4 signs it's time to expand your medical fitness center

March 26, 2019 Jennifer Chesak

Long cardio machine waitlists, overbooked group fitness classes, and a packed free-weights area might be signs you have a popular fitness facility. But they could also be indicators that your members are looking for a space upgrade or rework, especially if other corners are empty or filled with unused equipment.

Do members seem to be getting the bulk of their workouts from crisscrossing the room in search of what they need? Likely they’re frustrated with what the space is delivering — even if it seems busy — and they may jump ship. “Declining membership or a decline in utilization in key areas become indicators that people are looking for something different in a facility,” says Bill Bourque, chief operations officer at EXOS. “You need to be able to adapt to meet their needs.”

Bourque suggests seeking feedback often from facility users and paying attention to whether you’re attracting and retaining the type of clientele you want. Also take notice of the following signs your fitness facility isn’t keeping up with the times. Then make space adjustments accordingly.

Running a circuit or boot camp class in an open area might tempt others to join in.

1. You’re lacking the ability to offer multiple options for group fitness during peak times.

Older facility designs typically housed a few spaces for instructor-led classes, but changing trends and attitudes toward fitness suggest that incorporating more group spaces is better. “The environment that we’re operating in today is very different, especially with millennials,” Bourque says. “So facilities really need to make sure that they’re creating a lot more social- and community-based programming as well as leveraging technology.”

That means thinking outside the literal box of the studio space. Gyms should have dedicated mind-body rooms or indoor cycling rooms, of course, but a facility can and should also utilize its main area for group fitness when possible. Run a circuit or a boot camp class in a spot where you have functional training units and plenty of floor room, for example. “If you don’t have the ability to do that today, it’s something to certainly look into to be able to stay current to the needs of the populations that you’re serving,” he says.

Main floor classes also make group fitness options visible to others who are doing their same old solo workouts. After watching a few times, maybe they’ll be tempted to try something new.

Gyms should have dedicated mind-body rooms or indoor cycling rooms, of course, but a facility can and should also utilize its main area for group fitness when possible.

2. You have an abundance of barely used equipment taking up valuable floor space.

If you’re lacking square footage for functional training equipment or to perform functional training, you either need to expand your center or look around for equipment to take out of service. “Sometimes you can’t change the facility’s footprint, but you can change what’s inside the footprint,” says Jim O’Leary, senior vice president of operations at EXOS.

Although selectorized strength machines were popular in years past, they’ve rapidly gone out of style in the last half decade as people flock to more efficient methods of exercise. Facilities aren’t getting rid of that bulky equipment, however, because it’s likely still in good shape after a steady decline in use.

“I’ll go into some locations and see that the selectorized strength area has no one using the equipment,” O’Leary describes. “And then you see a lot of people in functional areas, like the free-weight space, and it feels congested.”

Cardio machines with updated tech can help members reach fitness goals more efficiently.

Take a look at your cardio offerings, too. Providing various machines isn’t enough. To remain relevant in today’s new fitness movement, cardio equipment needs to be interactive or tech-enabled so people can tie their workouts into smartphones, fitness wearables, and apps, O’Leary says. Tech-enabled functionality also provides more opportunities for small group training on the floor. Coached high-intensity interval training workouts on Precor equipment is just one example. Again, people crave more efficient ways of achieving their fitness goals, and tech helps with this.

“Five or 10 years ago, most people would hop on the treadmill, they would set their speed, and go at the same pace for 45 to 60 minutes,” O’Leary says. “Today, you’re able to get on the treadmill, do a quick self-evaluation that uses rate of perceived exertion, and get a baseline. Our technology takes data points from your evaluation and generates recommended training to personalize your workout. In 20 to 30 minutes, you can get a workout that you used to do in nearly an hour.”

Incorporating tech-based equipment that helps members maximize their time in the gym also helps reduce cycle time and enables facilities to move more people through the space. “They’re getting the same workout in half the time, and you’re able to get people on and off, which reduces the waitlist,” says O’Leary.

Is your gym layout hurting membership? Find out.

3. Your class or group fitness rooms aren’t easily converted into open-use functional space.

Group exercise rooms fill up during peak hours when classes typically take place, but often they go unutilized otherwise. “People are kind of reticent to go into that room to do different types of activity,” Bourque says. If you can find a way to direct flow into that studio or integrate it into the main area, the room increases your functional space.

One way to do that is to incorporate expansive garage or sliding doors. “This provides an opportunity to maximize the use of space during down time,” Bourque says. “It becomes part of the main space, and it becomes a lot more inviting for people to come in and expand their programming from the main floor into that room.”

Switch out equipment that nobody uses for more efficient methods of exercise.

Group exercise rooms fill up during peak hours when classes typically take place, but often they go unutilized otherwise.

4. You’re still compartmentalizing fitness with designated areas.

The typical fitness facility’s main floor configuration employs rows of cardio machines, an area for selectorized strength equipment, and a free-weights space with some mats for stretching. This compartmentalization puts users at a disadvantage. To get in a balanced workout, they waste time and energy traversing the entire space. The arrangement also hinders the ability for personal trainers and fitness instructors to do their jobs efficiently and effectively.

“When you do a class, which we certainly recommend doing on the floor and creating that opportunity for people, it’s really hard because you have to help people navigate all across the facility,” Bourque says.

Fitness centers that have designated areas can also be intimidating to folks just embarking on new fitness journeys. Bourque describes a crowded free-weights space filled with people doing advanced movements and banging around plates. That setting can deter new users from venturing in. He recommends reorganizing spaces into well-rounded hubs of activity that meet users where they’re at.

Use social- and community-based programming that resonates with millennials.

“When we design,” Bourque says, “one of the things that we try to do is start to think through who the user of the space is. If you’ve got a beginner, we make it easy for them so that everything they want to access is in one area to do their movement prep, cardio, and strength. Then, we’ll have the facility facilitate progression with adjoining areas for intermediate and advanced members.”

A beginner space might be more machine-based with treadmills, recumbent bicycles, some selectorized equipment, and an open area for stretching and warming up, for example. Some intermediate equipment is also nearby. An intermediate area might have a mix of cardio equipment like elliptical and stair machines along with treadmills. Cables, free weights, kettlebells, and a functional rig could also make up this hub.

“We try to enable people to progress by having what should be next really close by,” Bourque explains. “We’re just moving them along nice and comfortably so they can go deeper and deeper into the facility.”

Looking to stay ahead of the competition? Check out fitness center trends to watch in the next five years.

About the Author

Jennifer Chesak

Jennifer Chesak’s health, fitness, and adventure journalism has appeared in Healthline, Prevention, Runner’s World, SheKnows, and Field & Stream online, to name a few. She earned her master's degree in journalism from Northwestern. She’s also a distance runner and avid yogi.

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