Rural Americans Need Health Club Expertise

Obese Woman Walking Outdoors
Photo by draganab/iStock/Getty Images Plus.,

Last year when we released our report, “America’s Obesity Crisis and the Health Club Industry’s Role in Solving It,” we included a story about the populations hit hardest by the obesity crisis—and how those populations are not being reached by health clubs.

One of the groups we highlighted was rural Americans. Many people assume that obesity hits urban populations harder than other populations. Perhaps that is based on the thought that poorer neighborhoods in urban areas lack access to quality grocery stores, are too dangerous to run or walk outdoors and lack individuals with funds to join a health club. For higher-income urban neighborhoods, the assumption may be that inhabitants spend their time sitting at a desk all day and eating fast food.

However, I’ve always been surprised when I visit smaller towns (many of which are dying) and rural areas at how many overweight and poor people I see. And a new study, summarized in this NPR article, shows that there’s reason to question whether our rural citizens are healthier than our urban citizens, as many people seem to think.

After analyzing 2,009 studies that involved data from 112 million adults in 200 countries, the researchers found that obesity rates are growing faster for rural people than for others. During the past 30 years, the average BMI for rural women grew by 2.09 while for urban women it grew by 1.35. For rural men, the average BMI grew by 2.10 while it rose by 1.59 for urban men.

This increase is startling to me. And it makes me wonder what we as an industry can do to reach people in rural areas. (And for that matter, reach people in urban areas, too.) Health club owners are entrepreneurs. You need to make money. Is it a good business decision to locate your health club in a sparsely populated area that may be going through financial difficulties? Probably not. You likely think that those areas are places that the YMCAs or the parks and rec facilities should take care of.  

However, I see an opportunity for club operators to reach this population through new technologies—specifically virtual and online exercise offerings—supplemented by special community fitness and wellness events in some of the cities that are the commerce hubs of rural communities. Like the growing popularity of telemedicine where people can “Facetime” with a physician, couldn’t a health club in a larger city offer nutrition and exercise advice through telefitness conferencing? Couldn’t they provide online workouts to their rural brethren? Couldn’t they create virtual communities on social media where these people could “hang out” with each other and encourage each other through their fitness goals and plan meetups in places to walk or run together? Then health club operators could plan in-person events, such as health fairs or runs in conjunction with the local hospital or largest employer in the area, in the commerce hub of that community so these people who have met online could get together in person. A small charge to be a part of this online community would be worth the minimal investment of setting up these online offerings.

From my experience, many people in rural areas or small towns make a weekly visit to the commerce hub in their area on the weekends to do their grocery shopping, attend church or go out to eat. If you ensured there was some event in that commerce hub—or even dared to locate a small facility in that commerce hub—you could entice those people into your facility or event on the weekends.  

The biggest challenge to this idea could be the lack of quality Internet access that so many rural communities still face today. But if that can be overcome, why couldn’t this be a great opportunity to reach new people who may never be members but who would pay a small fee to be connected virtually (with some in-person touches) to fitness and nutrition experts that they otherwise would have no ability to reach?

Is there anything you are doing to reach rural Americans? Do you have ideas on how clubs could reach out to this group? Share your ideas in the comment section below.

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