, you need to. Many software programs can help break down your membership in terms of ages, incomes, gender and more. Then, you should compare who currently belongs to your club with who actually lives or works in your club's neighborhood (look into contacting a demographic research company for help with this). Is there a discrepancy between the two lists (i.e. 65% of your neighborhood is age 45-plus, yet your membership base is only 10% age 45-plus)? If so, your club's image may need a makeover.

“The biggest change is that we're finally attracting more of the deconditioned,” says Ed Tock, a partner with the New York-based consulting firm Sales Makers. Many of these deconditioned or older clients aren't looking to join a club and come out looking like a supermodel, which is not realistic. They join the club to start a new lifestyle.

“The smart clubs out there know this and are selling what the customers want,” Tock says. “We really need to continue to listen to the customer and they'll tell us what they want.”

The club itself could reflect this shift in perception with softer aesthetics, more open spaces, areas for members to congregate and socialize — creating more of a community club atmosphere — and softer color palette choices. Equipment and program design takes into consideration older joints and high-impact items are limited or even eliminated altogether. The basic shift is away from an intimidating, hard body-only gym, to a more inclusive, welcoming, home-away-from-home.


In designing (and updating) a health club, owners need to concentrate on the social aspects and services. Older clients, especially, are interested in becoming involved with the other members, and since they typically have more discretionary income, and are the most loyal, according to Tock, it makes sense to keep them happy. Consider the following statistic: the HCTR says members over the age of 55 averaged 97 club visits annually, compared to 92 for Baby Boomers and 88 for Gen. X. Senior membership has jumped a whopping 379 percent since 1987, the highest increase for any age group, so If you don't currently have many seniors in your club, you may want to look into uncovering why.

When designing a club for older members, there are some technical considerations to keep in mind. Walkways must have railings, stairs should be shallower, the lighting brighter, a higher ambient temperature, more space in the walkways and locker rooms, and there should be an alarm button connected to the front desk in all shower areas, advises Fabiano.

Women, too, are becoming an attractive niche market for many health clubs. According to Fabiano, his firm has had a significant increase in women's-only facility design jobs. Just a few years ago, Fabiano says, the firm would work on one women's-only club a year. Now they work on 10 to 15 a year.

In a women's-only environment, Fabiano adds, clubs can typically get by on less space than a co-ed gym. For example, a typical co-ed facility, he says, is about 20,000 square feet, while a women's-only is generally half this size. Other design considerations for a women's-only club include leaving room for a communal area, more relaxed aesthetics (not as high-tech), larger and more welcoming entrance area. Also a larger day care component and locker rooms with more private areas and amenities in general.


In addition to the increase of seniors, the deconditioned, and women in the general health club population, and perhaps even because of it, more clubs are eliminating the old-school “bare bones” and “no pain, no gain” approach to physical fitness. Instead, they are concentrating on luxury, privacy, convenience, and increased awareness of the importance of the mind-body-spirit (MBS) mentality (i.e. stretching areas are no longer relegated to an unused corner of the room. “Abs and stretching used to be in a corner. Now they are devoting specific space to it,” Fabiano says. “They are starting to legitimize certain things.”

Roma discusses some of the alterations and additions he's including or considering in both new and existing clubs: private changing rooms in the women's locker, a “calming room” with massage chairs (but no attendant) and soft music and lighting, Internet kiosks, and in its newest club, a “sofa, coffee table environment as an experiment.”

“I could see our next club having a living room area for members,” Roma adds.

Likewise, this more welcoming, less intimidating atmosphere has pervaded the design of WOW's sales offices as well. “Our sales offices have also evolved” and include a round table and clear glass that looks out onto the exercise floor, he explains. The prospective client no longer has to feel isolated from the rest of the club by going into an intimidating, closed-door office in the back of the club.

“When people walk into a club, they don't want to walk into a gym. They want to walk into a comfortable atmosphere,” Tock says. Older clients especially “don't want to walk into a night club. They want to walk into an upscale hotel.”

As an example of the many unique design concepts that can be incorporated into a club environment, take a look at North Cypress Fitness Studio (NCFS) in Baton Rouge, LA. A former bank, the building that was to become a 10,000-square-foot health club was, in the words of President and CEO, Olaf K. Ross, a “rat infested mess.” In May, the club won two state awards for Best Facade Improvement and Best Adaptive Reuse of a Building.

“My feelings, when it came to design, is [a club] that will be warm, friendly and very non-intimidating,” Ross explains. “Colors, and materials are extremely important in the design concept of NCFS, which is something a lot of clubs do not have. I have incorporated 1,100 square feet of Italian marble, granite counter tops, hard wood floors, cultured marble showers and vanities, hardwood lockers, light color carpet and many unique accents of the historic building.

“The design concept is a blend of the old traditional design (a safe door from the bank that last inhabited the building, etc.) and a contemporary flair with use of cypress, maple, and oak,” he continues. “The building has a wrought iron fence to separate the areas. The cafe extends into the weight floor and is the centerpiece to incite members to visit it frequently. The facility is a very functional and exciting place to workout [and] members say they don't feel like they are in a ‘gym.’”

Clubs may need to move away from looking like a traditional gym environment, as only 10 percent of the population works out in a health club. Perhaps this is because fitness facilities are unappealing to the vast majority of the population. “There's a lot of non-members out there,” notes Fabiano. “Depending on the data, 85 to 90 percent of the population does not belong to a club. Savvy owners… are simply looking at market share.”

Tock recommends that club owners look outside the club industry for inspiration on customer service and design. “As an industry, we can learn a lot from the upscale restaurants and hotels,” he states.


In order to finance a more upscale look, Tock recommends raising your club dues, and then taking the extra money and refinancing it back into the club. If you think higher-priced dues will be the kiss-of-death to your current members, think again. “Ninety four percent of Americans' buying decisions are not made on price,” Tock explains. “People pay for those touches, and as an industry we are not charging enough.” According to the HCTR, 46 percent of club members have an average income of $75,000-plus. As an industry, members can often afford higher dues.

“From a pure update point-of-view, there have been some studies that have shown that every three years [owners] should spend between 7 and 15 percent of their revenues on updates (design, equipment, programming etc.),” Fabiano explains. “And every five to seven years, they should spend 30 percent on updates.”

For those club owners who would begrudge the extra cost of a coat of paint or extra amenities in the locker rooms, you have to remember that clubs are no longer just selling fitness. While gyms may have gotten by on the bare bones approach in the club industry's infancy, now they can't if they want to remain competitive. “Aesthetically, it's been night and day,” explains Fabiano of the differences in a club's design from the 1970s to the modern club of the new millennium. “We moved from selling a commodity, which was workout equipment, to selling an experience. Now it's about lifestyles and experience.”


Sometimes it's the little things that mean a lot. Take a fresh coat of paint, for example. New paint on the walls is a relatively inexpensive remodeling touch that packs a large visual impact. But while paint is a bold visual change, its subjective nuances can be extremely subtle. What color do you use? What shade of that color? What color accents do you pair with that color? The plethora of choices available is enough to make you wish you were colorblind. Unfortunately, though it seems like such a small thing, picking the “wrong” color, or color combination can offset an otherwise great interior design plan. It's like pairing a beautiful red satin evening dress with lime green penny loafers. It just leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Not sure what colors to go with? Pick up a magazine that many of your members read. Magazines are specifically catered to niche demographics. Figure out what demographic you aim to please, and find a magazine catering toward that demographic. “What I start to do is look at the covers of those magazines and look at the colors of the fashions for those groups,” advises Rudy Fabiano of Fabiano Designs International in Montclair, NJ.

Jay deSibour, the president of Color Marketing Group, an international association for the color and design professionals, offers his advice on choosing hues according to demographic niches:

  • Women: pastels and soft hues are popular with this group, deSibour says.
  • Men: slightly darker, richer colors. Men are not quite as experimental in their color choices, he says.
  • Seniors: brighter, cleaner colors. “They should not be too subtle or sophisticated because their ability to distinguish between hues diminishes with age,” deSibour says.
  • Higher-income clients: more sophisticated, mixed colors. Instead of orange, use copper orange. Instead of blue, use blue-green, says deSibour.
  • Youth: “They like anything adults don't like. They're much more adventurous and much more inclined to try new colors,” he says. As an example, he points out the food market's offerings for kids (i.e. green ketchup).
  • Co-ed: “Purple is an androgynous color. It tends to appeal to both men and women,” he says.
  • Color trends on the horizon include the significant rise in the use of color “effects” like metallics, opalescents and colors that change depending on the light sources. “But your basic hues are probably going to be represented from one year to the next,” he adds.

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