Just a few years ago, medical fitness was a polarizing topic. Operators of hospital wellness centers and rehab clinics seemed to be more interested in it than health club owners.

The advent of the American College of Sports Medicine's initiative Exercise Is Medicine, along with the current health insurance reform bill, has made medical fitness a more mainstream topic. If you have ever wondered whether medical fitness programming could work for your club, consider the following:

  • Exercise plays an important role in the prevention and treatment of a myriad of conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.

  • An increasing number of physicians are recommending exercise to their patients but are not sure where to send them or how to help them get started.

  • You most likely have the equipment and personnel needed for medical fitness programming. You just need a program and a plan.

Although medical fitness programming is typically viewed more as a way to invite a new population into your club, consider your existing population. Is your current programming meeting all of their needs? The general population that frequents health clubs is getting older. That means your existing membership has its fair share of post-rehab clientele, hypertensives, diabetics and people who need to lose weight for health reasons. By offering a medical fitness program at your club, you can position membership at your facility as a necessity. Consider this: the cost of a one-night stay in the hospital may equal up to two to three years of membership dues at your club.

Medical fitness programming can come in different packages, based on your clientele. If you typically have a younger, fit population, you might choose to partner with a local physical therapy business to start a post-rehab training program. It could allow current members to ease back into their fitness routines after injury and physical therapy and cut down on the number of membership freezes and cancellations due to re-injury.

If your club caters to the less-fit population, you might create a gentle introduction to exercise for individuals with various chronic conditions. This may allow members to return to your club after cardiac rehab (or skirt a cardiac event entirely). If many of your members struggle with weight loss, you might partner with a local physician and/or dietitian to offer a medically supervised weight-loss program. This can save members from expensive bariatric surgeries and extreme diet clinics.

Regardless of the type of program you offer, you must have several fundamentals to be successful:

  • Make sure your staff is ready

    Your staff should be trained and drilled in CPR/AED regularly. They must know what to do and whom to call in minor and major medical emergencies.

  • Be sure your medical fitness specialists have appropriate training for the conditions they will manage

    A primary personal training certification is not enough. To successfully work with post-rehab and special populations, your staff will need more advanced training. Exercise physiologists and nurses are ideal. Several certifying organizations have excellent training programs and advanced credentials geared toward medical fitness.

  • Create an easy entry into the program

    Whether by physician referral or self-referral, members need to know the program exists and how to get started. Consider creating a referral or entry form and putting it on your website. You also can distribute the form to area physicians and other health care providers.

  • Create an easy segue to mainstream membership

    As the medical fitness program draws to a close, you must get the members reconnected to activities and classes they can do after the program. The members should never find themselves at the end of the program wondering what they can and cannot do.

  • Follow up

    This all-important step gets lost easily as programs grow busier, but this is the retention piece: Check in with program graduates regularly to keep them engaged and on track. Relapses, plateaus and de-motivation happen. Postcards are a start, but phone calls are better. Medical fitness is personal. Members want and need to hear from a familiar voice.

BIO

Amanda Harris is vice president of fitness and wellness at ACAC Fitness Centers in Virginia. She also is a management development specialist with more than 15 years of industry experience, including 13 years as a personal trainer.