High-Intensity Interval Training Offers Revenue and Retention Payoff for Health Clubs

CrossFit class at Lombardi Recreation Center at University of Nevada Reno
<p>Offering free CrossFit classes has helped the Lombardi Recreation Center at the University of Nevada, Reno attract students, faculty and staff, whose $80 per semester memberships are not included with their enrollment or employment at the university. <em>Photo courtesy of the Lombardi Recreation Center.</em></p>

You don't have to be a fitness industry veteran to realize that high-intensity interval workouts are in high demand. 

High-intensity interval training (HIIT), which alternates short bursts of intense exercise with periods of rest, claimed the top spot on the American College of Sports Medicine's annual list of fitness trends, and high-intensity workouts Insanity and CrossFit were the two most-Googled workouts of 2013.

Although the philosophy behind HIIT has been around for decades, fitness facilities can capitalize on its recent popularity by offering high-intensity interval group fitness programs, which can increase revenue and improve retention.

Edgewater Athletic Club, Chicago, found that it also can help attract members who will pay a monthly fee of $80 in addition to their $59 membership dues to take unlimited classes at HIIT Fit, an independent training gym located inside the club. About 20 members pay the extra $80 per month, and some nonmembers pay a $15 per class fee, according to Jason Organ, HIIT FIT director at the club. That would total at least an additional $1,600 per month in revenue.

Since the program launched in April, Organ estimates the club's membership has increased by 30 percent. The club's demographic also has changed, with more athletes and students working out at the facility. The new offering also has proven popular with members who typically gravitate toward more traditional workouts.

"There's an intimidation factor," Organ says. "A lot of people say, 'I don’t know if I can do that.' When they actually get into it...their confidence almost goes through the roof."

One reason the program has attracted and retained newcomers is that trainers emphasize the importance of safety and technique during their classes. All new members attend classes designed for beginners and receive special attention once they integrate into regular classes, an important part of offering HIIT programming, which can lead to injuries if done incorrectly, Organ says.

Because of the risks associated with HIIT, many clubs choose to offer proprietary programs, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, says Sara Kooperman, CEO of Les Mills Midwest and founder and CEO of SCW Mania conferences. Even classes designed for HIIT small group training are now being offered as group exercise classes because programming is so in demand.

"It just fits the way the world is," Kooperman says. "We're hard and we're fast. One of the biggest barriers is just people finding the time. If you can make it shorter, faster, harder, then that's what people like."

The harder, faster approach to fitness doesn't just appeal to millennials. Kooperman says that although marketing efforts often target that group, HIIT has proven to be surprisingly popular among 35- to 55-year-olds who have more disposable income to spend on fee-based programing and are interested in trying something new.

Offering shorter, more intense classes also can help health clubs appeal to people who might be interested in joining a gym for the first time. Since many high-intensity home workouts have risen to fame in recent years, including the Tabata method and the 7-Minute Workout, home users are now venturing into health clubs, says Lori Patterson, founder and CEO of VicteliB, which creates, licenses and operates fee-based group fitness programs, including Boot Camp Challenge. Since those workouts usually require less time and equipment, they can seem less intimidating to new exercisers despite their intensity, Patterson says.   

Once members start participating in a high-intensity group exercise program, they are likely to stick with it, says Jim Fitzsimmons, director of Campus Recreation and Wellness at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The university's Lombardi Recreation Center began offering one CrossFit class per day in 2008. Now, the schedule includes six or seven classes per day averaging 30 participants per class. CrossFit has proven so popular on campus that the new recreation center being built next year will feature a 30,000-square-foot functional training center capable of housing four classes at a time, Fitzsimmons says.

Offering CrossFit to members at no additional cost has been instrumental in attracting and retaining students, faculty, staff and alumni, especially considering the university rec center essentially operates as a commercial club because it does not receive funding from the university or the state, he says. Instead, the facility is completely driven by membership sales, which cost the 5,500 members $80 per semester.

Although many fitness facility operators hesitate to incorporate CrossFit or high-intensity interval programming because of safety concerns, Fitzsimmons says the real concern is not offering the programs, which can lead members to leave your facility for a dedicated CrossFit gym

"I've run the gamut of group fitness, of personal training, small group," Fitzsimmons says. "I've been in the industry more than 25 years, and this is the most profound thing we have found. This is going to be a significant part of the landscape for the foreseeable future."

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