Making a career out of fitness center design

Even though I grew up in Europe where soccer reigns, I was a basketball player. I played as a kid and competed in college at Brunel University in England.

Our team worked hard, and we actually won the national championship my junior year. But I wasn’t just interested in playing and competing in sports. I wanted to study human performance as well.

My drive to train and perform better led me to major in sports sciences. Studying my passion helped my college years fly by, and I graduated in 2001. It was time to make my next move. I applied to graduate schools and chose Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania — a school in the states with a great exercise physiology program.

While my days as a basketball player may be in the past, something an old coach used to say before our games has stuck with me to this day: “You’ve gotta walk in like you mean business.” I took that message to heart, and for me, it’s extended off the court. I treat every task, hurdle, and job like I have something to offer. I project confidence and aim to tackle each day like I mean it.

My first years as a health and fitness coach

After completing my graduate program, I landed a job with EXOS as a health fitness specialist at a corporate wellness client’s fitness facility. With basketball in the past, I also looked for new outlets to stay active. Eventually, I started racing ATVs and competing at a national level. The intensity required to race pushed me to keep growing as a coach so I could apply that knowledge to improve on the track as well as to train my clients.

Competing on ATVs allowed me to stay physically active and grow as a coach.

But coaching people for the first time also taught me something about how I work with others. While some coaches gravitate toward programming circuit exercises on selectorized equipment, I was more confident with open-floor personal training. Since the trend back then was to fill fitness centers with as much equipment as possible, I often found myself fighting for mat space to train my clients.

When a role opened for a program manager at another EXOS-operated corporate fitness center — and I got the job — I thought about what my basketball coach used to say. “Do the job like you mean business.” Rather than fantasizing about an open layout, I began drawing new ideas using Microsoft Paint and clip art (talk about a throwback). Little did I know, that would open the door to a new career path.

I began drawing new layout ideas using Microsoft Paint and clip art. Little did I know, that would open me up to a whole new career path.

When my boss, EXOS’ chief operating officer Bill Bourque, visited our facility, I showed him what I’d been working on and he put me in touch with our design and development lead. At the time, he was a one-man-show, so I was thrilled to help him on an as-needed basis. That’s how I learned what it takes to design fitness centers. A few months later, the department was expanding and I started as a project manager. It was a quick but exciting catapult into a different side of exercise science I hadn’t previously considered.

Working in fitness today

It turns out my inkling to play with facility layouts in Microsoft Paint lined up with shifting trends in the fitness industry. There's been a move away from the idea that we should pack gyms with as many selectorized strength machines as possible. I’ve worked on hundreds of facility design projects for companies of all sizes (thankfully, no longer using Paint but with advanced software and 3D renderings), and we continue to see the benefits of reconfiguring facilities to have more open space with strategically placed equipment.

And from my experience, it’s especially important when the facility is part of a larger corporate wellness program. For companies that provide a fitness center, employee experience can make or break its ability to impact the well-being of its workforce. If the space is crowded with equipment, the user flow doesn’t make sense, or the ambiance is a turnoff, employees may never come back — and the program may be a bust.

Success is riding on a great experience in the first shot, and layout has everything to do with that.

In a corporate wellness setting, you’re working with a limited pool of potential members. Success is riding on a great experience in the first shot, and layout has everything to do with that. The more companies realize how thoughtfully designed spaces can impact their workforce, the more autonomy we’ll have to design innovative fitness and wellness centers that break the mold of many commercial gyms.

Humana is one company that’s getting on board. EXOS recently designed the company’s fitness facility. It features state-of-the-art equipment and plenty of open space. We were given the latitude to get creative with the layout and the programming to teach employees how to move and live well. The facility contains group exercise spaces, but there’s also recovery spaces and a meditation pod. It’s awesome to see how they’ve continued to evolve their corporate wellness program, and we've actually taken learnings from that facility to apply to other projects we’re designing.

Sure, many companies are stuck in a traditional view of fitness centers. And that’s their prerogative. But as the Humanas of the world set the bar for something more progressive in corporate wellness, it’s inevitable that more companies will continue to follow suit. The desire for a healthier workforce is spreading, and I’m excited to play a role in that shift.

These days, I enjoy mountain biking with my wife and kids.

Meanwhile, my means of living an active lifestyle has had to evolve as well. After my wife and I had kids, the national travel and high risk involved with racing ATVs didn’t seem worth it. But giving up on sport wasn’t an option either. Now, you can find us riding and racing mountain bikes as a family, having fun and competing like we mean business — just like coach always used to say.

Want to read more? EXOS has a few theories on what fitness centers will look like in the future.

About the Author

Phillip Cole

Phillip Cole is the director of design and development at EXOS. He’s worked on over 200 facility design projects and has over 16 years of experience.

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