Some fitness facilities are getting quite the one-two punch out of group exercise programming by taking participants off of the floor and onto a treadmill. Although this type of programming has its challenges, many clubs have solved their logistical issues and are now scoring a total knockout.

Evolving out of the group cycling movement, group treadmill classes began when manufacturers, fitness directors and group exercise instructors decided, if it works on bikes, why wouldn't it work on stair steppers, ellipticals and treadmills? While the idea seemed great in theory and many were excited about the possibilities of using equipment that was already on a facility's floor, some clubs found implementing a program was trickier than they originally thought.

One large manufacturer even discontinued its group exercise treadmill program due to the cost of shipping treadmills across the country for educational events and trade shows, and for many facilities, the programming just didn't fit as they had envisioned. The culprits of poor return on the program? Namely space, quantity and timing.

Despite these issues, a number of clubs have had success with this type of programming. It just takes the correct class format, the right demographic, creative marketing and a little patience.

Popularity Contest

The Cleveland County Family YMCA in Norman, OK, has offered its treadmill group exercise class, Trekking, for about seven years. The facility dedicates seven treadmills to classes that run 10 times a week. Members sign up for the classes beforehand. For times such as 5:45 a.m. and 9 a.m. when spots fill up quickly, members can be placed on a waiting list in case there's a no-show.

“It's fairly popular,” says Raeana Smith, health and fitness director at the Cleveland County Family YMCA. “We'll fill all seven treadmills and then have a few names on the list. They can still participate, but they might not be on the same row [as the rest of the class].”

Instructors demonstrate the movements on a treadmill and speak into a microphone that is projected through a radio system. Class participants simply turn their headsets to the correct frequency, and viola, they can hear the instructor over the hum of the treadmills. Members are told they can walk, jog or run during the class depending on their fitness level. Instructors lead the class through stretching, agility and interval training.

“It can be pretty intense, but we have a lot of members who have been going consistently,” Smith says. “The class varies with instructors, but the members can pace themselves.”

Smith admits that at first she and the rest of the YMCA staff were concerned about reserving treadmills on the floor for a class. To alleviate that worry, the gym set a five-minute rule, meaning if any treadmill is open five minutes into the class, anyone can use it. However, to Smith's surprise, not a lot of members were overly concerned. She credits that to the 17 other treadmills available for use and to promotion materials that helped explain the class to members.

“If it's brand new, you'll have to key into promotion to explain what the class is,” she says. “Normally, you have to convince some people to stay on the treadmill, but with an instructor there some can really enjoy it.”

Promotion is the one area that Brook Dabbs, fitness coordinator of the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports in Dallas, wants to beef up for her group treadmill program. After opening a new recreation center at SMU in September, the center launched a number of new group exercise classes, including Tri-Training, a triathlon training program consisting of group cycling, swimming and simulated outdoor running on the treadmill. While on the treadmills, a camera links students with the instructor via a 42-inch plasma television screen and a karaoke system that helps project the instructor's directions. Eighteen treadmills of the total 24 in the weight room were reserved for the class during the fall 2005 semester class.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of marketing and an intimidation factor (Tri-Training is a four-day-a-week time and energy investment which, according to feedback, was just too much for some students), the class only attracted five participants, but Dabbs hopes to increase that for the winter 2006 semester.

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” Dabbs says. “Students are learning this is something to try, but it has taken some time for it to catch on.”

Timing was another issue Dabbs grappled with. Due to the high volume of patrons in the new center, Dabbs scheduled the classes for the less busy times of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“We had to ask, ‘Will it irritate more people than it offers something to?’ That's why we don't offer many classes during prime time,” she says.

Concerns and Benefits

Finding a time that draws members to the class but doesn't upset your regular patrons isn't the only challenge for this type of program. The class can be quite noisy, it creates added wear and tear on expensive equipment and additional space is needed to accommodate both treadmills and an instructor walking around and checking alignment, speed, intensity and elevation, says Meg Jordan, editor of American Fitness, the magazine of the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA).

“The classes are gaining slightly in popularity, but they're not the mainstay by a long shot,” Jordan says.

Kathy Stevens, a Reebok master trainer, AFAA trainer and director of the South End Racquet and Health Club in Torrance, CA, says many newer treadmills will automatically put users into a program with intervals, much like an instructor would.

“People in clubs like to do the treadmill, so they can be on their own time and schedule and don't want to be bothered with class times,” Stevens says. “They also like watching the Cardio Theater and the distraction from what they are actually doing rather than a focused workout.”

On the flip side, these classes can educate even “treadmill junkies.” Advanced treadmill exercisers can challenge themselves in new ways and accommodate musculoskeletal challenges and limitations, and beginners can learn how to use the treadmill safely and properly, Jordan says. And, all users can be cued on proper walking, jogging and running form and be part of the camaraderie that group exercise classes are known for.

To balance your seasoned, individual treadmill exercisers' needs with your new members' needs, Stevens recommends doing a monthly, “introduction to treadmill walking” class.

“The beauty of scheduling a trainer-led class is that you can get people to start off using the treadmill safely and properly, and you can cue proper walking,” she says. “And, your treadmill junkies realize it's only once a month, and maybe they'll do it and learn better alignment, footfall, etc.”

Another option is targeting aging Baby Boomers. Stevens does a lot of senior programming and says that if her seniors will do anything on cardio equipment, it's the treadmill. Many are uncomfortable mainstreaming into group fitness or even going into a typical gym.

“If you're teaching a senior treadmill class, you're not going to be highly motivating them,” she says. “It will be all about safety and good form and that they're comfortable.”

To ensure proper safety for participants, facilities should have a quality instructor, especially when a class is on a large piece of equipment such as the treadmill. Since few classes or educational workshops are held on the topic of group treadmill exercise, many facilities resort to in-house training. Both Smith and Dabbs conduct workshops for their instructors to get them up to speed (pun intended).

Clubs should also hire an instructor who is CPR and First Aid certified with a base certification in personal training or group exercise, Jordan says.

“People sometimes want to increase their speed and intensity just because their neighbors are doing so,” Jordan warns. “Instructors have to caution them to go at their own pace constantly.”

Stevens also recommends a basic biomechanics class or a workshop on proper walking/running technique. Most major conventions offer such classes, and many have home-study versions. She also cautions about getting too creative with the treadmill. Some instructors will do lunges, shuffles and other exercises, which can be a safety issue if the treadmill is moving.

“Sometimes people will try to make something out of something that's not meant to be,” Stevens says. “If [the treadmill] is in motion I would do nothing other than what it's meant for.”

While group treadmill classes may never catch on quite like group cycling has, it has its place in some facilities. You just need to figure out the logistical issues and find the type of class that fits your members best (whether it's an intense triathlon training, general walking/jogging, an introduction class for all or senior-friendly programming). If you can find or train quality instructors, schedule the class at a popular time without inconveniencing your individual exercisers and promote the class well, then it's possible for you and your club to score a TKO with your group treadmill class.