In 1997, a large private commercial health club considered opening a physical therapy clinic within its expanded facility and approached my company, the largest group physical therapy practice in town.

The 3,500-member club's owner was planning a $6 million renovation of commercially-leased space. The vision for the new space was to create an innovative health and wellness facility to attract the aging and deconditioned market. Having a relationship with healthcare partners would be one key vital to its success.

On the Road to Wellness

The two companies teamed in several aspects of the process — from helping to design the space to pre-sale activities, such as hard-hat tours, and other promotional events. The club and PT staffs believed in the synergy of the relationship, which came through to prospective members and sparked the clinic's initial success. The fact that the club was being billed as more of a “wellness center” (with on-site medical personnel) made people who had fear about exercising feel safe. As a result, the facility was able to exceed its pre-sale membership goals.

While it often takes outpatient physical therapy clinics at least one year to become profitable, the clinic in the fitness facility became profitable in only two months. Part of the success was because physicians felt more comfortable referring patients to a clinic in this environment, often specifically requesting that the therapists transition the patients into an exercise program following physical therapy. New referrals were through the roof and the club was in a rapid growth mode, hiring staff to keep up with the increased volume.

But the success was not the clinic's alone — the club was enjoying similar success. It continued to exceed its membership sales goals and within two years had grown its membership twofold from 3,500 to 7,000. And by the third year, the membership was 9,000. Retention rates were also impressive at a reported 60 percent. All this in spite of the club increasing its membership fees each year.

The Synergy of Success

How did this happen? The club was able to attract and retain members by providing an environment focusing on overall health and well being. More specifically, the healthcare providers under the club's roof are seen as partners in the club's success. At every opportunity, the leaders of both parties sought to create synergies. The physical therapy clinic was highly visible from the fitness floor and was designed to be open and inviting. The physical therapists had an open-door policy for answering any questions from members and fitness specialists. The therapists even held a two-day training session for the fitness staff to educate them about the conditions and ailments seen in physical therapy. Emphasis was placed on what precautions fitness staff should take with these clients, as they are trasitioned into the fitness environment.

Often, the fitness and physical therapy staffs collaborated on programs to benefit members, which adding to the perceived value and team atmosphere. One such example was the National Senior Health & Fitness Day sponsored by the club. The physical therapists participated in the event and held injury screenings for club members.

The club also developed a medical membership so that physical therapy patients could join the club on a short-term basis during and immediately after their course of physical therapy. The transition from physical therapy to fitness played an important part in reducing the club's marketing costs per new member. The club allowed patients and the PT staff to use the fitness equipment without being charged per use, allowing potential members to be held by the hand, as they got comfortable with the equipment and fitness environment. All of these strategies helped to demystify the fitness environment for potential members, make them feel safe, and eliminate any objections to join as an annual member.

By all standards, the relationship between the club and the clinic is a success. The foundation for this success is the win-win philosophy of the leadership of the health club and the clinic. The relationship paves the way for future mutually beneficial programs such as joint marketing for medical referrals to the club, as well as packaged disease management programs. The club is set apart from the competition by having on-site medical expertise, which increases the facility's perceived value and credibility to the membership and community alike. More importantly, prospective members are able to remove one barrier to exercise: fear of injury. Removing this fear by having medical staff as an integral part of the club enhances exercise adherence, improves member retention and the bottom line for the club.

In the future, the most successful commercial clubs will house physical therapy services as they evolve away from traditional fitness into “wellness centers.”

Laura F. Coleman, PT, SCS, ATC, is a physical therapist and former owner of a chain of outpatient physical therapy clinics in central Virginia. She is now a healthcare consultant, specializing in assisting commercial fitness centers integrate rehab services into their business models. She can be reached at Laura@healthfusionpartners.com.

Relationship Builders

  • The club provides an environment focusing on overall health and wellbeing.
  • The rehab center is highly visible, as well as open and inviting, to club members.
  • The fitness club staff take part in physical therapy training seminars to familiarize themselves with the problems and conditions associated with rehab clients.
  • The physical therapy clinic mainstreams rehab clients into the health club.
  • The health club offers medical memberships to rehab clients to lower the barrier of entry into the fitness center.