Recent conflicting fitness industry news has caused me to ask myself: What's going on? I'm a big believer that the health club industry, researchers and the media have done a good job of getting the message about the obesity epidemic out to the general public. So, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that within the last six months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released statistics about rates of obesity in adults and children showing that although the rates increased, they did not increase enough to be statistically significant. In other words, we saw a slight leveling in the obesity rate (see story on page 11).

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) recently released its report on the state of the health club industry. In that report, IHRSA notes that consumer demand for health club memberships has stalled worldwide, particularly in the United States where memberships were expected to be 44.1 million in 2007, but instead were 41.5 million, not a statistically significant increase over 2006, 2005 and 2004.

That might sound like really bad news, particularly as we face a tough economy. However, the good news is that IHRSA reports that despite membership numbers holding steady, the revenue for the industry has actually increased, which suggests that clubs are collecting more revenue per member than before, perhaps by increasing dues but also perhaps by increasing the number of members participating in club programs, such as personal training, wellness coaching, tennis lessons and summer camps for children.

The question is, how has the obesity rate leveled off without an increase in health club memberships? The answer seems obvious. Despite club owners' hopes that people need health clubs to lose weight, they don't. Club membership may be a tool that could help people lose weight and stay motivated, but people can exercise outside of clubs, and some are even turning to methods like bariatric surgery to lose weight.

These numbers suggest to me that people now understand that they need to eat healthier and be more active, but they aren't necessarily joining a health club to do either. Too many people still see health clubs as an intimidating place where they wouldn't fit in. They may be increasing their activity and eating healthier, but they aren't ready to commit their money and time to a health club.

Few fitness facility operators have figured out a way to reach these nonmembers because few club owners have talked to non-health club members to find out what has prevented them from joining their club. As an industry, that's a question we should be asking, and then we should act on that information.

The fitness industry has weathered past economic tough times better than many industries, and it will probably do the same this time around. However, for the long-term health of the industry, club owners need to know their nonmembers better so they can bring them into their clubs and help them with their weight-loss and health goals. That, in turn, will do what we all want, which is to not just maintain the obesity rate but to actually decrease it.