Club membership is down for Bobbi Hayes, owner of Bulldog Interactive Fitness, a Canadian-based interactive fitness facility franchise designed for youth ages 3 to teens. Despite initial growth when she opened in 2007, the recession has cooled that growth today as many families deal with layoffs or reduced hours and pay.

“As parents do not understand the need for daily fitness, [club membership] was one of the first things to cut in their budgets,” she says.

However, that doesn't mean that Hayes has given up on her vision of using active gaming to help children get fit. In fact, Hayes has incorporated more interactive gaming into her club's programming.

“We offer many programs and classes like yoga and step class ultimate fitness. Some include the interactive [element], like climbing, rowing or biking challenges,” she says. “Every month, we have a different challenge, such as row to Cuba, bike to the North Pole or climb Mount Everest — and the kids love them.”

And it also hasn't stopped other club operators from looking at active gaming to attract family memberships while dealing with the obesity problem.

Data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (1976-1980 and 2003-2006) show that the prevalence of obesity has increased. For children aged 2 to 5 years, obesity increased from 5 percent to 12.4 percent. For those aged 6 to 11 years, the prevalence of obesity increased from 6.5 percent to 17 percent. For those aged 12 to 19 years, that prevalence increased from 5 percent to 17.6 percent.

Those numbers are bound to rise as families have to cut back on activities and increase their consumption of cheaper (and, often, less healthy) food. Families that are working longer hours to make ends meet often turn to fast food for quick meals.

The need to combat childhood obesity is still a main driver for getting involved in children's fitness programming and exergaming. That need seems to be a long-term one that can fuel revenues and memberships for years to come.

For Kids' Sake

Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club in Greenwood Village, CO, opened an interactive gaming center this past June. The 2,100-square-foot environment is an “advanced active gaming and entertainment system where kids and adults can become a human joystick” using both brain and body, according to the company.

In the club's active gaming area, users can enjoy snowboarding, a popular dance-based game, rock climbing, boxing, four-wheel racing, jet skiing and riding the Tour de France on virtual reality bikes — all while working out.

According to Paula Neubert, general manager, the new gaming center is a place for members, aged 5 and up, to have fun in a safe, friendly and supervised workout environment.

Even though the whole family can enjoy exergaming, Hayes says her club was designed to give kids their own place for physical fitness. Her facility offers a dance-based game, Wii, game bikes and rowing machines with interactive monitors, among other options.

“We opened the club because kids perform better when they are away from adults. [They] need a place just for them to be themselves,” says Hayes. “[There is a need] to combat childhood obesity and to develop social skills amongst children.”

The Briar Club, a member-owned social club in Houston that added interactive gaming this March to its 18,000-square-foot fitness center, has experienced an increase in children's participation and membership since it added the exergames, says Rich Andrae, wellness and recreation director at the club. The equipment includes two stations for a dance-based game and a snowboarding station, among the offerings.

“In the first 60 days, we did over 800 orientations,” Andrae says. “Now, it is at 40 to 50 visits a day. In the fitness center, we probably get 250 to 300 visits per day.”

With sales of Wii Fit topping more than 20 million units sold worldwide (just under 9 million in the Americas), along with the success of some of the interactive games in traditional arcade settings, it is not hard to see the potential success in the merging of gaming and fitness in facilities across North America.

Although it does not use its interactive gaming area as a profit center, Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center in Chrystal, IL, continues to grow its interactive gaming options, which it first started a few years ago.

“[Interactive gaming has] diversified our activity offerings,” says Lisa Gasior of Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center. “The older children enjoy the interaction and variety of games, and the interactive technology produces a recreational experience that provides hours of fun for toddlers up to adults.”

Gamers of All Ages

Appealing to all ages may in the long run be a tremendous benefit to the facilities that are early adopters of interactive gaming. This approach can help recoup the dollars spent on games in a combination of fitness and gaming.

In fact, statistics from the market research firm the NPD Group show that the number of Americans who play video games has surpassed the number who go to movies. In a survey of more than 11,000 people, 63 percent had played a video game within the past six months, while only 53 percent had gone to a movie. They also found that the purchase of game consoles was on the rise, as were new methods of accessing the games themselves, such as playing over a social networking site or downloading a game onto a mobile phone.

The report found that in the first three months of 2009, the average gamer spent a little more than $38 per month on all types of gaming content, which is about the cost of an average fitness facility membership. One-third of monthly U.S. consumer spending for core entertainment was video games, according to the study.

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With so many people of all ages classified as “gamers,” it's no wonder that some facilities are turning to interactive gaming as a way to reach adults and non-traditional exercisers.

While looking for something new and different for its members, The Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Cherry Hill, NJ, purchased several new interactive gaming bikes last March. The JCC caters to members aged 14 and up.

“People who did no cardio are hooked on them, and the traditional bikers love it,” says Margie Hess, fitness director of the Katz JCC.

In fact, Hess says that the programming built around the bikes has been immensely popular. The facility placed first in miles logged during a nationwide contest run by the bikes' manufacturer.

“While treadmills and ellipticals still lead the way, the new bikes are very popular,” says Hess. “They are in use all day long, and the members love them.”

Centegra Health Bridge Fitness Center has programming for children beyond interactive gaming. However, Gasior has seen a decrease in children's participation in many areas — that is, except for interactive fitness.

“We offer many children's programs from yoga to Pilates to dance-based fitness, and they are popular, but the [gaming] system is used all day long. It is the most popular activity we have in our child center,” Gasior says.

Even though children are the main audience for interactive gaming, keeping adults — especially adults who are parents — aware of interactive gaming options and benefits is important. After all, children must rely on their parents to get them to the club. Without that buy-in, the effectiveness of any exergaming program at fitness facilities is minimal.

But how does a club do this when finances are tight for parents? Offering different membership options for exergaming has helped Hayes overcome this obstacle.

“While we offer a one-month trial, a three-month membership and a yearly membership, our drop-in option is our most popular,” says Hayes. “Parents do not recognize the need for children to develop a healthy lifestyle through daily exercise yet, but hopefully, when they see it is fun for the whole family, they will.”

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