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Alternative Cardio Programming: Variety Is the Spice of Retention

Adding variety to your cardio programming can boost members' exercise enthusiasm and enhance retention.


CARDIO EXERCISE IS crucial in a healthy lifestyle, but members can lose interest when pounding out the miles on treadmills and stationary cycles. However, cardio training need not be restricted to the fitness center environment. By offering a broader range of cardio training options, fitness facilities can keep members enthusiastic and engaged in their workouts, helping to both prolong healthy exercise habits and to retain business. Training with a variety of cardio options also provides physiological benefits.

Variety for members

All facilities have some form of cardio programming, but some present a bigger menu of alternatives. Following are two examples of fitness centers that offer a variety of cardio programs to members.

New York Health & Racquet Clubs (NYHRC). NYHRC, New York, N.Y., offer treadmills, stationary cycles, elliptical trainers and stair climbers to members. Group fitness programs include Urban Rebounding, kickboxing, dance programs and pool-based classes. However, the largest component of NYHRC's cardio offering is its indoor cycling program. NY Magazine and Time Out NY recently named the facility's Pablo Toribio as the best indoor group cycling instructor in the city. Due to its success, the fitness center extended the program to include outdoor rides and cycling training.

NYHRC also has a triathlon club, and an "Adventure Series," which incorporates activities such as rock climbing, navigation, kayaking and trail running.

The facility recently formed a partnership with Everlast, and installed boxing rings in two of its fitness centers. "The bottom line is variety," says J. Travis of NYHRC. "It keeps the workouts from getting boring, it offers new ideas to the members and, most importantly, it helps them target different areas of the body to train as well as the principles of mind/body, cardio and strength training."

NYHRC introduced Muay Thai Kickboxing in its Whitehall Street and Midtown East facilities in April 2004. The sport is credited with reducing body fat, as well as improving cardiovascular and muscular endurance, strength, muscle tone and agility.

Canyon Ranch. Canyon Ranch,Tucson, Ariz., is a resort that has a fitness center equipped with treadmills, cycles, elliptical trainers, the StairMaster Gauntlett and rowing machines. The resort also has equipment for special populations, such as underwater treadmills.

A variety of classes is offered: 26 with a cardio element, 10 of which are cross-training classes that also include strength and core stability components. Examples in the aerobic group of fitness classes include Aerobic Jam, Hi-Lo Impact Aerobics and Cardio Circuit, in which participants alternate two- to thee-minute bouts between a treadmill and weights. Group cycling is also available, with standard classes and an intense, level-three75-minute class. Then there are aquatic classes, such as the H20 Power Hour. Almost all classes and treatments at the resort last 45 minutes, in order to dovetail neatly into each other. Two of the most popular classes available are Funk Aerobics and World Beat, the latter which uses live music drummers.

There is an 8-mile power walk for people at a high level of fitness, at a pace of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour. Another example of the Ranch's cardio programming is Triple Threat, which includes three activities in one hour and 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes is trekking -- power walking or hiking with lunges and pushups at different intervals. Then there is high-intensity cycling on the pool deck, followed by alternating between four-minute swims and strength training for 30 minutes.

Canyon Ranch located its resorts in areas that present excellent off-site exercise opportunities, such as pine-topped mountains and rugged canyons. Staff members provide guided hikes in a package that includes packs, water, a meal or snack, and transportation to trailheads. Four walks go out each morning on different routes and at different speeds. The facility also offers fee-based, customized private hikes to suit particular interests such as photography, painting or orienteering. In addition, there are off-site mountain bike rides. Two go out in the morning and one in the early evening, with the length varying from two to three hours. Guests can also go on private bike rides.

Managing alternative cardio activities

Offering off-site cardio activities places new demands on management. For instance, particular activities will require equipment, correctly certified instruction and safety measures. "With trail walking, the most important part is meeting rules and guidelines set by state parks," says Eduardo G. Perez, director of fitness at Canyon Ranch. So, for groups larger than five or six people, a permit is required (to help maintain safe and clutter-free trails). On Canyon Ranch walks and rides, there are at least two staff members per group -- one leading and one in the back. They can look for safety issues, keep the group together and keep in touch via radio. With large groups, there would also be a mid-person. The staff members also carry packs with basic first aid kit. A conscious effort is also made to establish a good relationship with emergency medical services. In terms of waivers, guests sign one all-encompassing form when they arrive at the resort.

The cost of offering a broader range of cardio activities needs careful consideration. Facility design, equipment, installation, storage, marketing, insurance, staff training and recruiting, maintenance and cleaning all incur additional costs. However, the new activity may become a successful profit maker in its own right, or at least contribute to improved retention and provide another selling point for attracting new members.

Enthusiasm management

Encouraging variety in an exercise portfolio can help to maintain a member's long-term enthusiasm. The idea is that alternative activities offer a more challenging and interesting workout than just using fitness equipment. Consequently, by benefiting more from their membership and using the fitness center more frequently, the likelihood of retaining their business increases. Always keep in mind that lost enthusiasm equals lost membership dues.

All staff should be observant of members' exercise enthusiasm. Is a member growing disenchanted with their workout? Are they visiting the fitness center less often than they used to? Boredom can easily creep into the exercise lifestyle of even the most committed exercisers. While management software may provide attendance figures that can serve as an indicator, it is instructors and staff who can get the best sense of a member's exercise satisfaction, and intervene to rejuvenate enthusiasm before the member reaches the point of not returning to your facility. However, in a fitness center of several hundred members, monitoring levels of enthusiasm is no easy task. "Monitoring is tough unless the member uses our personal trainers," says Travis. "But we always encourage feedback from them."

Variety can be built into the bedrock of a member's exercise regimen early on. Introduce a wide variety of exercises and equipment during the member's orientation, and weave variety into any programs created for a member.

Guests at Canyon Ranch get an immersion program in health and exercise. If they are bored with their exercise lifestyle at home, guests can try new things at the Ranch, choosing from the 40 to 50 classes scheduled. When guests first arrive, they sit down with an advisor and identify their goals. Based on this, the advisor and guest decide upon a suitable set of activities. Each guest is given a booklet in which they can schedule their week's sessions. This variety gives members the knowledge of different cardio activities, the skills and experience of doing them, and the confidence to try them when they return home.

Canyon Ranch also provides exercise programs that guests can take away with them. "Our exercise physiologists will give strategies, techniques and full-blown programs that guests can work on for the rest of the year," says Perez. These can then be refined when the guests return.

The schedule of classes at Canyon Ranch is changed every three months, in order to present something new to repeat guests. "Canyon Ranch has one of the highest return rates in the industry, which means we have to regularly introduce new schedules," says Perez. There is also a seasonal effect -- in winter, activities can be performed outside, but in the summer, it is too hot.

NYHRC also introduces new group exercise classes on a quarterly basis. "There are some [who] like to stick with a certain class because they like the program or instructor. But most people always want to try something new so they don't get bored," says Travis.

NYHRC staff members build in a variety of exercises and activities when designing exercise programs for members. "Options are always key, as members have a variety of preferences in the exercises they choose, and most want a variety to mix up their workouts," says Travis. "Working out should be fun, not something you dread doing," he adds.

What can a fitness center do to help get members involved in new activities? "Target the members' needs, and offer a smart variety that is interesting, contemporary and challenging," says Travis. "We keep up on the latest innovations, and always present new ideas that go beyond 'fad programming.' The best resources we have are not just the media, but our trainers and instructors. We have had much more success by letting our staff develop new, innovative programming, rather than jumping on the latest fad or trend."

Canyon Ranch sends five or six staff members a year to major industry events, such as the IDEA World Fitness Convention, in order to find new equipment, tools and trends. These can then be explored as to whether to incorporate them into the program. Fitness centers should make a concerted effort to keep abreast of new cardio alternatives.

Other benefits

Physical fitness improves when the body adapts to the challenge of an exercise program. Adaptation is also specific to the exercise challenge. Broadening the range of exercises will broaden the adaptations.

Perez echoes this, saying the most important principle is to "break any adaptation" associated with just performing one activity. Travis adds that cross training prevents overuse injury, while encouraging endurance work in the muscles.

Introducing alternative cardio activities also helps members to develop other competencies -- for instance, self-defense skills from a martial arts program, and coordination and balance gained from dance classes.

A varied program is also fun. Competitive challenges can be introduced along with classes with a social angle, helping to develop club culture. Innovative programs or unique facilities can also present strong promotional opportunities. Offering off-site activities can help reduce load on popular pieces of equipment, and increase your membership capacity. Cardio variety generates many benefits for the fitness center and member alike. It is time to mix it up.
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