Club Insider

Why Boosting Club Membership is About Medical, not Marketing

  • For this article, Log In to:
  • Download PDF Download PDF

Cosmo WollanCosmo Wollan

Approximately 73 million adults in the U.S. have a gym membership. It sounds like a lot, but the sad reality is that's only 24% of the population. Baby boomers alone make up over 21% of the population. According to ACSM's Worldwide Surveys of Fitness Trends for 2024, the #3 top trend is: "Fitness Programs for Older Adults." It's no secret that people are living longer, working longer, and most importantly, wanting to stay active longer.

The fitness industry challenge is one of perception. At present, most people go to the gym to address their FITNESS Goals (fitter, stronger, thinner, faster, etc.) Yet, 80% of the population either have, and wish to manage, or wish to proactively avoid getting obesity, hypertension, diabetes or weak core strength, leading to slip and fall risks. These people are not typically engaged with a gym because most gyms offer little, if anything, to specifically address these goals. The truly obese are often intimidated by the gym environment; the hypertensive are often warned by their doctors not to do anything too "strenuous;" and many diabetics are not even aware that exercise can have profound positive effects on the manifestations of the disease. This is mostly because their physicians never told them. As a whole, people in these groups have very different goals, such as being able to play with their grandchildren, being able to walk the park with their friends or being able to garden in their yards. These are lifestyle goals, WELLNESS Goals, not fitness goals.

The people who have never been health club members frequently think of the gym as a place to "get in shape" and view themselves as "high risk" in that environment. All they really want (or need) to do is engage in some physical activity, begin to think about nutrition and health education and/or manage or prevent a chronic medical condition. And, once gyms start to offer programming that truly and legitimately addresses these goals, there is a huge, target-rich environment of new members that need these services.

But, how do we change the conversation? How do we safely yet effectively address these Wellness Goals? The answer to this perception challenge is medically-directed fitness. True medical fitness is offered at medical fitness facilities, typically the health centers connected to, or directly affiliated with, hospitals. They have physicians on staff, extensive medical equipment and are often certified through the Medical Fitness Association as medical fitness Facilities. And, they offer a level of medical service simply not possible at commercial fitness clubs.

The bridge between medical fitness and commercial clubs is medically-directed fitness, typically implemented in commercial clubs as medically-directed programming. Properly designed and implemented, these programs can attract a more mature, deconditioned, higher risk member. Often these members have never been a health club member, yet most have the specific wellness and lifestyle goals previously mentioned. What they want is to manage (or avoid) hypertension, diabetes, obesity, slip and fall risks, even some cancers. What they are looking for is a safe, effective, non-intimidating, non-judgmental environment. Medically-directed programs that address these specific issues can offer exactly what they need, including a staff that understands both the conditions and the goals, and the comfort of working out with others in similar situations facing similar challenges. It's the soft landing in an otherwise harsh world. Think of it as the foam pit used by the novice gymnast to ensure soft, injury-free landings in the early stages of learning.

This market segment represents the largest portion of most markets and creates an opportunity to significantly expand acquisition rates and business growth while mitigating traditional club competition. In other words, medical fitness programming allows you to tap into the 75% of non-gym-member Americans who feel traditional commercial clubs don't meet their needs.

The marketing benefits are also significant. By adding medically-directed fitness, you'll automatically differentiate yourself from your local competition by offering something of great health benefit that they are not. Properly implemented, medically-directed fitness programming will also create, cultivate and leverage relationships with local healthcare professionals. When one primary care physician can have over 2,000 patients, developing strong and mutually beneficial relationships with local PCPs can potentially drive tremendous growth in both membership and program revenue. It is critical to remember, however, that physicians are not going to refer their patients to most gyms. They will, however, refer them to a medically-directed wellness program, especially one they may have helped to design!

So, how would a fitness facility get started down the path of offering medical fitness? Always start at the top with leadership philosophy. You absolutely need buy-in from upper-level leadership that you're committed to serving a different market in at least one segment of the business. Medically-directed fitness is a commitment, and everyone needs to be in lockstep on that commitment if you're going to do it right. Keep in mind that you're not getting the fit fitter with medically-directed fitness; you're working with people who have, or wish to avoid, chronic diseases.

From there, the good news is some effective playbooks have already been written by groups like the Medical Fitness Association. They have a vast array of resources for members and offer many guidelines for implementing medical fitness at the highest levels. Always remember to hire highly qualified fitness professionals to work with populations who have a variety of comorbid conditions. The United States Registry of Exercise Professionals is a great place to start. Your staff must be trained, preferably certified, in the care of individuals with these conditions. These certifications will also boost confidence of any physicians participating in the program design and potentially offering referrals.

From an operational perspective, don't think memberships with the medical fitness population; think small group training programs (i.e., a 12-week hypertension or weight management program for 4 - 6 participants per group). Cultivate relationships with local physicians or healthcare organizations. The commercial gym can serve as a wellness program access point, something that is a strategic priority for most health systems and physicians. And, do not forget metrics. Every participant in every program must be measured on relevant markers at the start of the program, at least once during the program and at the conclusion. Remember, the goal is not to "cure" these individuals with one program. The goal is to improve their status so that, eventually, they may see a reduction or remission of the symptoms of their condition, and most importantly, the increased ability to enjoy their lifestyle goals.

If you truly want your gym to attract new members, stop spending marketing dollars promoting the same programs and outcomes as everyone else. Address the untapped 75% of the population by adding medically-directed fitness programming and make your facility the place where this vast target audience can address their WELLNESS Goals. The investment to really do it right is minimal, and the benefits to the fiscal health of your facility and the overall health of your community are limitless.

Back to Edition

LA Fitness