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Fitness Software Opportunities

Software that helps fitness centers assess members and plan exercise and nutrition programs can increase retention and revenue.

There are myriad types of software available to help fitness centers perform better. Interactive workouts, fitness assessments, diet and nutrition, and other health and fitness-related software can all play an increasingly important role in the delivery of service and profit. Health and fitness software can put a professional seal on a facility's services. "By requiring a fitness assessment before members can begin participation, facilities maintain a professionalism that sets them apart from other fitness centers," says Rob Rideout, vice president of sales for MicroFit, Mountain View, Calif. Fitness assessments are conducted at most fitness centers by a personal trainer, who then uses that contact with a new member to build a professional relationship. So, is interactive health and fitness software a threat to the livelihoods of personal trainers? On the contrary, health and fitness software can help trainers to generate new revenue streams and help increase overall club retention.

Increase membership sales

Assessments are becoming a standard feature of any reputable facility. Says Rideout, "Members are getting older and better educated, and they demand this kind of service." Assessments can provide a marketing edge, too. Rideout suggests that fitness centers incorporate a "quick test," such as flexibility or body fat, during membership tours. "A single-page color report will change your guest's mindset away from the fear of being sold to 'How can I improve?'" he says. And the net result? "They will be more receptive to your tour, resulting in increased membership sales." Just make sure, Rideout notes, not to use a gimmicky assessment to "guilt" a prospect into a membership. Assessment software can also help identify high-risk customers. "Fitness assessments will eventually play a key role in identifying a red flag that warrants caution before a client is allowed to begin an exercise program," says Rideout. "In addition to saving a facility from a potential lawsuit, a professional fitness assessment can actually save lives."

Provide motivation

Health and fitness software can also serve as a powerful motivator for customers, whether during a workout itself or in tracking progress over the course of a program. Software can further help by demonstrating correct technique, and facilitating workout record keeping. One example of this is Visual Fitness Planner (VFP), based in Fort Worth, Texas. The VFP imaging technology visually illustrates health risks and body transformation. It calculates a person's risks for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, and visually shows how these risks can be reduced. VFP also calculates a person's Health Age and how many weeks or months it will take to accomplish their desired health and fitness goals. The software creates a 3D image of the person, and shows all of their body transformation before and after program completion. Daron Allen, president and CEO of VFP, says, "By seeing what [clients'] health risks are and the chances for getting disease, they are motivated to take action." The program also prints out a 14 Strategy Plan of action, so there are clear steps to achieve results. Post-assessment, VFP stores the customer's data in the fitness center's database for re-assessment, and it can also provide a print-out of the customer's before and after images and health risks. However, Allen says that the primary medium is a personal trainer walking the person through the technology. Indeed, health and fitness software is a tool rather than a substitute for personal trainers. Allen says it illustrates the need and value of using a personal trainer. "Our timeline to goal achievement slider bars illustrate how using a personal trainer or beginning a specific health or fitness regimen actually can speed up the time to goal achievement." Fitness centers can expect a further return on their software investment. "By establishing the need for specific personal training or programming, the technology encourages more interaction with club staff," says Allen. Studies have shown that members working with personal trainers remain members longer. In addition, members who have a specific goal set with a trainer and a specific plan of attack have been shown to be more likely to reach their goals and, thus, remain members longer. "Results achievement leads to member satisfaction," says Allen. And that drives the sale of personal training and improves retention.

Expand your market reach

The professionalism that interactive fitness software can provide can help open the door to the corporate wellness market. A number of companies have exploited this opportunity to its fullest, establishing separate corporate wellness divisions. Club One, which has 18 facilities and more than 75 corporate sites around the U.S., offers such a division. Its Club One Professional Services division is located in many Fortune 500 companies, as well as numerous police and fire departments. Another example is Corporate Club Management Inc., Portland, Ore., a group that evolved from several successful "service-driven" fitness centers in the area. They now serve clients such as Adidas, Intel and Tektronix. Fitness assessment software can also open a door to the managed care market. "Standardized fitness assessment tools provide outcome measures that allow health clubs to negotiate with managed care organizations and corporations for wellness contracts," says Rideout. Fitness centers that offer standardized health and fitness assessments can also partner with outpatient and rehabilitative healthcare services. The benefits of offering a serious wellness function can further extend to insurance. Health professionals have access to billing codes, through which they may receive insurance reimbursement, says Rideout. There are restrictions: in nearly all cases, a medical doctor or chiropractor must prescribe certain fitness tests that qualify for reimbursement. MicroFit provides a user-defined test option to ensure that billable tests can be formatted to qualify for third-party pay. Physical therapists are generally the ones receiving the medical referrals, but, in some cases, certified trainers are able to provide the testing under the supervision of a medical doctor, hospital-based wellness program, etc. "The key point here is that insurance companies must 'pre-authorize' the reimbursement for any form of testing and will, generally speaking, only accept medical referrals," says Rideout. Some fitness centers have found it beneficial to locate physical therapy, chiropractic or medical doctors within their facilities. Members have access to these professional services but, in most cases, there will be no insurance reimbursements for a person who has not been identified with a health problem. "Some insurance companies have been willing to pay for these services, as well as for club memberships; however, this is not commonplace," says Rideout. "We will see more of this trend in the future." Fitness assessments, graded exercise programs, nutritional advice and other wellness-related services are now being recognized by the public as valuable, and they are willing to pay for these services. There are no medical referral requirements, so certified personal trainers and other rehab specialists have the same opportunity to collect fees for services. Some fitness specialists are still aligning themselves with the medical community to become providers of these important wellness services. "The trend is clearly moving toward greater personal responsibility, and clubs, trainers and 'health coaches' need be ready to respond to this emerging demand for wellness services, with or without insurance reimbursement," Rideout says.

Research software options

Fitness center managers want to ensure that their current software investments are not written off when they purchase additional programs or components. Therefore, compatibility and integration are major issues of concern. Allen says VFP's custom versions can be adapted to match and mirror a facility's existing fitness assessment and personal training system. In addition, interactive fitness software needs to be able to cope with the different types of exercise equipment available. So, for example, VFP software can be customized to promote any line of equipment. "The club simply modifies the 14 Strategy Plan to match and mirror various equipment, circuit training routine and even nutrition guidelines based on the current system they have in place," Allen says. A further issue is how modifiable a program is. For instance, if a member injures an ankle and wants to adjust the exercise program to include some rehabilitation exercises and reduce treadmill time, can the software do this? Some software options need to become more sophisticated in addressing particular exercise needs, such as fitness for particular sports or an exercise program that allows for particular conditions, such as rehabilitation from injury, heart disease or arthritis. MicroFit is heading in this direction. Its Exercise Explorer program has identified approximately 100 specific sports and other activities, such as house painting. The program provides a list of corresponding exercises to support and improve those activities. It also may be important to address the needs of special populations in your facility. With Exercise Explorer, program conceiver Dr. Larry Golding and his son, who writes the program, adapted the software to meet specific customer needs. For example, they added a pre- and post-exercise glucose test measurement to Exercise Explorer for Native American customers. This population is interested in tracking this information to help address a serious problem of diabetes management within its communities. MicroFit has also worked closely with other providers to develop programs to assist older adults and active retirement communities. In addition, MicroFit's Fitness Profile software allows for special testing formats and "user-defined" test options that are more suitable for these special populations.

Software limits

Could the industry reach a stage when interactive terminals replace trainers - carrying out assessments and putting together programs for customers? This scenario seems unlikely. "There are several reasons why some club owners avoid buying into high-tech solutions, such as interactive terminals or kiosks," says Rideout. He notes that several companies have come and gone trying to sell this technology to fitness centers, but club owners doubted staff or customers would be able to adapt to these technologies, and they were reluctant to make the heavy investment necessary. "Often times, staff members feel threatened by new technologies because they fear that they will be replaced or their talents will be marginalized," says Rideout. "In most cases, this fear is unwarranted. A qualified fitness professional is still needed to educate and motivate members involved with these technologies." A consistent theme is that fitness assessment software is intended to enhance the performance of trainers, not substitute for them. One solution that is becoming more popular - web-based technologies - allows members to access important information, communicate with their trainer, record their performance activity, etc., on their own PC. This provides them time flexibility. Says Rideout, "when you respect a client's time, they are more likely to come back." Despite the drawbacks, Rideout says that there are forward-thinking facility owners and staff who are embracing these newer technologies and finding ways to make them work successfully. A prerequisite for this success is that the software company provides the necessary training and support to make these programs successful. "One thing is certain," says Rideout. "Technology is here to stay, and progressive companies will continue to find ways to enhance the entire fitness industry in the years ahead." Fitness centers that get on board can expect fitness software to improve their retention performance, and also to tap into additional revenue streams.
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