Just for Kids: Even before the White House launched a new initiative for children's fitness, health clubs have played a role in the battle against childhood obesity.
When she announced her new Let's Move campaign last month, first lady Michelle Obama focused on encouraging more physical activity for children and better nutrition through healthier food choices in schools. The campaign has the backing of several corporations and industries as well as federal agencies and the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services.
Add one more industry to the list of supporters for the Let's Move campaign: the health club industry. Within days of the announcement, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) applauded the initiative.
“Mrs. Obama's pragmatic, compassionate and hands-on approach to solving the problem will serve as an inspiring example on which all of us can model our efforts,” says Joe Moore, IHRSA's president and CEO.
The health club industry already is helping get kids fit and curtailing childhood obesity. Currently, more than 22 percent of commercial health clubs offer children-specific programming, according to IHRSA, and almost 20 percent offer a kids-only section of the club. All told, health clubs serve more than 4.8 million members under the age of 18, including 1.13 million between the ages of 6 and 12 and 3.11 million between 13 and 17.
Further, the number of children using health clubs to exercise has increased 108 percent since 1990, according to IHRSA, and the number of first-time health club members under the age of 18 has doubled in 10 years. Also, 33 percent of fitness professionals teach kids' classes, and 55 percent offer one-on-one personal training to youths aged 18 and younger.
Clubs designed specifically for the physical development of children also have turned into industry-recognized companies. Clubs such as The Little Gym and My Gym have made Entrepreneur magazine's Franchise 500 list the past few years. Another club, Fitwize 4 Kids, received Entrepreneur's attention a few years ago.
“Anything that's out there that's going to supplement and encourage physical activity, the better,” says Phil Lawler of PE4life, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the enhancement of physical education programs. “My biggest concern with all these different types of models is to make sure we let kids be kids. We've got to make sure that fun is a major factor, even with health as our objective. If we turn them off to exercise, we've failed dramatically.”
The Little Gym, Scottsdale, AZ, offers programs for kids as young as 4 months to 12 years old in areas such as gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, karate and sports skills development. The Little Gym franchisees are not required to have a personal training or physical education background but all franchisees go through a comprehensive program before opening their clubs.
“Our goal is to help children develop a love for physical activity and do what kids love best,” says Paul Dickison, vice president of marketing and brand management for The Little Gym. “They love to have fun, and they love to be energetic and active.”
Annual membership at The Little Gym, which ranked No. 141 on the Franchise 500 list, is $35 for one child and $60 for a family. Members pay for classes on top of that. A 20-week semester can range from $300 to $600 or $700, depending on the location of the club, Dickison says. Birthday parties and “parent survival nights,” where kids stay at The Little Gym while their parents go out on a date, bring in added revenue.
Domestic revenue was down about 8 percent in 2009 compared to 2008 for The Little Gym, but including the company's international operations, overall revenue was flat, Dickison says. Like all would-be club owners, potential franchisees of The Little Gym have found it difficult to get financing in the face of the recession, Dickison adds, but current franchisees have had success retaining members.
“Parents want to do what's best for their children,” Dickison says. “We feel that many of the parents that are enrolled in our programs are willing to forgo some of the simple pleasures that they used to experience, such as their $4 latte or frequent trips to restaurants. Even as we rolled into 2009, where the economy was at its toughest place in this recession, we saw an improvement in our ability to retain customers from semester to semester. That being said, we did find it a little bit of a challenge to stimulate market interest with gaining new people into the gyms, but it was a modest impact compared to what other industries are feeling.”
My Gym, Sherman Oaks, CA, is a franchised brand of clubs for children, but it also offers something unique that may be the wave of the future. At a lower-cost franchise fee, franchisees can purchase a My Gym Mobile unit. This allows them to market to between 50 and 75 day care and preschool-type facilities as well as Montessori schools and after-school programs in the franchisee's protected territory.
The mobile program and the fixed center-based clubs work toward My Gym's mission of combating childhood obesity and making fitness fun, says Michael Chalovich, chief operating officer of My Gym, which ranked No. 208 on the Franchise 500 list. Because of the tough economy and cuts to physical activity in schools, the franchisees have been able to sell school administrators on their movement class and activity class, Chalovich says.
Next Page: FITWIZE 4 KIDS
“It's been a great bump for our franchisees to run the mobile program,” Chalovich says.
Parents pay around $70 a month for the fixed center, with a one-time $75 lifetime membership fee. My Gym Mobile franchisees can earn about $70 per class for kids ranging from about 2 to 12.
My Gym fixed centers also offer karate/martial arts training, a parents' night out and birthday parties. Another unique aspect of My Gym is The Activators, an ensemble of teachers, athletes, singers and dancers whose goal is making fitness fun for kids on www.theactivators.net.
“We're going to continue to work with anybody that we can that will help us get on board with [combating] childhood obesity and keeping kids active,” Chalovich says.
As a corporation, My Gym saw a reduction in revenue in 2009 due to the economy, Chalovich says, but franchisees' royalty streams grew or stayed steady throughout the year.
Fitwize 4 Kids, Coral Springs, FL, separates itself from The Little Gym and My Gym in that it incorporates specially designed fitness equipment for kids. The target market for Fitwize 4 Kids is between 6 and 15 years old.
Fitwize 4 Kids clubs have a circuit setup and functional stations where kids can increase their agility by doing push-ups, sit-ups, squats and medicine ball work.
“The idea of utilizing equipment that's specifically designed for kids is to make sure safety is always at the forefront of what Fitwize 4 Kids is doing,” says Nick Pommier, chief operating officer. “We've created a place that is fun for everyone, the kids all get along, we have a real supportive environment, but the training is focused on real training. It's not about play. We're really teaching them skills, lifestyle habits and just giving them the tools that they need to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves.”
Kids can exercise and train at their own pace, and to keep them motivated, ribbons and trophies are awarded after the completion of different exercise tests. Fitwize 4 Kids also holds nutrition seminars, birthday parties and a kids' night out.
“It's amazing that a 6-year-old can take this type of information and become successful at anything they want to do,” Pommier says. “They build confidence, self-esteem, discipline. They get better grades in school. They go home and they start telling their parents what to eat.”
Pommier applauds the recently launched Let's Move program, but he says that clubs like his put the initiative into action.
“They're saying, ‘Let's do something.’ But they're still not saying, ‘Here's how you do it,’” Pommier says. “It's still missing the root. People are going to start saying, ‘We need all this. But now what?’ And Fitwize 4 Kids is the now what.”
Kid-oriented franchises aren't the only clubs catering to children. Many multi-purpose clubs also offer programming for the little ones as a way to keep the whole family active.
Town Sports International (TSI), New York, which operates My Sports Clubs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, DC, has a wide range of programs in its Sports Clubs for Kids, located primarily in its New York and Boston clubs. Programs for members and nonmembers include cheerleading, dance, gymnastics, kickboxing, a kids yoga club and general youth sports conditioning. TSI clubs also offer a swim academy, tennis and squash programs, and summer camps.
Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, offers ongoing junior sports and fitness activities, including a fit academy, rock climbing, basketball, tennis, racquetball and squash. Seasonal fitness classes include martial arts, dance, volleyball and munchkin soccer. Life Time also has swim lessons at its U Swim School, as well as summer camps.
The Field House at Chelsea Piers, part of Chelsea Piers' 30-acre complex in New York, offers three semesters of youth programming for children 12 months and older. Activities for youth classes include baseball, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, dance and rock climbing.
Teens and tweens who are serious about sports can train at Chelsea Piers' sports-specific BlueStreak training center. Youth programs at BlueStreak include general conditioning, baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse and running. BlueStreak's hockey training includes a hockey treadmill on which athletes are harnessed and skate on an incline.
Chelsea Piers has 16 summer camps for kids, four more than it had last year, according to the company.
Next Page: Children-Only Clubs Could Serve as Role Models for Adult Clubs
Some club operators looking to add children's fitness programming to their clubs would be wise to look at the children-only club model for ideas.
Michael Chalovich, chief operating officer of My Gym, Sherman Oaks, CA, says his company has discussed designing a child-friendly program for a number of larger fitness clubs.
“A lot of them have the babysitting, but we feel we provide an activity program that can benefit younger children with our expertise,” Chalovich says.
Club operators that want to add children's fitness programming should make sure they work with an expert and a staff with knowledge about children's activities, Chalovich says. A club operator should put a plan or program in place and spend a few months developing it before implementing it into the club.
“So you're not just throwing something up just to throw something up,” Chalovich says. If a program is rushed, Chalovich adds, people may not get the enjoyment out of it, and club operators may not attempt to implement it again.
Paul Dickison, vice president of marketing and brand management for The Little Gym, Scottsdale, AZ, says his company has considered pursuing a co-development idea for operators of adult clubs in which they could develop or license The Little Gym alongside their clubs.
“We view what we do along with what an adult club does as being very complementary,” Dickison says. “If an adult fitness club is trying to implement their own children's development program, they might want to determine if a babysitting service is all that is wanted by their customer base. On the other hand, if there is a dedicated customer profile that wants their child to develop a lifelong habit of being physically active, the club should consider co-developing or licensing a The Little Gym and positioning it next to their club.”
Some family-oriented clubs are incorporating unique children's programs into their mix. The Country Club of Fitness Inc., Orangeburg, SC, has a Boys and Girls Fitness USA after-school program at its Muscle Beach Athletic Club in which kids aged 5 to 15 in neighboring school districts are taken by bus to the center. There, they participate in a variety of activities, including basketball, racquetball, swimming, martial arts, miniature golf, aerobics, cardiovascular exercises, and health and nutrition seminars.
The star of the program is a superhero named Captain Fitness, who fights poor nutrition and unhealthy habits in the form of characters dressed as pizza, a hot dog, French fries and bologna. Kids are weighed and measured every 30 days, and the goal for them is to lose a pound a week, says co-owner Andrea Rodriguez. If the results are not met, their parents are contacted.
The fee is about $50 per week for the after-school program, which lasts from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and consists of 20 to 30 kids. Children who cannot afford the fee can qualify for a voucher. In the summer, the program has attracted up to 200 kids, Rodriguez says.
“This is a new program, but it is growing, and we are having some wonderful outcomes,” says Rodriguez, who owns the club with her husband, Ramon, aka Captain Fitness. “Kids are losing weight, self-esteem is going up, energy levels are channeled in the right direction, and parents have told us that their child is doing much better in school.”