Develop and track measurable outcomes

In mid-August, I did the unthinkable for a budget-minded soul such as myself: I hired a personal trainer. An active person, I regularly attended a group cycling class, but I was not seeing a change in my weight or muscle tone. Now nearly five months later, I have lost inches and pounds, and feel fitter than I have in years. It took connecting with an individual to help me reach a goal.

During each session, my trainer encourages me, tells me how I much have improved, and I leave feeling as though I have made - and am continuing to make - progress. And I want nothing more than to win the lottery so I can continue this relationship. For the first time since I crossed the finish line in the New York City marathon 20 years ago, I have achieved a measurable fitness goal, and it is immeasurably satisfying and motivating. Still, I wonder: Why did I have to hire a trainer to help me? Why wasn't simply belonging to a health club enough?

It may be because developing a measurable outcome for health club members and helping them achieve that goal may often be logistically impossible. "We have more than 11,000 members so trying to call all these people after they undergo their initial fitness assessment and say, 'Come on back' is a huge burden," explains Michael Kett, director of sports medicine at Edward Health & Fitness Centers, in Naperville and Woodridge, Ill. Still it's worth trying to devise simple ways to track outcomes. Here's a guide:

* Start small. "Pick a program and start trying to obtain some outcomes," advises Kett. For example, "you don't need to do a lot of objective testing," he continues. "A simple pain scale or function scale done at the start and end of a water class for people with arthritis may suffice. Try to grow it from there to other programs."

* Specialize. "Special population classes are small and very manageable," says Kett. "We have a number of different students in athletic performance classes. Every athlete is tested in areas he needs to be tested on for his sport, such as agility, foot speed and vertical jump height." The classes run for six weeks, and participants are tested pre- and post-class so they can see how they've progressed in a certain block of time.

* Marshall your resources. "Clubs need to put more energy into computerized programs or into hiring more staff to work on more programs and follow-ups with people," says Annette Lang, program director for Esquerre Fitness Group, in New York.

Furthermore, staffers need more education. "They need to be able to ask: 'What can I do with this information? ' instead of sticking it into the file and giving the member a cookie-cutter workout," Lang points out.

* Introduce goal-specific programs. "Give people something to participate in that will give them a measurable outcome," says Lang. "A club has to keep zeroing in on different pockets of people or keep rotating incentives for people to try to get involved in programs." For example, a six-week weight loss, golf or skiing program has a beginning, middle and an end, and allows people to see results.

* Play up your personal training services. "The one-on-one thing works much better because of people's different schedules," says Kett. And it's easier for a trainer to track one client's progress week to week and month to month. But the trainer requires, well, the proper training. "Trainers need to know how to constantly re-evaluate and set new goals," says Lang. "The job of a trainer is to demonstrate to a client that he is achieving his goals."

* Sponsor results-driven contests. For example, run a cross-country trip that goes for, say, six weeks. Each participant gets credited with a certain number of miles every time she logs a particular block of time on a piece of equipment. At the end of the contest, members have a clear record of how far they've come.

* Take a deep breath. Tracking outcomes is "time-consuming and takes energy," says Lang. "We're asking people to make changes in their behavior. And all we have control over is how often they get to the gym. Most of them don't even do that. It's a big challenge we all face."


Assessing Assessments

Many clubs offer a fitness assessment to new members. Giving someone a baseline measurement of his fitness level and body fat, for example, can help motivate him and start him on the path to achieving a fitness goal. "If someone is out of shape and you tell him he's out of shape, he doesn't comprehend this," says Michael Kett, director of sports medicine at Edward Health & Fitness Centers, in Naperville and Wood-ridge, Ill. "You need a baseline for sure."

But here's the challenge: You need to follow up. "A lot of people don't realize they're improving unless you retest them and say, 'Boy, you improved 50 percent on this,' " says Kett.

Unfortunately, tracking dozens or hundreds of new members and encouraging them to come back for their follow-up can be tough, depending upon the numbers and the size of your staff. And making sure the members return is another issue entirely. "To tell you the truth, many people don't come back for follow-up tests," says Kett. Why? "Often the second test has a fee related to it, which may be a factor," he notes.

Of course, your hard-core members want to know where they stand and get retested forever, notes Kett. But most people don't bother. What to do? Annette Lang, program director for Esquerre Fitness Group, in New York, suggests assigning certain employees to certain members. Check to see if they come in regularly. "At one club I worked at, I had to make follow-up monthly calls to every person I enrolled," says Lang.

Another low-maintenance, yet effective, way to help people remain goal-oriented and see results: Show them how to vary their routines. "People do the same routines day in and day out, and they don't improve because they don't change their routine," says Kett. "We're working on more follow-up with our members so we can say, 'You've been doing your program for three months. What can we do to help you move it along?' If you don't vary your program every four to six weeks, you're not going to see that improvement. You're going to plateau out."

To prevent plateaus, Kett's staff sets up a table in a common area for a week, and members are invited to show their exercise cards to staff for recommendations. "We may tell someone to take a Step class or use free weights or to hire a personal trainer," says Kett. "It's a way to make the exercise physiologist or trainer accessible without needing an appointment."

- C.W.