We've all heard the mantra “exercise is medicine.” We hope that truism will boost the profitability of fitness facilities and the number of memberships, but how does it affect club design?

The “2008 Physical Activity Guidelines,” published by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, says: “Adults should do two hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate-intensity… aerobic physical activity… in episodes of at least 10 minutes, preferably spread throughout the week (and) muscle-strengthening activities performed on two or more days per week.”

“Moderate intensity aerobic physical activity” is “fed-speak” for brisk walking. The highest authority in the land is telling your customers that the health benefits of exercise can be realized by walking three miles, three times a week and adding in a little weight training twice a week. Many of your potential customers must be wondering why they should join a club if they can become fit simply by walking.

Customer-centered design can help clubs overcome that thinking, particularly for the marginal exerciser who is on the fringes of a healthy lifestyle and is only willing to exercise at moderate intensity levels.

To attract these members, you must do the following:

1. Let them walk. Safe and interesting walking routes are hard to find in many communities. Even where they exist, issues of convenience, weather and darkness can limit their use. Clubs with well-designed indoor walking routes have a competitive edge. The routes need to be wide enough for side-by-side social walking and have a passing lane for runners. They need to have interesting views of indoor and outdoor activities. And they need to have cushioned surfaces, timing devices, places to stop/stretch/cross train and limited crossing points.
2. Do nonmember outreach through community-based walking groups. Let nonmembers use your generously sized public lobby and healthy menu café as a gathering point before and after their outdoor walks.
3. Build on strength. Everyone knows how to walk, but not everyone knows how to strength train. Even the most dedicated walkers need some moderate intensity strength training. Create a staffed entry-level room for a strength-training circuit. Locate it where it could serve both members and nonmembers. Such a space will be a port-of-entry for all kinds of potential members with an appetite for moderate-intensity exercise.
4. Dedicate space to special populations. Even at low-to-moderate levels of intensity, personal training know-how can make a huge difference in effectiveness. Design can help by planning for a flexible, program-driven venue that can serve a diverse population of marginally committed exercisers — the deconditioned, very young, very old, member, nonmember, women-only, prenatal, postnatal, etc.
5. Create connection. There will always be people who prefer to exercise in social isolation, but those who are motivated by social connections will find themselves drawn to clubs that offer a design conducive to social interaction with a variety of areas to sit and chat, perhaps with a beverage. The need for connection is why the community table at the local bagel shop is always full.
6. Optimize the user experience. Moderate-intensity exercise produces less sweat (which means less need for changing and showering, but more of a need for lockers to hold purses, car keys, street shoes or jackets). It also means club owners need to pay more attention to convenience (proximity to parking), privacy (closed toilet compartments), service (with a smile) and personality (name recognition).
7. Forget privacy. Conventional wisdom assumes that newcomers to exercise need privacy. Consider the possibility that such a bias toward privacy tends to build walls, eliminate glass, install doors and sometimes serve to reinforce the idea that exercise is an abnormal activity that needs to be hidden from others. This is a counterproductive mentality for a business that can benefit greatly from broader social acceptance of exercise as an entirely normal and expected practice. This is why a more open and inviting approach to exercise venue design is best.

The club that can use both facility design and program content to attract this untapped and under-served market segment of moderate-intensity exercisers will prosper in a world where gain is measured by strain, not pain.

BIO

Hervey Lavoie is president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architecture, aquatic design and interior design firm. With 35 years of design experience, he has completed club design assignments in 42 states and six countries.