Learning from the Past, Applying to the Future: 30 Years in the Fitness Industry

Those who do not learn from history may be doomed to repeat fitness fashion mistakes from 30 years ago The participants in this aerobics class at Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville TX from the 1980s were stylish then but would be looked at much differently today as would other pieces of the health club business from 30 years ago Photo courtesy of Matthew Wagner
<p>Those who do not learn from history may be doomed to repeat fitness fashion mistakes from 30 years ago. The participants in this aerobics class at Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville, TX, from the 1980s were stylish then but would be looked at much differently today, as would other pieces of the health club business from 30 years ago. <em>Photo courtesy of Matthew Wagner.</em></p>

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." —George Santayana

The health club industry dates back long before Club Industry began publishing in 1984. The significance of health clubs and workout facilities in our society has increased over the years as the importance of proper fitness (both for health reasons and competition) is now being fully appreciated. Many people exercised or were active on their own in the past, but changes in society have mandated a new method for delivering fitness.

Personal History

Matthew Wagner is now a professor, but he had been a club operator for more than 30 years.

My first exposure to the health club business was in 1978. I was a young man enchanted with this concept of fitness. While working at a health club in college, I developed a desire to help people achieve their health and fitness goals. Eventually, I purchased that same club. This 4,800-square-foot facility had separate workout areas for men and women, separate locker rooms and one whirlpool. We had a small closet area for our pro shop and another area that tripled as a storage area/tool room/children's playroom (don't ask). At this point, the health club industry was in its infancy. Racquet clubs were beginning to become popular, but the workout craze had not yet fully developed. The benefits of exercise were not as well appreciated as they are now. Dr. Kenneth Cooper's aerobic crusade propelled people to walk and run but not necessarily into the gym. However, the seeds of growth had been planted. Progress in our industry was inevitable.

Similarities between Then and Now

Back then (as now), it was important to get out to the public the message of helping people achieve their fitness goals. Different modalities of advertising have been utilized throughout the industry. Early on, we relied on local radio and newspaper advertising. Today, social media has become a popular method of reaching the community. However, the best source of advertising, both then and now, still seems to be word of mouth from satisfied members.

The one constant has been customers' desire for fitness and their continued yearning for excellent service. Although the definitions of both of these may have changed over the years, the demand for both has remained consistent. Customers want a place that delivers the service for which they have paid. One of the first club seminars I attended in the 1980s focused on this point: "The Way to Keep Members in Your Club Lies Here: Cleanliness and Friendliness." Those are the two concepts clubs should live by. If your club is not clean, members will leave. If your staff is not friendly, members will leave. It was that simple. In many ways, it is still that simple.

A constant over the years has been the members' continued demand for improving fitness levels. When I first started in the business, I would ask prospective members what they wanted to accomplish. Many would say, "I want to get in shape." We still hear the same phrase today. Although "getting in shape" means different things to different people, the vast majority of people buying health club memberships simply want to look and feel better. However, people will continue to join a health club for a variety of reasons, only one of which is to get in shape. In few places do you see the camaraderie that you see at the gym. This aspect of our business remains one of the most important services we can provide in our communities.

The modalities of fitness also have remained consistent. The components of fitness have not changed. Cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and flexibility are still considered the three areas of fitness. What has changed is the method by which we deliver those modalities. Cardio machines have gone high-tech with TVs, Internet connectivity and individual information stored right in the machine. Weight machines offer individual workouts based on individual preferences. Flexibility programs (yoga, Pilates and others) have become popular. Classes have been built around a combination of all three.

Fee Structure/Trial Workout

Also consistent throughout the years is our inability to charge a reasonable price for our services, as well as the potential for being taken advantage of in the business world. The fitness industry often offers a free trial period for prospective members. Individuals can often use our services for free with the potential of buying a membership in the future. Clubs may have different policies regarding this situation, but few other businesses allow people to sample the product before purchasing. Can you go to a movie theatre and tell them that you are thinking about seeing several movies so you would like tonight's feature free of charge? Do you think your grocery store would let you have a couple of items free if you agreed to do some shopping there in the future? The benefit of the free trial workout is that individuals become exposed to your club. Therefore, it can be an effective form of advertising. However, this policy needs to be monitored carefully to prevent misuse of your facilities.

Differences between Then and Now

There are, however, more differences than similarities in the industry over the years. The major difference between 1984 and 2014 is the advancement of technology and its incredible impact on our industry. From the type of computers we use for check-ins to the exercise equipment itself, technology has changed the way we do business. In our initial years of operating our club, we tracked all of our memberships and membership information on index cards that we stored in a box at the front desk. When members paid their dues, we updated their index card. Once a month, we reviewed the cards to see who had paid and who hadn't paid their dues. Not exactly high-tech, was it? Soon, we purchased a basic computer, complete with an 8088 chip and two 5-1/4-inch floppy drives. We used a generic program that allowed us to set up parameters for different areas—demographic information, type of membership, payment dates and other information. This computer provided everything we needed and more.

Today, that type of technology is antiquated. Check-in computers hold more than simple information, as we now can store members' pictures, their reference information and their workout preferences. And this only scratches the surface.


Another area that has changed is in the way we use our personnel. We had a simple job description for all the employees in our early years: "Whatever it takes." Although this can be applicable today, the industry has become more specialized in all areas of operations. From front desk operations to sales, group exercise instructors, child care, massage therapists, cleaning and maintenance crew, nutritional counselors, life coaches and many more, individual job requirements have become much more specialized. Early employment at clubs was more generalized. Most of us wore many hats in club operations—unfortunately, not always yielding the best results.

Strength equipment changes slowly, but if you look closely at these machines from the 1980s, you'll notice a few differences from equipment of today. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Wagner.)

Permits, Licenses and Credentials

Other areas that have changed dramatically are permitting, licensing and credentialing. In the past, credentialing was easy. We reviewed an individual application, found out if they seemed to be good with people or cleaning or could teach a class, and then we hired them (or we didn't). Certifications were not a major issue at this point. We did all of our training in–house, so management would attend Club Industry seminars and soak up information and bring it back to share with our employees. Today, certification, licensure and continued education credits for many areas of club operations are mandatory to continue in the business. Permitting of the various areas of club operations has dramatically increased as well. From operations, the whirlpool/swimming pool, the boiler/hot water heater, the tanning bed and other areas needing permitting, the increased regulations are important but add another element into the dynamics of club operation.

Business Savviness of Club Owners

Today's club operator has greater business knowledge than operators from the beginning of this industry. Fitness professional owners must either supplement their business knowledge or seek outside help. The specialization needed to manage business affairs today necessitates a more comprehensive business background than just simply fitness. The health and fitness aspect is being handled by the fitness professionals, while the business people need to run the club. It is unusual to meet an individual with both of those qualities (or the time to accomplish all the tasks associated with each aspect).


Again, technology has affected much of the equipment used today, both in cardiovascular conditioning and in strength training. Although free weights have largely stayed stable (but thank you for grip plates), machines have transformed over the years to futuristic devices complete with vital sign monitoring, individual exercise program prescriptions, embedded TVs and Internet access. The number and variety of programs offered on cardiovascular equipment have dramatically risen, while many people just want to walk or simply ride their bike. We offer many programs in our cardiovascular equipment, but these often go unused by our clientele.


Programming has become much more sophisticated in order to entice the customer into the club. Both external and internal programming have seen dramatic changes as an increase in the number of clubs dictates an increased need for services and amenities. Can we reach our clientele with the message of health and fitness more effectively now? I am not sure we have reached a consensus on this point. But heart disease, for example, is less of a stranger than it was 30 years ago.

Staff Training and Professionalism

The staff of today is much more prepared for any and all situations that may occur, from individual goal-setting to emergency procedures. Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) were not available in the old days. When someone had a cardiovascular incident, about all we knew to do was to perform CPR and call 911. Staff training is becoming more specific with increased regulations governing how we maintain records, how we handle kids in the playroom and even how we sell memberships. This is definitely a positive direction for our industry.

How Far We Have Come

The health club industry has made incredible advancements. There are approximately 30,000 health clubs in the United States and more than 50 million members, according to IHRSA. By increasing member services, this growth has been a productive road for clubs and their members. Health clubs have increasingly become not just a place where people join, but a place where they belong. Many individuals identify themselves with their health club, as they may do with their school or their place of worship. The culture of the health club is becoming firmly implanted in our society. The ability to provide many services to members, not just fitness, has increased the popularity of belonging to a health club.

How Far We Can Go

The future of fitness is difficult to predict, but I am certain that technology and the information age will continue to dominate our industry. Exercise machines will be turned into individual remote stations that can monitor vital signs, temperature, circadian rhythms and adjust accordingly, but basic nutrition will continue to play a vital role in exercise and health. Soon, individual EMG sensors may provide feedback to offer members information regarding the intensity of weightlifting effort in each and every exercise, but the simple dumbbell will remain the preferred modality of weightlifting for many. The headaches for club owners will continue to shift with increased regulations and inflation affecting our business. However, club owners will respond with new and exciting ways of improving fitness levels and continue to provide additional services to members. The basics remain largely the same as they were in the past. What an exciting time to be in the health club business!

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." —Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr


Matthew Wagner is a professor in the department of kinesiology at Sam Houston State University. He bought Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville, TX, in May 1980 and sold it in June 2013, but is still active in personal training, specializing in working with post-CVA individuals and other higher risk clients. Wagner earned a master's degree in kinesiology from Sam Houston State University in 1988 and a Ph.D. in kinesiology from Texas A&M University in 1996.

If you still have bikes this old in your facility, it is definitely time for a change, as bikes have gone a bit more high-tech these days. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Wagner.)

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