When I first hit the gym in the 1990s it was a Jamie Lee Curtis video fantasy: muscle-bound men clustered around weight benches, ladies in leggings and cotton t-back leotards, body builders day-jobbing as personal trainers. Bally’s even kept a separate weight room just for women. It was all about the look and if you couldn’t keep up, you didn’t show up twice.
Today’s gyms are way different. I don’t have to tell you the range of options available to everyone of any age, skill-level or interest. It has grown into a $34-billion-a-year industry in the United States, encompassing more than 38,000 clubs and studios.
First To Shut Down
It’s too bad our reputation seems stuck in the 1980s, because when the COVID-19 lockdown came around, both federal and state government deemed us a member of the leisure class, effectively equating health clubs with movie theatres and skating rinks.
The crisis revealed the need to change the narrative on health clubs – publicly taking back our stories to prove togovernments and consumers just how essential the industry is to the overall health of all communities.
Exercise as Medicine
For the last decade or so, exercise as a preventative tool in maintaining health has gained a following among leading health institutions. Hospitals built and marketed wellness centers. Insurance companies jumped into the game with, for example, Medicare Advantage Plans, which offer the "SilverSneakers"program.
Recently, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) established its "Moving Through Cancer" initiative, with the goal of exercise and rehabilitation programming becoming a standard of care for cancer patients. Personal trainers were offered a new certification, the ACSM/ACS Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer, as part of an agreement with the American Cancer Society.
Science Supports Fitness
The decision to promote fitness as part of a wellness planevolved through years of scientific study. We now know controlling weight and exercising regularly can reduce our chances of contracting cancer, diabetes, heart disease and a host of other chronic conditions. Even in the COVID-19 era, we’ve learned from the CDC of a link between obesity and an increased negative reaction to the virus. And, in terms of the virus, a strong immune system is considered the first defense in fighting off the novel disease’s worst effects.
But obviously, these facts alone were not enough to keep our businesses open.
Perception Is Reality
How can we refocus attention to reflect who we are today and prepare for the next shutdown? I believe gyms need to work together to change local and national perceptions of the industry. Marketing and communication strategies have to be intentional and directed. The fact that health clubs are healthcare mustbecome a natural association. But how can this happen? Where can the average gym owner start?
Become A United Front
It starts by recognizing we are stronger together than apart.
– Band together with other local gyms and reach out to lawmakers in your state. Ensure they know your best practices for keeping members and customers safe. Educate policymakers on how gyms operate. Surprisingly, most lawmakers are unaware that many facilities provide large, spacious rooms, are staffed by individuals with college degrees in such specialties as exercise science, and are as professionally run as any doctor’s office.
– Standardize industry practices among gyms and promote a grassroots effort to communicate those standards to state and federal governments.
– Use endorsements by fitness alliances, IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association)or individual companies within the medical community to change the image of gyms from rogue small businesses to one of companies driven by a passion to help people live healthier lives.
– Join the momentum to establish an industry certification on cleanliness similar to the grading system for restaurants.
– Communicate honestly to consumers. Photos of young, fit people pervade gym advertising – even when the club is promoting a service geared to older people. That disingenuous promotion builds distrust. If the average consumer can’t believe your fitness message, why should they trust you to provide a safe, sanitary gym?
Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds
We in the industry have long understood gyms are a refuge for the anxious, a resource for the addicted, a social outlet for the lonely, a place where fitness meets fun – and for most people, that’s a special spot. We’ve known since Jane Fonda first pulled up her leggings that group exercise was going to become huge.
Well, we’re here now and it’s time to prove to the country we’ve grown into responsible, essential businesses that are critical to sustaining healthy communities.
Catherine S. Mitseas – 7/17/20