You're looking for a shiny new sport utility vehicle. As you look at the price on one of the cars at a local dealership, you're thrown into sticker shock. You rub your eyes because you can't believe what you're seeing. Under the regular price is a line that says “Unhealthy Employee Surcharge” — $1,500.

As strange as the above scene sounds, some truth underlies it. Only the surcharge line on the window sticker is an exaggeration. A recent article in Motor Trend magazine noted that General Motors' $5.2 billion annual (and increasing at double digit rates every year) health care costs add about $1,500 to the cost of every car and truck it makes in America. This is 30 percent higher than the next most expensive country yet the United States ranks a lowly 12th out of 13 industrialized nations in 16 top health indicators, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development.

Now let's do the math. Not enough physical activity and poor diet equals more illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control. More illness equals more demand for health care. More health care demand equals rising health care costs. Rising health care costs equal higher prices for products and services (such as automobiles) as the supplier passes these costs on to the consumer one way or another.

It's simply amazing that the health club industry sees such an obvious cause-and-effect relationship with inactivity, poor diet and the out-of-control health care costs. With the growing dreaded financial effect of health care costs, more and more insurance companies, businesses and the government will be forced to look to the health club industry for answers. Currently, this process seems to be moving ever so slowly, but the bubble will soon burst. Why else would some financial analysts even suggest that General Motors' health care costs could eventually “sink” the company?

What must health clubs do to take maximum advantage of this escalating opportunity? First of all, money is not going to be thrown at the problem haphazardly. Therefore, accountability by both the individual member and the club will become an increasing necessity. Insurance companies and businesses are going to be forced to support the industry dramatically more in the future but they also will be forced to justify what they spend.

Therefore, subsidizing health club memberships will be done more and more on a usage basis. In other words, all the scientific research shows that when someone exercises regularly, good things happen to their health. Joining a club does not mean exercising regularly, so clubs will have to show that individuals being subsidized are actually using the club. As an example, Silver Sneakers, the successful program that gets older adult members into clubs by having insurance companies subsidize the membership, is based on paying the club a certain amount per visit. If a lot of Silver Sneakers members show up, a lot of money is made. If they don't show up, the opposite is true.

Fortunately, good software programs can account for usage, but usage goes way beyond that. A variety of fun and interactive programs, beautifully designed clubs and a motivational staff all lead to good usage. In addition, more emphasis will be put on being able to quantitatively analyze the results of someone who exercises regularly and eats a nutritious diet. So clubs (or an associated testing facility) will need to provide more basic testing of certain risk factors such as weight, body fat percent, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, standing pulse rates and more. When a club can show that more members are lowering their risk factors as a result of using a club, subsidized memberships will grow and prosper.

For the health club industry, prevention is a powerful opportunity — and responsibility. It is clear now that our industry can provide as many benefits as any other sector in the health field. It's equally obvious that better medication and medical practices will not lower health care costs. Yet, most outside the industry keep putting off the inevitable hoping a magic pill will come along or the government will print more money and solve the problem.

At one time in history medicine was not highly regarded as a solution to many illnesses. The same has been true with the fitness industry. Few considered fitness as a way to better health and lessen illness 50 years ago. Science is catching up to what we in the industry always knew to be true — fitness practices (prevention) and medicine should be on equal ground. Help your club and staff lead the way.

Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $420 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.