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Adding Express Fitness to Your Facility

Architect Donald DeMars explains the ins and outs of adding an express fitness component to existing facilities.

The 30-minute phenomenon of "express fitness" facilities started more than 14 years ago in Harlingen, Texas, with a women-only facility called Curves. The term "express fitness" is defined as a quick, overall circuit workout that engages all major muscle groups through flexibility, strength training, cardiovascular and cool-down protocols. In this program, participants visit each station for 30 seconds and perform two to three circuits. Within three years, Curves was selling franchises, and today, there are thousands of Curves facilities across the U.S. The success of Curves International has spawned a host of women-only imitators (such as Slim and Tone, Ladies Workout Express, Contours, Liberty Fitness, etc.) and men-only express facilities (such as Blitz and Cuts Fitness). Even at more conventional, co-ed fitness centers, interest in offering shorter workouts to consumers has been high.

Many layers

I have been involved in designing fitness facilities that have included circuit training classes (remember the old Hydra-fitness circuits of the early '80s?) for more than 20 years. But it was not until I was asked by Fitness Management to produce an article about how facility owners and managers might approach the challenges of adding such a component to existing fitness centers that I began to realize this subject's many layers.

For example, the positioning or best location for a new express fitness component grows out of numerous considerations. Is your facility small or large? Is it a stand-alone facility, or located in a shopping center or some other large entity? How old is your facility? Age is important because facility design has changed over the years, and older models may make it more difficult to add these new components in an optimal way.

Elements of express fitness

Most express fitness programs include the following elements:

  • An entry/control point where customers are identified and their method of payment documented.
  • An office (normally connected to the control point at entry) for administration.
  • Access to toilets and dressing areas for women or men, or both (usually no showers).
  • A staff room (not accessible to members).
  • A classroom (optional) for tie-in with weight-loss programs.
  • An exercise area, which should include an area for flexibility, and a good assortment of exercise machines for strength training, cardiovascular conditioning (to elevate the heart rate to a training level) and active rest stations (for cool-down activities). Generally, there should be 28 to 44 stations.

Space requirements

All of the above, in a stand-alone facility, can be optimally accommodated within 2,400 to 3,000 square feet, depending on whether you are offering men- or women-only programs, alternating days for the programs in the same space or offering co-ed programs, which require separate toilet/dressing facilities. Adding weight-loss programs requires additional space for education, merchandising and product storage.

Although I have seen an entire express fitness program component contained within 1,000 square feet, it offered little variety and poor dressing facilities. If you are going to add an express fitness component to your existing facility, do it right; provide adequate space for variety, service, flexibility and growth.

This past week, I received a call from a prior client of mine in Virginia for whom I had designed a successful wellness center in 1989. It is a fairly large facility with racquetball, indoor tennis, childcare, a large restaurant, a group exercise area, weight training, cardio area, swimming and spa facilities. This client asked me to study the various options for adding an express fitness component. So, it seems, there is an interest in adding such an amenity.

Two different approaches

Existing facilities generally fall into two models: the public model, and the member-only model. Public model. The public model follows the basic structure of hotel design. Anybody can enter a hotel facility and take advantage of numerous services on a pay-for-service basis, i.e., food and beverage, meeting rooms, retail stores, catering facilities, spa services, etc. These are profit centers, so hotels do not limit their usage to only hotel room guests. Likewise, in the fitness business, such profit centers can be open and available to members and non-members alike to support the bottom line. I have used this approach whenever possible in fitness center design, as it increases overall revenues, and brings increased traffic into the main facility, exposing more people to the various offerings available. In Beaumont, Texas, I used this approach in the design of a 65,000-square-foot, stand-alone, hospital-based wellness center called The Wilton P. Hebert Health and Wellness Center. The food and beverage component brings in public users from adjacent medical office buildings and other businesses who are not members, and including members, adds more than $160,000 to the bottom line annually.

As shown in Figure A, if an express fitness component were added to a fitness center that is structured under the hotel model, everyone (members, non-members and new express fitness members) would enter at the same main entry point and would all be exposed to the same profit centers. The express fitness members would then enter their own express fitness component, from inside the facility, and, after completion of their exercise, would exit through the same facility services foyer. In the hotel model, the member control desk is behind the profit centers.

Member-only model. The member-only model (Figure B) is the older, more exclusive model, with most all of the fitness center's services available only to existing members. In this instance, the express fitness component is a totally separate entity, with its own exterior entrance, without having to have express members enter the larger facility. This is the model that best fits my Virginia client, simply because a significant investment was made initially in the member-only structure. In this "member-only" model, the control desk is just inside the front door, and the restaurant is behind the desk check-in.

The best approach?

The question as to which approach is best revolves around a number of issues, and there are differing opinions on both sides of the subject. There is the question of which model your existing facility best represents, simply because of how it is presently arranged, without having to implement an extensive remodel program. And yet, if your facility is not up-to-date and is in need of addressing other critical issues as well, such as larger childcare, a day spa, physical therapy, a classroom, or better food and beverage, then perhaps adding an express fitness component should be addressed along with the other issues in an overall remodel program.

There is also the opinion from member-only model advocates that bringing in express fitness members through the main door of the fitness center upsets their operations and defeats the very purpose of express fitness: i.e., to get express members in and out quickly, without slowing them down by exposing them to other activities.

Perhaps the best approach is somewhere in between these two models. There is no question that the hotel/public model provides cross-selling opportunities and helps the bottom line. Full-facility members can access express fitness classes, and express fitness members, for example, can grab some quick nutrition or attend a separate 30-minute yoga class. If both options are made available to the consumer, users will access what they want and your fitness center will benefit.

The major reason people give for not going to a fitness center to exercise is that they simply don't have the time. When "going to the gym" typically takes one-and-a-half to two hours for driving to, entry through control, dressing, exercising, undressing, showering, dressing, exiting, etc. (not including a food stop, steam, whirlpool, etc.), the 30-minute quick-stop of express fitness certainly does seem to meet the needs of a large and growing contingent of time-compressed consumers. Adding an express fitness component to your existing facility offer members one more option, and, done properly, potentially offers your facility another competitive edge.

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