The Virtual World Could House Fitness Clubs of the Future

The Virtual World Could House Fitness Clubs of the Future

The fitness industry must continually unlearn its old ways and learn new ones. Often, what we learn comes from outside sources. In fact, almost all great improvements in any industry come from outside that industry. Propeller plane companies did not invent jet engines, typewriter companies did not invent word processors, and health clubs will likely not invent the future of exercise.

Every year, club owners fine tune their layout, adjust their pricing and tweak some equipment. But to improve the future of the industry and have real, substantive breakthroughs, we need something really different. Health clubs have had about a 16 percent market penetration for years and made little impact on obesity. So what outside influence will change our seemingly stagnant industry by providing us with something different?

Many people think that the future of fitness will be built on these points:

  • More socializing

    People want to belong. They want a place where they feel at home and a place where they are proud to be a member.

  • More fun

    How often do you see an exerciser laughing or smiling? Only in group classes. That has to change.

  • More real

    Almost everything in the gym is artificial. Only recently have we seen the type of equipment that adapts and moves the way people do.

  • More entertaining

    The best we can do is pull people away from the evil TV at home for the good TV at the club.

  • More health

    If exercise is so good for you, let's measure it. We need studies to prove our members live five years longer than people in town who don't exercise.

  • More matching to people's needs

    Equipment needs to be easy to learn and natural to use.

All of these building blocks mean making some changes in our clubs, or they risk becoming obsolete. At the REX All Roundtable Conference in March, Phillip Mills shared insights from a global club industry white paper, “The Future of Fitness,” conducted by The Nielsen Co. for Les Mills International. One of the paper's comments was, “Your grandkids may wonder what a gym is. When you say let's go to the gym, it would be like asking for a typewriter today.”

The future of exercise is unfolding today, and one of the theories in the white paper is that much of it may be virtual. Can virtual exercise really work? Well, virtual exercise can help create the building blocks mentioned earlier by providing more social interaction, more fun, more reality, more entertainment, more health measurements and more matching to people's needs. And although you may say that virtual exercise is not real, it often is more “real” than exercise on a treadmill or elliptical.

Virtual reality is a computer-created world inside which multiple people can interact with things in the dimensions of sight, hearing, and — in some measure — touch and locomotion. Some of the software out there now is 1,000 times more natural than we've experienced in the past because a person's body becomes the controller. In this virtual reality world, no controller is required. See a ball? Kick it, hit it, trap it or catch it. If you know how to move your hands, shake your hips or speak, you and your friends can jump into the fun. The only experience needed is life experience.

Virtual exercise has the potential to turn our fascination with computers and the Internet from being part of the fitness problem to being part of the fitness solution. Virtual exercise could involve translating full-body posture and movement from the real world into the movement of simulated avatar figures in computer-generated environments. Virtual exercise in groups can encourage personal fitness, sports training, competition, weight loss and health improvement.

How we grow in the future very well could come from outside our industry. It will include more than just what is offered by the creators of the virtual world. Health club operators who can look to the future, embrace the new technology and programming, and adapt their business to something possibly unrecognizable from today's health club will be the ones who survive.

Be open to looking outside this industry for best practices to learn and grow — or be prepared to go the way of the typewriter.


Eddie Tock is a partner with REX Roundtables, a global organization that runs Mastermind roundtables for business owners and CEOs. He is a consultant who has worked with more than 925 clubs since 1983. He can be reached at 845-736-0307.

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