Health clubs owners are finally getting the picture. At least some of them are, says Cynthia Sass, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. More health clubs today are looking for a registered dietitian to provide nutrition advice to members.

“What I've seen is a real shift,” says Sass, who has worked at a fitness center as a nutritionist. In the past, health clubs either didn't have nutrition programs or a dietitian would have to initiate a discussion with a club owner about providing a nutrition program. “Now, I see the owners initiating it. The clubs want to be more than a place to go and work out. They want to be a place where members can get more. Nutrition is a part of that.”

The happier a nutrition program can make members, the more profitable the nutrition program will be, says Christine Karpinski, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in private practice.

That means a club's nutrition program shouldn't be a one-size-fits all program. Of course, any successful program will have one-on-one consultation with a registered dietitian (RD), but the best programs are ones that offer services to everyone along with individual services, says Sass. The club could offer group classes, such as nutrition 101 where members can learn the basics for free — and possibly whet their appetite for more individualized service. A club could then offer targeted classes, such as those for weight loss, new mothers or marathon runners. A dietitian could also set up a booth on the fitness floor to answer general nutrition questions and drum up business.

“I think a lot of clubs are really missing out by not doing these things,” says Sass. “Just having a wall of supplements is not interactive or educational.”

One thing Sass frowns upon is clubs partnering with diet programs that involve the member purchasing prepackaged meals from the club. Sass has concerns about these programs because they are not teaching people about lifestyle change and how to manage their meals.

“People flounder after time,” Sass says. “They can't stay with it after a while. While the club is making money upfront, if someone is unsatisfied with that, they will be unhappy with the club overall.”

“There are a lot of issues that the club owners and managers need to consider,” Sass says. “Programs may be financially successful, but if they are generating poor publicity, then it won't be good for the club in the long term.”

SETTING IT UP

Whether a club employs a dietitian full time or contracts out on a full-time or part-time basis will depend on the club.

“I'd suggest that you hire them as a consultant. If it works out, then you can hire the person,” says Karpinski.

Sass has seen clubs put an RD on staff and not have success with the program because while members know that nutrition is important, they don't feel they need a nutritionist. She has seen clubs with an RD on staff where members pay more for general membership but get dietician use for free. She says that members tend to use the RD more in those cases.

People tend to get their nutrition information for free online or through the media, which makes them question why they should pay a nutritionist.

“The club owner needs to let them know there is a lot of information they think they have that's accurate but it's not,” says Sass. To prove this to members, Sass has done nutrition quizzes at some of the clubs she's worked at surprising many with their lack of nutrition knowledge.

The RD and the club owner need to work together to let members know that they need a nutritionist. A nutrition quiz for members is a good way to start, but Sass also has developed campaigns where she's put up posters about who needs a dietitian — such as an expectant mom or new mom — and what benefits a dietitian can offer that person. Those campaigns have helped pull more members into her office.

Staff, specifically desk staff, must not only know what the dietitian is doing, but must buy into it so they can talk to members about it. The personal trainers must also be familiar with what the RD is doing so they can talk to their clients about it.

In addition, a club with a newsletter or Web site should devote a portion of it to the RD so he or she can dispense general advice and familiarize members with the fact that a nutritionist is available to them.

The nutritionist also should do interactive activities for free such as nutrition or cooking classes, sample giveaways, ask the dietitian cards, quizzes. In addition, the RD could work with a group instructor or personal trainer to offer a package, such as a yoga class with a vegetarian cooking class.

The club Karpinski consults in asks new members to fill out a three-day food diary and turn it in. The gym then pays Karpinski to create a customized plan for the member as a way to get people interested in her services and to show the member that the club cares about all aspects of the person's health.

Regardless of how well a nutrition program is marketed, it generally won't take off immediately, says Sass. The RD needs time to develop a relationship with members and staff. That can be helped along by inviting the dietitian to all staff meetings so he or she knows what's going on and so he or she can offer insight on how he or she can integrate nutrition into programs offered by the club.

The more an RD knows about the club and its programs and the more the club's staff knows about the RD, the more successful the program will be for members and the club.

HIRING HELP

Regardless of how a nutrition program is set up, a club owner must ensure he or she hires the right person to lead that program. The first place to start is by checking with the American Dietetic Association (ADA). The association has a Sports Cardio and Wellness Nutrition Practice Group. The dietitians in this group have additional expertise in fitness and wellness, which would make them especially good fits at a health club because they can talk about both fitness and nutrition, says Cynthia Sass, spokesperson for the ADA.

A club owner must also decide whether to hire a registered dietitian (RD) or a certified nutritionist. An RD has completed both academic and related experience to meet the requirement established by the Commission on Dietetic Registration, the certifying agency for the ADA. RDs also must pass a national exam and complete continuing professional courses and training. A certified nutritionist has a degree from an accredited institution in nutrition.

Some states regulate the profession, requiring RDs to be licensed so a club owner should find out requirements in his or her state and hire accordingly.

Beyond the academic and licensing requirement, a club owner should look for traits that will fit with his or her club. Look for an RD who is energetic, who fits the culture of club, and who can offer program and service ideas.

THE CONFUSING WORLD OF SUPPLEMENTS

The vast array of supplements available to members can cause confusion, but having a registered dietitian (RD) on board may not clear up that confusion. RDs have mixed thoughts on the supplement issue and it's compounded by what some say is an unclear position on the subject by the American Dietetic Association (ADA). The ADA, which sets standards for dietitians, released a statement about supplement use.

“They are insinuating that we should not be selling supplements, but it's gray,” says Christine Karpinski, registered dietitian and exercise physiologist in private practice.

Cynthia Sass, spokesperson for the ADA, says, “It'd be hard to find an RD who would be willing to push dietary supplements. It's a huge area of debate in our field.”

That debate stems partly from the fact that supplements are unregulated except for labeling and sometime that labeling is suspect, she says.

“The RDs are hesitant to recommend something that doesn't have good scientific backing because it goes against our training,” says Sass.

Sass opposes a nutrition program that is based on recommending members take dietary supplements, many of which are sold at the health club doing the recommending.

“These are just dietary supplement programs for clubs to make more money,” says Sass. “There are huge liability issues there. We just don't really have a great regulatory system in place for these products.”

However, because many clubs will continue to sell dietary supplements, Sass says those clubs have an even greater need for a registered dietician to prevent problems and liability issues. She suggests that rather than a club owner relying on an RD to push supplements, he or she should look at the RD as a resource for which supplements to sell and which to steer clear of. Besides, if an RD can feel comfortable with the ingredients in a supplement, the RD may be more willing to recommend the supplement when he or she feels it is actually needed.