Losing weight tops many New Year's resolution lists each year. Forty-five percent of women recently surveyed by Weight Watchers said losing weight was one of their goals for 2006. Many turn to fad diets, starvation diets or diet pills, while others turn to exercise and their local gym. Tapping into this market is something that a large number of club owners want to do, but few have put true weight management programs in place to help potential members attain their goals, says Jeff Bensky, who has a 25-year background in lifestyle businesses and is currently employed by Starizon, an experience design company.

“There's an untapped market, not just from membership but also from those in between the morbidly obese and those that just want to lose a few pounds,” says Bensky.

More than 40 percent of fitness facilities offer some type of weight loss program either through a nutritionist or dietician or through an allied health professional, he estimates. However, the commitment to those programs and their thoroughness and success are more difficult to measure.

“If you just have a diet program and call that your weight management offering, then it's going to be perceived as a fad,” says Bensky.

Ronda Gates, president of health promotion program development company Lifestyles by Ronda Gates, sees the main barrier for club-based weight management programs to be two-fold: the commitment level of managers and owners combined with staff turnover issues that make management wary of investing in the educational training required for staff. If a facility wants a successful weight management program, it must move away from just offering an on-site nutritionist and instead develop a knowledgeable team who can implement a comprehensive program and market it to members and non-members, she says.

“It's an awesome opportunity,” says Gates. “I have talked to people who have multiple clubs, and I tell them to give their staff four days [of training], but they don't want to give it that much time.”

Financial issues may also hold some clubs back from offering weight management programs. An integrated and comprehensive program with qualified staff can be expensive. In addition, weight management programs require more time and individualized attention from staff since overweight to obese clients need to be taught how to exercise and eat right. That operating model requires more staff time than the typical club operating model of today, says Bensky.

“The opportunity is huge,” Bensky says. “The problem is, can the club change its business model to adapt to the way things move in weight management?”

That's why personal training studios with their personalized treatment are more likely to have comprehensive nutrition and weight management programs than clubs, says Bensky.

The Sheboygan County YMCA in Sheboygan, WI, has stayed away from offering an extensive weight management program mostly because two hospitals in the area already offer extensive weight management programs, says Donna Wendlandt, president of the Sheboygan County YMCA.

“The hospitals promote the Y and support us, so it'd be competing with them [if we offered a weight management program],” she says. The facility does offer the national YMCA program, which consists mainly of nutritional education classes and encouragement to incorporate exercise into their lifestyles. Wendlandt has no plans to expand the facility's program.

However, the story is different not far away in Kohler, WI, at The Sports Core, a fitness facility associated with Kohler Co., the plumbing products company.

The Sports Core has stopped offering its weight management program as management re-evaluates whether to build a clinic and incorporate the weight management program in the clinic, says Jeff Breit, general manager at The Sports Core. Until a decision is made, Breit is considering partnering with a Weight Watchers program.

The old program was conducted through the facility's personal training program and had about 15 clients a year.

“It wasn't what I thought was quality,” says Breit. He is considering running a new program through a nutritionist instead of the personal training department.

Part of the problem, according to Bensky, is that revenue and expenses are so tight for club owners that they want a program that will take off immediately. This isn't likely to happen, he says.

“If someone is looking for a quick hit revenue fix, weight management isn't going to be it,” he says.

Instead, these programs need time and investment before they will generate revenue. Bensky suggests starting with a small program, perhaps in partnership with a diet company, a hospital or other individuals in the community. With just three to five clients, a club can track their progress and beta test the program. Once a club owner proves that a program works, he or she can grow the program.

Doctor's Appointment

Where clubs don't see opportunities, other health professionals do. Gates works with a group of physicians who offer a weight management program to their patients.

Physicians have obese patients, but they don't know how to take care of them, Gates says, because physicians treat diseases and these patients may not have a disease yet. However, the doctors know that if the patients make lifestyle changes, they could prevent the development of weight-related diseases.

Gates' weight and management lifestyle program involves a doctor from the medical practice she partners with speaking at the meetings, which lends credibility to the information, Gates says. She provides the doctor with the educational slides and information to present to the patients.

The six-month program is mostly educational with a weekly weigh-in. The participants meet for a weekend session followed by six once-a-week sessions and then four once-a-month sessions. Once the participants reach the monthly sessions, they are introduced to yoga classes. Gates also teaches them how to use bands and balls.

However, the program is not affiliated with a gym or medical wellness center. Instead, the program educates participants about the benefits of exercise and encourages them to join a fitness facility.

“The long-term weight management success has been predicated more on support than exercise in terms of people staying engaged,” says Gates.

She has 20 participants in each of her four groups. A new group starts every three months.

Gates would like to add a personal trainer and a psychologist to her program, but that would increase the program's cost beyond $995, which Gates fears would make the program unaffordable to too many people.

Going with the Pro

One program that goes beyond Gates' $995 fee but isn't having any problems pulling in participants is the 20/20 Lifestyle program at Pro Sports Club in Bellevue, WA. The program costs vary but can reach as high as $10,500.

The program, which started 14 years ago, consists of testing at the beginning and the end, a 30-minute doctor's visit every 10 weeks, individual counseling with a registered dietitian, viewing of educational videos while exercising, 90-minute workouts three times a week with a personal trainer, support group meetings, meetings with a psychologist and a weekly review of the client's progress. The program requires 160 full-time staff members: five physicians, 13 registered dieticians, eight psychologists, 100 personal trainers, plus nurses and testers.

“It takes nine people touching a person to put them through this program,” says program founder and club owner Dr. Mark Dedomenico. The program has 400 participants.

“I have a waiting list,” says Dedomenico. He estimates he could have an additional 200 participants if he could find more qualified trainers.

The success of the program stems from the success of its participants. Ninety-three percent of participants lose weight. The retention rate is even higher with 98 percent of participants finishing the program. Forty-three percent of participants maintain their weight loss for at least three to five years.

The program isn't cheap, running $6,100 for a 10-week program plus 12 weeks of maintenance (recommended for those with a BMI of 27-30), $8,500 for a 15-week program plus 12 weeks of maintenance (for those with a BMI of 31-35) and $10,500 for a 20-week program plus 12 weeks of maintenance (for those with a BMI of 36 plus). Nonmembers can participate in the program at a higher cost.

Eighty percent of the program's participants come from the club's membership or from corporations located near the facility — including Microsoft — who pay 80 percent of the program fee for their participating employees. The return on investment for the corporations is $1.92 per $1 spent after a four-year period, says Dedomenico.

Bensky calls the Pro Sports Club program “highly unusual.” Yet, he says, “In most major cities that model could be emulated pretty quickly.”

Dedomenico has corporations clamoring to reproduce the program at their companies, but few clubs are approaching him, despite his desire to implement the program at other fitness facilities. He admits that his program is difficult to duplicate because of the startup cost — $1.3 million — and the ongoing costs of the program, which include a software program he developed to track participants' progress; salaries for the doctors, psychologists and other staff, most of whom have advanced degrees; and the cost of creating new educational videos every five years for participants to watch while warming up on their recumbent bikes.

However, he insists that a facility in a large city with a major corporation buying into it for their employees could be all that's needed to start the program at other health clubs.

“The first step is to get the big gyms to step up to this with us,” Dedomenico says. “We need to find a corporation in their area to give them a base. Then, we need to mushroom out from there.”

In the Meantime

Until that mushrooming happens, small clubs can partner with individuals or diet programs in their communities. Fitness facilities also may find help in two proprietary packaged weight management programs being developed by two groups who are remaining anonymous during development of their programs, but who plan to license the programs to fitness facilities, says Bensky.

“If you can buy a package and then hire the people to deliver that package, it's like a personal training model,” Bensky says.

Regardless of the program adopted, both Bensky and Dedomenico caution that a weight management program is a full-time investment of staff time and club commitment. A program involving a part-time dietician won't create the necessary value or pull the necessary results for participants. Once club owners quit looking for a quick fix and invest in these programs, the rewards can be huge. The weight loss/diet industry is three to four times the size of the health club industry.

“Billions of dollars are spent on food supplements and [diet] programs,” says Bensky. “It's an opportunity waiting to happen [for clubs].”

Dissecting a Weight Management Program

A good weight management program should include:

  • A nutritional component that includes visits with a registered dietician.

  • A physical component involving exercise, preferably with a personal trainer.

  • A psychological component in which the individual meets with a counselor to discuss issues that may be affecting his or her eating and/or exercise.

  • An educational component where clients learn about exercise, nutrition and the importance of being fit.

  • Group support sessions. Ideally, the sessions should be divided up so that participants dealing with similar issues are grouped together.

  • Temporary membership to the club, which allows the individual to feel as if he or she can opt out but can also ease them into a permanent membership if they see results and feel welcome.

  • Personalization. No one is dealing with the same issues, so every nutrition and exercise plan must be individualized.

  • A maintenance program. Once clients have lost the weight, they need to continue their good habits to maintain it.

  • Qualified staff with training for this particular market.

  • A set time frame for the program.

  • Regular measurements so participants can see results.