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Assessing Your Assessments

Before assessing your members, stop and make sure your assessments make the grade.

Let's talk assessments. You're doing them, everyone's doing them. But, how are you doing them? What are you using? Are your assessments appropriate for your membership? Do you have up-to-date tools? What about training for yourself and your staff? Is the quality of the assessment consistent? Are you sure? It's a whole new assessment world out there, and your current and future members have more knowledge, and higher expectations, than you might realize. It doesn't mean you have to go buy the latest, greatest tool, but it does mean you need to take a long hard look at who your members are, what their needs are and who you want to be attracting as members, and determine if your facility's assessments are a match. Happily, you don't need to figure this all out on your own; there are many qualified experts in the industry to help you assess your assessments.

Assessment basics

Other than the self-proving definition that fitness assessments assess fitness, what is a fitness assessment? Mark Brittingham, president of Califon, New Jersey-based BSDI (provider of health and wellness management software, three-time Fitness Management Nova7 Supplier Award winner and manufacturer of the computerized assessment package Fitness Analyst), defines a fitness assessment as the process of discovering a participant's physical state, capabilities, strengths and weaknesses with an eye to helping them understand what kind of program will help them improve. (Note the words "process" and "program," as our experts all agree on their importance.) Joseph Freschi, co-founder and chairman of the board for Livermore, California-based IntelaMetrix (a technology company that designs, develops and markets assessment tools for the health, fitness and wellness industries, and manufacturer of body composition analysis BodyMetrix and BodyView reporting and imaging software) points out that there is a range of assessments, "from the most minimal, such as body mass (BMI), circumference measurements and a PAR-Q questionnaire, to complete fitness assessment systems, which … would also include body fat testing/composition analysis, stretching, cardio, resistance, VO2 max, etc. Most provide members with information on their fitness level in comparison to others [who] fall within the same criteria." He adds that these systems are often used to help design a program to reach an optimal level of fitness.

Improving the norm

The thing about assessments is that everyone is doing them, in one form or another. "The process of doing an assessment is almost mandatory" for facilities, says BSDI's Brittingham. While 16 years ago this wasn't the case, he points to two main factors that have changed this. First, individuals have come to expect a higher standard - this means your members are far more sophisticated today than ever before. Second, there are a lot more successful facilities and trainers who want greater knowledge and need to know exactly where their members stand. But, just because assessments are commonly done doesn't mean that there's not room for improvement, the experts agree. What is the norm? "The norm" depends on your facility. A majority of commercial fitness centers are still in a "take measurement, write it down, consult a table" mode - and that works for basic information, says Brittingham. If a facility just wants a few assessment choices, wants something easy and/or generally offers the same assessment to everyone, then a standard computer-guided fitness assessment will be fine, he says. Tom Piston, managing director of Hagerstown, Maryland-based Futrex (manufacturer of the Futrex near-infrared body composition analyzer) points out, "Most clubs do the minimum in the way of body composition testing." IntelaMetrix' Freschi adds, "from a body composition perspective, most facilities today use some form of skinfold caliper, whether manual or digital, or they use bioelectrical impedance (BIA). For skinfold, this is mainly due to the low cost, and for BIA, this is due mainly because of the ease of use. From an overall assessment 'system' standpoint, the vast majority of clubs use some form of body fat testing, PAR-Q questionnaire, weight and circumference." For a wellness or hospital-based facility with high-level staff, something beyond basic assessment offerings is the norm, which generally includes specialty tests for varying populations and allowances for flexibility and adaptability in testing and assessing. The first thing a facility often wants, or notices, says Brittingham, are the assessment reports that always seem to wow members - thorough, colorful, replete with charts and graphs that display a lot of information in an easy-to-understand format. Then, if a facility is good, he says, they move beyond the initial report to focusing on change over time, and progress toward a goal - what every member seeks. Going beyond. So, why go beyond the norm (and how)? Futrex' Piston says, "Where most clubs fall short is in recognizing the marketing potential of body composition testing, or of other fitness assessments, for that matter." Freschi's critique of many assessments is that "there is not consistent focus on health risks, and with the rise in obesity and the chronic diseases related to an inactive lifestyle, such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer, fitness assessments need to focus as much (if not more) on an assessment of health risks, and provide better education to members of the health risks and the importance of healthy lifestyles." While Brittingham reports that, on a daily basis, BSDI gets calls from facilities that are offering assessments, but want something more - or want it to look better. So, for your own bottom line and your members' health, you may well want to go beyond a basic offering. The how of it. Saying, "there is almost a void of clinical technologies in the clubs and, just now, facility owners are recognizing their importance," Freschi advises, "look for something that will satisfy the medical professionals and health plan providers, and seek out these partnerships, as the membership and personal training revenue will more than cover the expense. [L]ook for products that provide good and easily understandable information that [you] can trend over time and share with clients/members to get them engaged, excited and motivated to stay with their programs." Before upgrading, heed Brittingham's advice: "You need to know what you want." He says that if a facility or trainer is identified as the go-to place for lifestyle change, if they're seen as health professionals, then a complete assessment system is mandatory, which would include medical screening, health risk appraisal and fitness assessment. For most trainers and fitness professionals, not so much is required, he says. Their focus tends to be more on helping members achieve a main goal, and body fat assessment will probably be key - but charting progress over time still helps to make a difference. "Assessments set a baseline," Brittingham says. "Improvement over time increases the probability of a long and healthy life, and the proof is in the fitness test." Ultimately, if a fitness professional can show members the changes they're making and their improvement, then they can prove their worth as a fitness professional (and the facility's worth to the member). And that may well be the most vital part of assessments to facilities. Everyone profits. Assessments also offer a way to make your bottom line as healthy as your members. Piston says, "In the case of body composition testing, too many clubs use it only in conjunction with personal training, and then only after the client has purchased the personal training. Body composition testing is proven to be a powerful method of selling personal training [and] memberships." He advocates beginning with body composition evaluation with new prospects as part of the club tour. "Once you and your prospect have a grasp of their fitness level, you can discuss just how the club will benefit them. Many body composition analysis systems produce reports that … can provide additional information on how being overweight can have an effect on life expectancy, can estimate basal metabolic rate, and provide diet and exercise recommendations." Assessments can also provide revenue with existing members by selling ongoing evaluations and reports to track progress. This can either be done as a value-add to membership or personal training ("Most customers will be willing to pay for it; even if you do offer free body composition testing, you should place a dollar value on the test to keep its perceived value high," says Piston), on a per-test and/or -report basis, or, as Freschi recommends, on a package basis, such as "pre-selling" a year's worth of assessments, either as part of personal training or alone. Assessment packages offered over time can also aid with member retention, points out Freschi.

Problem solving

Problems posed by assessments may include need for additional staff training/troubleshooting, increasing assessments' profitability, facing limitations or drawbacks with the type of assessment used, and a need for improved assessment offerings that are sophisticated, have greater education components, are quick to administer and that communicate/interface with other types of assessments. Many times, solutions may be offered by your assessment supplier, including training/staff resource options, profitability tips (in addition to the ones listed previously), and helping you to ensure you are choosing an assessment system that is right for your facility and members, including one that may work with your current assessment system or that offers growth potential if you desire an upgrade or more capabilities in the future.

Trend watch

Pointing out that assessments are a fairly mature field, Brittingham says that assessment specializing is likely to happen to a greater extent in the future, such as the recent product integration between BSDI and IntelaMetrix. He also acknowledges that the grim obesity problem, particularly among U.S. youth, is likely to lead to Internet-based efforts to combat it, which presumably will require assessment help. Piston identifies an "exciting kiosk product from Virgin LifeCare that integrates body composition, blood pressure and weight monitoring in a networked product designed to help recruit new clients and reward them for improvements" as an example of a potential new assessment trend. Freschi says that a move from a medical model to a preventive care model within the health and wellness industries is a trend that will only continue to grow. For assessments, this means increasing development of "commercial and personal devices to help track one's health. The healthcare system simply cannot sustain the current pace, based on a reactive model, and the fitness/wellness industry is the only channel to handle the need - but [it] cannot fill that void without more sophisticated services and products."

Yes, you're ready

Hopefully, you're now ready and inspired to do a little assessing of your facility's assessments. The power of a well-aligned facility and staff with their fitness assessment offerings may be best expressed by Brittingham's parting advice: "Have a vision; your role is to help people change their lives. Our role is as change agents, and it is basic human nature that change comes more easily when people know they are being monitored."
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