LAS VEGAS — A speech by former President Bill Clinton and a charity event to raise money for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) highlighted the 25th annual International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) convention March 20-23 in Las Vegas. More than 12,000 fitness professionals from 70 countries attended the conference, the highest attendance in the association's history, according to IHRSA.

Attendees selected from 200 educational and networking sessions, worked up a sweat during early morning workouts at the convention center and at the Las Vegas Hilton, and listened to President Clinton deliver a keynote address.

Clinton implored the fitness professionals in attendance to “go home and see what you can do to give our children their future back.” He noted that the number of overweight children has tripled in the last 20 years, and the consequences of childhood obesity are breathtaking

“We can blame health insurance companies and drug companies, but this is a self-inflicted wound,” he said in the March 21 presentation, which drew thousands of attendees. “All around you, the evidence is that it's getting worse and actually spreading it to other countries.”

In 2005, President Clinton joined the American Heart Association and Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) in a joint initiative focused on preventing childhood obesity and creating healthier lifestyles for children overall. The initiative, which includes the engagement of the food, restaurant, exercise and fitness industries to develop strategies that will lead to healthier eating and more exercise, is supported by the William J. Clinton Foundation.

While obesity can lead to heart disease, certain types of cancer and diabetes, Clinton noted that for the first time in the history of the United States, the number of young people with adult on-set diabetes is statistically significant. Trying to eradicate the childhood obesity epidemic will be like turning around an ocean liner in the middle of an ocean, he said, but he encouraged fitness professionals in the audience to do their best to improve the health of children in their community.

John McCarthy, IHRSA's executive director who will retire in June, said he was delighted that Clinton offered the keynote address.

“Throughout his presidency and beyond, President Clinton has championed the cause of health promotion, a large part of which has been focused on increasing awareness about the importance of physical activity,” he said.

About 2,000 fitness professionals came together on the third night of the show to help a fellow industry veteran — 48-year-old Augie Nieto, cofounder and former president of Life Fitness and current chairman of Octane Fitness. Nieto was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gherig's disease, in March 2005. Since then, he has devoted much of his time to raising funds to fight the disease. Attendees paid $300 each to attend the second annual Augie's Quest Gala at the Las Vegas Hilton. The event raised $2.8 million through attendance fees, a public auction and a silent auction. Nieto was also honored by IHRSA as its Person of the Year, an award given to an individual who has made a contribution to the health of a nation or world through professional achievement and serves as an inspiration to IHRSA members.

As hundreds of people danced to the rhythm of the Doobie Brothers, Nieto said he was overwhelmed by the success of the second annual fundraiser.

“It's united our industry,” he said of the event, which featured appearances by Lance Armstrong and Bob Saget. 24 Hour Fitness Chairman Mark Mastrov served as the emcee for the fundraiser.

In addition to these events, the conference featured other speakers and events. Jim Collins, author of the New York Times bestseller, From Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't and Built to Last, discussed the successful habits of visionary companies on March 21. The next day, Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager, revealed the secrets of effective leaders. The speaker lineup also included Deepak Chopra, a leader in the field of mind-body medicine, Dr. Stephen Lundin, a writer and filmmaker and Dr. Steven Blair, president and CEO of the Cooper Institute.

Checkfree and Aphelion sponsored a Technology Summit, which was designed to educate fitness professionals about how technology-focused strategies can improve their business. The summit featured a panel session about technology success stories and a keynote presentation by CheckFree Founder and CEO Pete Kight, who is credited with enhancing club membership sales and renewal efforts through an electronic funds transfer payment option that he introduced to health clubs in the early 1980s. Kight was honored by IHRSA with its John McCarthy Industry Visionary of the Year Award, which honors an individual who has made a contribution to the advancement of the health club industry as a whole.

IHRSA also honored Julie Main, president of Cal West Group and former president of IHRSA's board of directors, with the Dale S. Dibble Distinguished Service Award for her Cancer WellFit program, which provides exercise options for cancer survivors. In addition, the organization honored SCIFIT with its Associate Member of the Year Award.

To learn more about the new products at the show, visit www.fitnessbusiness-pro.com/ihrsa.