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Breathing Life Into Your Cardio Area

It seems straightforward enough, but examples of disorganized and inefficient cardio areas abound. Here's how to best utilize space and keep equipment users coming back for more

Few people would argue with the notion that the cardiovascular training area is one of the most popular areas of any fitness facility. Users typically rate cardiovascular training equipment as the most important facility amenity, with the possible exception of the locker room. Increasingly, facility managers are taking note of this emphasis. According to data from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the cardiovascular fitness area is the number-one area specified by facilities planning an expansion.

Whether the facility is a commercial health club, community-based recreation center, college recreation center or hospital-based wellness center, management can best create a quality cardiovascular training area by adhering to the following five-step process:

1. ATTENTION TO THE MISSION. Each facility should operate under the direction and guidance of a mission statement. Additionally, in order for facility management to satisfy the mission, operational objectives should be outlined. Inherent in these objectives are the programs that will serve as strategy.

While most fitness facilities share a similar mission of improving the fitness and health levels of the local population, many differ in the population they serve and the capital resources they have available to serve their particular market. Therefore, it's critical to know your market and what your customers' fitness goals and objectives are, which should, in turn, influence your facility's objectives.

2. LOCATION ASSESSMENT. Use the simple acronym CAVS (centralization, accessibility, visibility and square footage appropriate for usage) to describe the requirements of a cardiovascular fitness area.

Centralization refers to the need to maintain the area within an easy walk from locker facilities, the weight-resistance training area and other programming areas within the facility. This creates a smooth flow throughout the facility. Additionally, a centralized location will provide for a better risk-management approach to safety concerns. Injuries or trauma incidents generally occur in the locker rooms or within the cardiovascular fitness area. Maintaining a central location will enable emergency crews to efficiently assist an injured party.

Accessibility refers to a participant having easy entry to the cardiovascular fitness area. Some facilities maintain this area behind closed doors and require an extra fee for use. Ideally, however, the cardio area should be centralized and easily accessible, which will encourage and motivate participants to use the equipment.

Visibility allows participants to easily find and locate the cardio area, but participants should not be made to feel they are on display for others to watch. Instead, create an area that can be seen without presenting a stage feel to it. A relatively high-traffic walkway going by the cardio area would create good visibility without creating a fishbowl effect.

Finally, square footage is important to the workability of the cardio area. Each piece of equipment will encompass approximately 10 to 26 square feet. For example, one upright bike encompasses 10 to 12 square feet, while a treadmill will take up nearly 25 square feet. Additionally, there should be at least 2 to 3 feet between each piece of equipment. Participants should not feel as though they are invading another person's space when getting on or off a piece of equipment. Space between equipment is also important for safety, as well as creating unencumbered work space for preventive maintenance.

Planning for the necessary square footage for the cardio area is highly dependent upon the participant base a facility maintains. Always plan for high-volume time periods. An easy rule of thumb is to plan for five to 10 percent of your participants to be in your facility at peak times. Thus, if you have a participant base of 1,000, you could potentially have 50 to 100 people simultaneously in your facility.

Not everyone is going to be in the cardio area at one time, but it's likely that 10 to 25 percent of these participants might desire a cardiovascular workout. Consequently, maintaining at least 20 to 30 pieces of cardio training equipment will ensure adequate equipment in order to keep participants content. (For a more specific breakdown of the types of cardio training equipment to purchase, see the sidebar at left.)

3. EQUIPMENT PROCUREMENT. Buying equipment is a difficult task. There is always a manufacturer or vendor prepared to take your money, but the hard part is determining what to buy, how many and at what price. In addition, there is consistently the question of whether to lease or buy.

An informal study conducted last September by Advanco Management queried individuals on their exercise and cardiovascular training equipment preferences. The sample size included 220 individuals ranging in age from 19 to 84 with a gender breakdown of 70 percent female to 30 percent male. Results included:

Treadmills ........................................18.7 % Stationary bikes ...............................16.7 % Swimming ........................................13.8 % Step aerobics/aerobics ...................13.0 % Weight training ................................12.8 % Stair climbing machines .................11.2 % Water aerobics ................................10.8 % Rowing machines ..............................0.2 % Other (basketball, racquetball, etc.) ....2.9 %

Other studies conducted with much larger sample sizes have yielded similar results. Treadmills, stationary bikes and stair climbers are routinely the most popular cardiovascular training machines.

A couple of additional points need to be made. First, do not place time restrictions on the use of equipment. Instead, obtain the equipment your customers want. This may go against current policy in some facilities, but facilities must cater to customers, whether they are paying members or community users. Second, make sure the equipment purchased is easy to operate, and that it's durable and reliable. Not everyone wants to take an extended class on how to operate equipment. Users should be given instructions and shown how to use the equipment without further need for brush-up courses. Third, no matter how many pieces of equipment you have, treat each one with care, as equipment is costly.

Price is always a point of contention. For budgeting purposes, stationary bikes can range from $1,750 to $3,000-plus, depending on the manufacturer and number of options included. Stair climbers can range from $2,000 to more than $3,500, again depending on options and the manufacturer. Treadmills often range from $4,000 to more than $8,000 for the very high-quality, well-equipped models. Always include sales tax and shipping, as well as setup costs in your budgeting. Shipping and setup are often between 5 to 10 percent of the purchase price, but routinely are negotiable.

Negotiation is an important aspect of the purchase, especially if you're purchasing numerous pieces of equipment. If you're equipping an entire cardio area from one vendor, a 10 to 25 percent discount off the purchase price with free shipping and setup should be pursued.

The lease-or-buy question is difficult to answer. If your facility has the capital available, buy the equipment. However, if your budget is restricted and the funds are not available, but you need the equipment to keep up with the competition, leasing can be a viable option.

Important points to examine regarding the lease include the interest rate, term and buyout option. Typically, interest rates range six to 10 percentage points above the prime rate, or 14.5 to 18.5 percent in today's market. The term will be determined by the leasing or financing company, but will be negotiable depending on your credit history. Attempt a shorter term. The buyout is key to eventual ownership. If you've leased the equipment for three to five years, you should have the option to own or not to own. Commonly there is a $1 buyout option at the termination of the lease.

Another factor to consider when deciding to lease is the technology issue. Equipment is always improving and sometimes costs less in the future. Leasing gives you an option to periodically update your equipment without buying. Just remember that the price you pay includes the huge interest rate added onto the price of the equipment.

Make sure to receive bids from a number of vendors. It's a competitive business. Try to get the best deal possible, and consider maintenance plans as well. If the price is great, but a maintenance plan is not included, you might want to consider another manufacturer.

4. SPACE DEVELOPMENT. The hard work of figuring square footage and equipment is over, so now it's time to make the area fun and motivating. Address the following essential areas in the space development step.

Flooring should be comfortable for stretching and walking. It should also be durable and always look as clean as possible. A high-grade, darker carpet is usually a good choice. Black carpet is not suggested, but blue tweed often looks good depending on your color scheme. The carpet should be protected by pads made available by the equipment manufacturers.

Walls should be painted with a high-quality semi-gloss paint. Repainting will be a necessity every three years or so, depending on use. A lighter shade is recommended to invoke a pleasant atmosphere. Colors that have been positively received include off-white, peach, light yellow, light blue and turquoise. Neon is not recommended, but do include some kind of design that will create a livelier wall covering.

Sound barriers can help alleviate the noise caused by cardiovascular equipment. Depending on the height and type of ceiling, one option is to use sound-catching devices that can either hang from the ceiling or attach directly to the ceiling. These do not necessarily "catch" the sound, but do prohibit the sound from traveling from one area to another. If sound barriers are included, make sure they are aesthetically pleasing.

Lighting should be bright. A dark cardio area provokes a dull and lethargic environment. Instead, participants should be motivated and encouraged. Do not include spotlights, but consider the use of a high-grade halogen lighting system that will give participants energy and a sense of comfort.

A water fountain should be located very close to or within the cardio area. Participants should be encouraged to have water bottles near the equipment or on racks on the equipment they're using.

A stretching area should be included to give participants a place to stretch before and after a workout. Signage is also important. Stretching charts give informative instructions on proper stretching methods. Other charts can include a perceived exertion chart and a heart-rate chart.

5. OPERATIONAL MANAGEMENT. The cardio area should be included in the operational management aspect of a facility. Predominant issues include staffing, risk management, preventive maintenance, budgeting and membership/participant input.

Make certain that the cardio area has at least one certified instructor stationed in this area or conducting "walkthroughs." Anything can occur, from injuries to simple questions, and facility management must be prepared to serve the participant and respond expeditiously to any and all situations.

Risk management addresses the necessity of being prepared for any unforeseen circumstances, safety issues and potential liability. Establish a safety committee that meets periodically to discuss safety and liability concerns.

Other than twice- or three-times-daily cleaning of each piece of equipment, a preventive maintenance schedule should be developed that logs periodic checks and parts replacements. A weekly check of the equipment will prevent breakdowns and potential member dissatisfaction. In the event that equipment does break down, post a professional sign indicating the piece is out of commission, apologize for the inconvenience, and note the time it became nonfunctioning and the anticipated time it will again be operational.

Competition is fierce among fitness facilities and keeping ahead of the competition is critical in maintaining membership and participant numbers. Maintain an annual operating and capital budget for the cardio area. The capital budget should reflect any new pieces of equipment purchased during the year. It's recommended that at least one new piece of equipment be obtained each year in order to keep the facility progressive and maintain customer satisfaction.

It's also important to keep up on cardiovascular trends and movements, as new equipment and programming keeps participants interested. In particular, stationary bike classes have become quite popular. Although expensive to implement, participants enjoy the workout, so if it's in the budget, consider bike classes.

Technology has brought about new types of equipment and new features on existing equipment. These new products - many already popular on the health club scene, but not necessarily known at college, public recreation and military recreation centers - include elliptical equipment; advanced ski machines; treadmills with improved deck technology; stair climbers with larger foot pedals for increased comfort and better hand rests for posture improvements; heart-rate monitors; and participant tracking technology, which allows participants to log onto cardiovascular equipment and receive a completely customized workout.

While the equipment now available far exceeds the old stationary bike that lurks in the corner of everyone's basement, the future technology that will become available is overwhelming and exciting. No matter what the future might bring, the consistent goal is to provide a quality cardiovascular area in which customers can receive a good and safe workout.

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