Strategies for Protecting Your Health Club When Working with Obese Members


Obesity is an epidemic plaguing Americans. Recent data from the National Health Interview Survey indicate that the prevalence of obesity among adults 20 and older is 30.4 percent. Those with obesity tend to suffer from serious medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and breathing problems. So when a high-risk patron comes into a high-paced cardio workout class that is in excess of the member's fitness level, it should create a level of concern for health club owners and operators because obese members can be at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest or other physical injuries.  

Obese club members can affect the management and safety protocols established at a health club. An obese member who is new to physical activity cannot be expected to perform at the same fitness level as someone who is physically active. Obese members need to be coached and instructed in a way that reflects their physical capabilities and limitations.

Margaret Hilton

For the average club owner, providing safe workout conditions for obese members can be time consuming, but it is a necessary investment and should include doing the following:

  • Ensure the safety of an obese member by adapting workouts to specifically address the client's physical limitations.
  • Create an effective workout tailored to the member’s health, weight and fitness level.
  • Formulate a training plan for the obese client that considers medications the member may be taking. Many medications can cause dehydration, affect balance or cause dizziness.
  • Be aware of the different fitness levels of group participants and be on alert for any problems that could arise during the class.

Health club owners and staff also need to be vigilant about recommending nutritional or dietary supplements because many obese patrons take medications for their medical conditions. Drug interactions and pre-existing medical conditions could result in a fatal outcome if the wrong supplement is recommended or supplied.

An example of this occurred in 1999, where a 37-year-old female who was working out suffered a stroke allegedly due to taking supplements recommended by her trainer, according to an article in The New York Times. The supplements were contraindicated because she also was taking medication for hypertension. Trainers and nutritional consultants must be properly trained and educated about supplements and eating plans recommended for obese clients, as well as the potential side effects of medications and supplements. 

Club owners also can be proactive in dealing with medical issues that obese members may be dealing with by doing the following.

  1. Provide onsite access to medical professionals and educators.
  2. Host lectures or classes by licensed medical professionals to educate club patrons and club staff about common medical issues caused by obesity and factors to be considered before initiating an exercise plan.
  3. Develop business relationships with local medical centers and nutritionists to provide additional support and guidance for obese members so fitness and weight loss can be achieved safely. 
  4. Keep a nurse practitioner or other medical professional on staff at the facility to address immediate medical concerns, to manage the client's weight-loss program or to coordinate with the client's medical provider so the member does not engage in an activity that could exacerbate a medical condition. 

There are pros and cons to providing these services to your members. Not providing these types of services could cause a potential increase in liability exposure for the club. Before considering offering more medical-based services at your club, a detailed risk consultation or assessment should be done to determine if it is worth assuming the increased risk.

A well-educated staff can help avoid or minimize a variety of legal ramifications created by the increase of obese patrons working out at your club. Implementing some of these ideas can help ensure that all club members can get fit in a safe and healthy way.


Cristina LaMarca is a senior associate in the Litigation Group at Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan LLP. She specializes in the defense of physicians, hospitals, nurses and other health care providers. LaMarca also is a registered nurse with experience in cardiac surgery nursing care at a major New York City hospital.

Margaret Hilton is an associate in the Litigation Group at Kaufman Borgeest & Ryan LLP. She specializes in the defense of physicians, hospitals, nurses and other health care providers.


Suggested Articles:

The fitness industry must take action to prevent liability risks that video training presents.

Before you reopen your health club’s doors, take some time to consider these three strategies that may help you future-proof your business.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is presenting every fitness business with a unique set of obstacles. The degree to which each business will struggle