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Instead of Fading, Fitness Separates from Wellness

Seven months ago, I wrote about how the word “fitness” may be fading from our terminology. In that column, I spoke about early industry innovators going out and selling exercise, and how their efforts quickly evolved into the fitness movement and then even more rapidly into the membership movement. I also noted that it appeared to me that what has transpired since is some version of the “same old, same old” and that the membership movement has pretty consistently concentrated on carving up a rather fixed percentage of the available population base among increasingly more facilities.

That column evoked such response — I still get e-mails, some praising and some condemning — that it has caused me to re-visit the issue several times during the course of this year. I happily admit that my thinking has shifted somewhat in that short period of time.

In terms of the fitness movement, all of the efforts of equipment manufacturers for nearly 30 years have been centered on building better bodies. Club membership energies have been about convincing people to get fit. In general, our entire industry has been focused on changing what's not, rather than perhaps addressing what is.

No one in his or her right mind could say that we have been unsuccessful. After all, in three decades, the number of health club members in the United States has gone from 5 percent to 15 percent of the population. The number of facilities in that same period of time has nearly quadrupled.

However, the flip side shows the following evidences of failure. Membership units per facility continue to dwindle annually. Although attaining 44 million health club members is a significant accomplishment, more than three times that number of memberships has been sold in the last 15 years. Attrition statistics continue to point to a generally dissatisfied populace.

Rather than one entity (fitness) ceasing to be and another (wellness) emerging, what I now begin to see is a fork in the road. I think that the fitness business will take one branch, and the wellness business will travel another. Obviously, fitness is becoming dominated by large segment players. Just look at the chain, franchise and acquisition activities of the past few years.

As for wellness (a not-yet-clearly-defined industry), it could be that the aging of society, time-crunching of daily living and shifting lifestyle motivations will dictate the development of another paradigm, one that is accompanied by not only physical activities but which also incorporates brain, mind and spirit into more encompassing personal expressions. Dozens of hospital-based facilities are already practicing what I believe to be the elementary form of wellness programming delivery.

As I mentioned in my December 2007 column (, one eminent director in this sector forbids use of the word “fitness” among his staff and in all marketing distributed by his medically based clubs. He says that “fitness” conjures up mostly stereotyped and negative images that are not in sync with his clients' interest in health and well-being.

Many leaders in both the present fitness industry and medical fields eagerly await subsidization of exercise as the possible door-opener to the future. However, industry initiatives at enrolling politicians towards advocacy continue to fall short, as evidenced by the stasis of the two health-improvement subsidy bills in Congress, the Workforce Health Improvement Program Act and the Personal Health Investment Today bill. Insurance agencies continue their lethargy to embrace individual health pro-activity.

I believe that the first step onto the new road for many in the “old industry” is to endorse short-term programming, professional staff training and technological innovations in individual exercise documentation. In other words, facilities need to stop talking about results and instead provide methodologies to assist people in achieving desired health and wellness outcomes.

I can foresee the day when we enjoy two industries and when beneficial rewards exist for companies on both sides. I hold it entirely possible that we can have a fitness industry with 50 million members and a wellness industry with an equal number of clients.

As for me, I cut my teeth in the fitness business, but as I grow older, my emphasis is less on how I look and much more on how I look and feel. Physical activity is paramount to both. It's just that it seems as though the former (fitness for fitness' sake) is rather limiting while the latter (wellness) is more appealing and holistic.

Michael Scott Scudder operates MeetingZone, an online-based consulting and training service. He can be contacted at 505-514-0294, on Skype at michael.scott.scudder or by e-mail at

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