As America's obesity rate continues to climb, a number of health clubs are collaborating with their city and state governments to develop wellness programs that reach the deconditioned market and their communities.

Ranking as America's fattest city isn't exactly the kind of publicity that city officials and resident health club operators ever wish for. However, the attention can sometimes serve as quite the catalyst for positive change in the community — both physically for residents and financially for fitness facilities.

That was the case for Houston in early 2005 when Houston Mayor Bill White launched Get Moving Houston and a wellness council to address Houston's ranking as the fattest city in America in 2005. Those efforts helped lower the city to No. 5 on 2006's fattest list. Besides sponsoring a number of wellness events including competitive runs and bike races, the council is aggressively studying how to target the deconditioned market.

“This year we dropped another notch down to No. 6,” Herb Lipsman, chairman of the Houston Mayor's Wellness Council and president and CEO of The Health Club Co., says of the ranking. “Because of all of our initiatives, we'll probably get off the top 10 this coming year. We would like to eventually get to the fittest list.”

Each year, Men's Fitness magazine releases its top 25 fittest and fattest cities. And each year, a number of city mayors, officials and health club owners and fitness facility managers anxiously await the list, hoping that this year their hard work and dedicated resources have moved them up or down at least a few notches on the list (depending on which list the city is placed on).

The annual list examines numerous lifestyle factors in each city it studies, including how much residents use their gym memberships, how much junk food they consume and how much time they spend sitting in traffic, to name a few. Men's Fitness also interviews mayors and city park and rec departments to learn about local exercise venues, programs designed to get citizens off their couches and civic leadership. The list is extensive but by no means scientific, according to the magazine and many health professionals. However, the list is widely reported by the mainstream media, which can bestow serious praise — or tough criticism — on city officials and health club operators.

The 2007 list was released last month (see the top 10 fittest and fattest cities on p. 38) to many fitness professionals and city professionals' chagrin/pleasure (again, depending on which list their city landed). In fact, a number of cities and states have launched public campaigns aimed at getting their residents active in direct response to this annual list. Not only are these programs helping to get their communities fitter, they're also reaping big benefits for fitness centers across the country, in cities large and small.

Last December, Mayor White also launched the Houston Wellness Association (HWA), a collaborative effort of national corporations and Houston-based businesses that, as founding partners, have pledged to spearhead the health care needs of all segments of the population.

“The HWA is a trade association for everything that comes under the wellness umbrella — health club business, health insurance, health food stores, anything you can think of that has to do with health and wellness,” Lipsman says. “Corporate sponsors give us $25,000 per year for financial support to get this up and running.”

Westside Tennis and Fitness in Houston is one of those founding partners. Best known as a tennis center holding events such as the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships, the facility is transitioning to a multi-sport facility, says Lipsman, who consults for the club.

To promote that change and get involved with the community, Westside joined HWA. On May 12, it will open its doors to the public for a group exercise marathon in conjunction with a major group exercise class licensing company. Lipsman expects more than 5,000 participants.

“This will be our launch party,” he says. “The club has a 5,300-seat stadium for tennis, and we're going to take it over for these classes.”

These types of partnerships benefit both parties, he says. “As far as the club is considered, we'll get a lot of memberships out of [the event] because they'll be so enthralled. In terms of the community, we'll make this an annual event.”

Come Together

Chicago faced a similar dilemma to Houston when the Windy City moved from No. 5 in 2005 to the dreaded numero uno on Men's Fitness' fattest cities list in 2006, despite having created a Mayor's Fitness Council (MFC) in 2002. (Needless to say, many on the council have issues with the magazine's grading systems.) The council comprises about 40 of Chicago's companies, associations, fitness facilities, hospitals, professional sports teams and the public school system, with an interest in health and fitness.

“Over the years, we have doubled participation, continued to add new and trendy classes and incorporated family fitness,” says Colleen Lammel-Harmon, executive director of the Chicago Mayor's Fitness Council. “We've also done a kids' fitness arcade, had more health club and hospital participation each year, and have improved health screening techniques and methods each year as well.”

Moving down from the fattest city to the 13th fattest city on this year's list is another major improvement, she says.

However good or bad the city's ranking is, though, some health clubs say it doesn't matter — the Chicago market is ripe with fitness-oriented citizens.

“East Bank Club is unique in that we have a very health conscious and fit population, so the ranking doesn't really affect East Bank Club in any way,” says Jasmine Jafferali, fitness and wellness manager at East Bank Club in Chicago. “The MFC is doing its best in trying to spread the word about health and exercise, but being a nonprofit, grassroots organization, it is not easy to do with limited funding. However, all the volunteers on the MFC will go out to corporations and speak to employees about employee wellness if requested.”

Although East Bank Club plays a somewhat quiet role in Chicago's fitness initiatives, the club is active by teaching various group exercise classes at Chicago Moves Day each May and the Mayor's Sports Fest each December, she says.

Other competitors (Bally Total Fitness, XSport Fitness and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, to name a few) are also at these events, since there is more than enough work to go around.

“We all have a common goal with the other health clubs, and it is great to get involved to improve the health and well-being for the city of Chicago,” Jafferali says. “We are all in it for the greater good, and that is how we all benefit each other as a whole.”

Events aren't the only way fitness facilities can get involved with municipal and state wellness programs. The Arkansas Methodist Medical Center (AMMC) Wellness Center in Paragould, AR, applied for and won the 2005 Arkansas Governor's Leadership in Fitness Award. The hospital-based fitness center is open to the community and serves more than 750 members. Although the center hasn't worked extensively with the Arkansas Governor's Council on Fitness, the award helped increase its visibility to the community — especially the deconditioned. The center's marketing department advertised the news by sending press releases to the local newspaper and hanging a banner outside the facility announcing the award.

“It changed the perception of the community,” says Andre Watson, director of the AMMC Wellness Center. “It definitely added some credibility [to our facility]. It also further separated us from the iron-head gyms and let people know we weren't just for aerobic queens. We're open for all people.”

Fit and the City

Sometimes, though, city officials can be the ones to extend the olive branch first, knowing that fitness facilities are their strongest ally in getting their communities in better shape.

The city of Carmel, IN, and hospital Clarian North Medical approached Bryan Hammes, owner of Cardinal Fitness, a 10,000-square-foot facility in Carmel, IN, last year looking for help with the inaugural Carmel Mayor's Wellness Challenge. Cardinal Fitness helped design the four-month challenge that kicked off in January and covers topics ranging from healthy eating, getting active, auto safety, spirituality and financial help. In total, the fitness facility will dedicate resources and staff to put on about 20 classes over the course of the challenge. The club is also offering free training for those signed up for the program, along with an 80 percent discounted joining fee (all Cardinal Fitness memberships are month-to-month).

“To put the classes together in advance and stay on top of the structure of the classes, it does take some time,” Hammes says. “But, the more time you put in it the better it's going to be. Since it's fitness related, the fitness industry could have a lot more to do with it than other businesses.”

Without giving hard data, Hammes has seen an increase in membership and retention. However, he says that these types of collaborations take effort on everyone's side, including resources such as staff time for planning and implementation.

In Maryland, Merritt Athletic Clubs took matters into their own hands. Armed with the idea for a statewide walking program, the 11-club chain brought the idea to the University of Maryland Medical Center and School. Three years into Get Fit Maryland, which runs once a year for three months in the spring and summer and urges participants to log at least 13,000 steps a day, all Merritt Athletic Clubs are seeing quantifiable results.

“Our involvement in Get Fit Maryland has connected us with more than 6,000 individuals in our very own community,” says Giancarla Calzetta, community health director for Merritt. “To date, Merritt has enrolled approximately 150 new members from the combined years of the program and helped many current members get involved and stay motivated.”

Merritt offers participants a free 30-day pass for any of their Baltimore area locations, and the clubs assist with registration and any promotional events with hopes to increase traffic in the clubs, she says.

Besides winning numerous awards, receiving media attention and improving business, Get Fit Maryland has helped Baltimore move, quite dramatically, from the fattest to fittest list in only a few years' time. In 2005, the city landed at the 25 spot on the fattest list, rebounded to the very top spot of the fittest list in 2006 and this year took eighth on the fittest list. They intend to stay there, Calzetta says.

“We like that we're on the fittest list,” she says. “It's my goal to stay on that list.”

2007 Top 10 Fattest Cities
2007 Ranking 2006 Ranking
1. Las Vegas 2
2. San Antonio 12
3. Miami 14
4. Mesa, AZ 10
5. Los Angeles 3
6. Houston 5
7. Dallas 4
8. El Paso, TX 8
9. Detroit 15
10. San Jose, CA 24
2007 Top 10 Fittest Cities
2007 Ranking 2006 Ranking
1. Albuquerque, NM 13
2. Seattle 8
3. Colorado Springs, CO 6
4. Minneapolis 21
5. Tucson, AZ 4
6. Denver 20
7. San Francisco 7
8. Baltimore 1
9. Portland, OR 17
10. Honolulu 2

City to City: Tips on Working With Your City or State Government

  • Be proactive. Contact your city and/or state government to see if any wellness initiatives are already in place and see how you can help. If not, suggest one and offer your services to help start one.

  • Don't worry about the competition. Stay open-minded, and let clubs know it is a team effort to get the city moving and eating better (i.e. there is no competition on how many sales everyone gets), says Colleen Lammel-Harmon, fitness senior program specialist and executive director of the Chicago Mayor's Fitness Council.

  • Don't lose sight of the target population. You are trying to reach the deconditioned market, so a walking program at a local park makes more sense than a high-intensity, group cycling class. Also, don't rely on getting the word out only at fitness events — they won't appeal to the sedentary population.

  • Be social. Seniors are drawn to social settings, not fitness, so provide that outlet for them. Make sure to include events for families, too.

  • Be creative. As fitness professionals, you're the experts, so put those skills to good use.

  • Represent your facility and the fitness industry well. Dress appropriately and be prepared. You'll leave a positive, lasting impression.