Your members' loss could be your gain. But that's only if you have a good weight management program in place.

The need is certainly there for weight management programs. Not only are 64 percent of adults in the United States overweight or obese, but obesity-related medical costs reached $75 billion last year, according to a study by RTI International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health clubs are offering a broader array of services to their clientele, including weight management programs, says Robert Charles Karch, professor and chair of the Department of Health & Fitness at American University. He says that Americans have become more keenly aware of health issues due to media coverage of the obesity crisis.

“It's difficult to be an adult consumer today and not recognize the problem,” says Karch, who also owns Biometrics Fitness (a computerized, dietary eating and exercise program that is licensed to providers including personal trainers and club owners). “These people showing up at the clubs are pretty knowledgeable. They know what they need and want. The clubs from a business perspective better meet those needs. It's good business for the clubs if they offer a quality program that's staffed properly.”

Revenue from these programs can add to a club's bottom line. Wolff Health & Fitness, which has two fitness center facilities and two personal training facilities separate from the health clubs, has had a weight management program for the past 10 years. The club counts its revenue from the weight management program in two areas: as a service and as food sales (because part of the program involves selling meal replacements). Food sales are roughly $12,000 per month with a 30 percent margin. In the service area, the program brings in $8,000-$10,000 per month.

Richard Wolff, owner and director of weight management at Wolff Health & Fitness in Elgin, IL, says that the program is worth the effort even though people seem to look at personal training now as their weight management program.

“As much as people want to lose weight, they walk in more willing to pay for personal training than weight loss,” says Wolff. “We are more busy with our personal training than with our weight management program.”

Weight management programs are rarely a major profit center, says Ronda Gates, owner of Lifestyles by Ronda Gates, a consulting company. Instead, the programs are a way to attract new members to a club.

“I have always encouraged clubs to market to nonmembers vs. members because there is a limited population within the club already,” says Gates. “Say you have 1,000 members and 100 are interested [in the weight management program]. So after you have those taken care of, where is your program to go?”

Gates encourages clubs to market to individuals outside the club and give them temporary memberships to the facility. Temporary memberships allow weight management clients to feel as if they can opt out of gym membership if they are not comfortable at the club. However, the task of the club is to make the temporary members feel comfortable and convert them to full members once the weight management program is over.

The program at Wolff Health & Fitness consists of half hour, one-on-one sessions or full hour group sessions, and both are open to members and nonmembers.

Both programs contain a weight loss phase and a weight maintenance phase.

“The real goal is to get the weight off of them to have them see the value or necessity for maintenance,” says Wolff. “If they lose 40 pounds, then that person will more likely enroll in the maintenance program. So our objective is to get them to lose weight, then get them enrolled in the maintenance program.”

The weight loss program at Wolff Health & Fitness is a 12-week course. After that, if individuals are at a point that it makes sense to transition to maintenance, then the maintenance is sold in six-month packages.

“And we've had some members in 10 years for maintenance,” says Wolff.

The weight loss program is $85 per month or $255 for a 12-week program. The maintenance program is $80 per month.

The group sessions revolve around five success principles: weekly attendance, which involves a weekly check in where clients get on the scale and set their next goal; daily record keeping of what they eat; physical activity with an objective number of calories they have set to burn off each week and tracking measures for that; eating five whole cups of fruit and vegetables each day; meal replacement where they have the option to eat a calorie-saving alternative.

“We look at it as a skill that they need training and support in,” says Wolff. “We partner with them. The relationship is a coaching/partnerships so they have to be open to that.”

While some health clubs add weight loss programs into their facilities, one company has done just the opposite. LA Weight Loss, a weight management program that has been around since 1989, added in February an exercise company, LA Shapes, to its menu of programs.

“We understand weight loss so the exercise part of it is a natural adjunct,” says Jack Bachinsky, vice president of marketing for LA Shapes.

The exercise component at LA Shapes is a hydraulic, 30-minute circuit training set up.

“Our clients are more overweight than those that would typically go into a gym so when they first come to us, they aren't looking to work out,” says Bachinsky. “But once they lose some weight, they are.”

Alice Eastmure, director of program development at LA Shapes, agrees. “When someone has lost that weight and they've only done it with diet, then it's natural to want to tone,” she says. “That's where it seemed to be a natural marriage. It's been received highly from current clients and new clients.”

In the LA Shape and LA Weight Loss program, the person receives a personalized meal plan for clients based on their height, weight, goals and medical condition. The clients use grocery store foods only and the plan provides them with a program so they can eat out at restaurants and fast food places. The clients also receive counseling to monitor their progress. They must keep a food diary so the staff can help them make good food choices. The staff also monitors their progress through regular measurements.

After they've lost the weight, the client goes on a six-week stabilization and maintenance program to ensure that their behavior has changed. They can come in at any time after that six-week program if they feel they need to, says Bachinsky.

CHALLENGES

Adding a weight loss program to a facility comes with challenges. The biggest challenge for many facilities is space related. A club must find space for weight loss classes and possible one-on-one counseling. LA Shapes ran into that problem at its facilities. Many of the weight loss centers just didn't have the space for a circuit so the company is aggressively building stand-alone LA Shapes, preferably near a current LA Weight Loss facility, says Bachinsky.

Another problem is that the programs some clubs have in place are lackluster or off-the-shelf offerings that are not aggressive or intensive because most clubs aren't investing the time and resources with their people to do aggressive weight management, says Wolff.

“The programs I see aren't very high intensive,” says Wolff. “They are just a step above reading a book.”

Gates agrees, saying that most clubs don't have the personnel or the appropriate facilities to manage a program so they just throw something together instead of looking at the club and understanding the personality and the perspective of the perspective client including the fact that most overweight people don't want to go to a club.

Club owners must decide how serious they are about helping people get results because it takes a lot of staff time, staff hours and staff training for a good weight management program.

“If you aren't going to do it right, don't do it at all,” Wolff says. “Most clubs don't do it right.”

And health clubs often do a poor job of pulling in the people who really need the weight management programs. Even though health clubs speak to wanting to attract the deconditioned, their “meat and potatoes” are really the people who are looking to exercise and are motivated to do it, says Gates

“That doesn't have a lot to do with capturing the market in our population that is sedentary and contemplating making change,” Gates says. The person who is most suitable to self help programs or club-dominated programs are people who are 5 percent to 20 percent overfat as opposed to people who are more overfat, she says. The more overfat a person is, the more intensive the programs need to be because the more overweight someone is the more psychological issues are involved.

“They (obese people) are very wary of people who have never been overfat or people who say, ‘Just do what I tell you to do.’ Successful programs are based on intrinsic changes that come from within not from outside,” Gates says.

COMPONENTS OF A GOOD PROGRAM

That's not to say health clubs can't put together successful weight management programs. A good weight loss program should include several elements.

  • Stress exercise

    The underlying piece of a good weight management program is the exercise component because it can overcome a lot of things, says Gates. Even if people are so obese that they can't do much physical activity at the beginning, the importance of exercise should be taught.

  • Offer good nutrition information

    It's important to offer an understanding of nutrition and to point out the fallacies of fad diets. Gates cautions clubs to avoid teaching fad diets even though it can be lucrative to do so.

    “I've seen clubs move from five years ago talking about the Zone, the Atkins, then South Beach, but they set themselves up for having a reputation for moving from one thing to another as opposed to teaching good, basic nutrition that works,” says Gates.

  • Create a lifestyle change

    Any weight management program must fit a person's lifestyle so tailoring a program to take into account each person's medical condition, family situation, work situation and life situation is important.

    In addition, members must change their habits. To do so, the programs must teach them new, healthy habits and help them practice these. The program should be structured so that members have specific things to do to keep them on track, such as keeping a record of their food intake and exercise, creating shopping lists.

  • Emphasize safety and realism

    A good weight management program must be safe and emphasize that the fundamental principles of weight loss deal with caloric balance, says Karch.

    A program also must avoid making outrageous claims about quick weight loss.

    “Weight loss isn't about quick weight loss but sustainable weight loss,” says Gates.

  • Employ caring staff

    In this area, Karch says the industry is progressing.

    “So often, we've been accused of catering to the healthy people who look good in leotards,” says Karch. “If you want to get in the weight management business, you need to have an awareness of the needs of individuals and be receptive to individuals as they are.”

    That involves creating an environment that is safe physiologically and psychologically for the overweight individual.

    “When people do come to facilities, that's a big step for them,” says Karch. “It takes a lot to walk into a facility full of hard bodies. If they take that step, then you want to help them. If we can get better at that, then we can help them and make a contribution to our society.”

  • Have a formal meeting place

    A club with a formal program needs a place for people to meet instead of setting up chairs after hours in a workout space. While that can work if it is the only space available, it's not the best environment, says Gates. Instead, a temporary looking setup indicates to the client that the club is willing to help them but only when nothing else is happening at the club.

    “That perpetuates that bias against people who aren't in the norm,” says Gates.

  • Consider partnering with existing groups

    Faith-based weight loss programs are the fasted growing weight management programs in the country but they often don't have an affiliation with clubs, says Gates. In addition, a network exists around the Dr. Phil weight loss books. A club could run a support group in a club or partner with these groups.

    “Maybe these alliances are a way to go,” says Gates. “You can go to where the people are rather than trying to find the people and bring them to you.”

  • Offer a set time span

    Successful programs require a set and limited time commitment. Six-week programs are ideal because they seem manageable to an individual who may be overwhelmed with a longer commitment, says Gates. If the participant is seeing results, he or she can sign up for another six weeks of the program.

  • Put together statistics and research to back your program

    Track the weight loss, blood pressure changes, strength gains, etc., of individuals participating in your program and the retention rate. This lends credibility to your program with potential members and with the medical community with whom you could partner in the future.

  • Make members accountable

    For a program to be successful, individuals must check in at least weekly, says Wolff. That check in can be a one-on-one session or a group meeting. Make sure that during the meeting the member receives feedback about their progress and receives new information or reinforcement of old information.

  • Put a champion in charge and staff the program with “specialists.”

    For any program the main ingredient is an individual heading the program who truly believes in it and is dedicated to it. The person who manages the program should have experience in the area or know enough about the business to be able to support the environment that will make the club successful.

    In turn, that person needs staff that have learned how to work with obese people to make them feel comfortable and to help them succeed in reaching their goals. Retaining the same staff in the program helps the clients develop a rapport with people that they can trust.

    Gates says that too many club employees don't know enough about obesity and how to work with obese people, who often have medical risks that other club members don't. For that reason, club staff need to be aware of the risks and know how to deal with them.

  • Train staff to be aggressive and intensive in the early stages

    Weight management clients must experience success at the beginning of the program or they won't hang on, says Wolff.

    “You have to get a strong start or you are dead in the water,” Wolff says. “A lot of people don't realize that. They think they can start easy and go gradual. People don't come in saying that they want to start slowly; they want to lose weight yesterday.”

  • Get all staff involved

    Inform all your staff about the weight management program so that the front desk staff can talk about it when people have questions and the personal trainers and group instructors can speak knowledgeably about it during sessions and classes.

BENEFITS

Clubs that can provide good programs that encompass the above points can reap several benefits besides extra revenue. The club earns customer satisfaction for offering a full range of services, and the club can earn a reputation for good weight management programs in the community. And that reputation can be the most important ingredient for getting a weight management program rolling, leading a club to bigger profits and members to bigger losses.