Positive Outcomes: The Future of Medical Fitness

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Photo courtesy of Michigan Athletic Club.

Over 10 years ago, Greg Degnan joined ACAC, a medical-based fitness facility with multiple locations in Virginia and Pennsylvania, as a member. What he saw mystified him. Instead of the 20 percent of the population typically found in health clubs, Degnan witnessed an entirely different demographic.

“I had never been in a club where I saw as much gray hair and receding hairlines as I did walking around ACAC,” he said. “I actually sought Phil [Wendel, the club’s owner,] out. I just wanted to talk to him and really commend him on whatever it was he was doing to attract a population that needed fitness, and managing to get them.”

After talking with Wendel, Degnan discovered the owner had a vision for ACAC that involved bridging the gap between healthcare and fitness, and reaching the deconditioned portion of the population. However, they both came to the conclusion that the dream was ahead of its time for most gyms.

“At that point the healthcare industry looked at the fitness industry as a group of ex-jocks who decided to make a living doing what they loved,” recalled Degnan. “There wasn’t a sense of the healthcare industry being willing to trust patients to the fitness industry.”

However, over 10 years later, Degnan explained times have changed. “The fitness industry has stepped up its game, and the healthcare industry is finally recognizing that we are the pharmacy to fill the prescription that they have to write,” he said. According to Degnan, who is now the medical director of ACAC, that prescription is exercise.

Although ACAC may have been ahead of its time, medical fitness facilities are now on the rise across the U.S. Bob Boone, the president and CEO of the Medical Fitness Association, explained that since 1985, the number of medical fitness centers has grown from 79 to approximately 1,200 locations. As a whole, medical fitness centers are now serving an estimated 4 million members.

Currently, the buzz phrase in the health club industry is “medical fitness,” but why?

According to Sabarras George, the executive director of Sparrow Michigan Athletic Club in East Lansing, Michigan, being a medical fitness facility has its advantages, as opposed to being a traditional club. “You have a broader audience,” he said. “When you’re going after the same clientele — with the same household income, within the same 7-mile radius — you’re not hitting everybody. There are more people within that [area] you could reach if you offer medical fitness, because there’s a deconditioned population that are intimidated to come to a [traditional] gym.”

George explained that by design, medical fitness clubs are better equipped at serving deconditioned members, and much of that has to do with the standards of service found within these types of facilities. Those criteria include well-qualified personal trainers oftentimes possessing degrees, and most importantly, a medical director. “If there are facilities out there calling themselves medical fitness facilities without a medical director, in my opinion, it’s not warranted,” he said.

Photo courtesy of ProMedica Wildwood Athletic Club.

Photo courtesy of ProMedica Wildwood Athletic Club.

Medical directors — typically a physician such as a doctor or nurse practitioner — can take on a variety of roles in a medical fitness facility, depending on the needs of a specific club. For example, prior to Degnan being hired as medical director, he served in a more advisory role with ACAC.

As time went on and ACAC became better established as a medical fitness facility, it became clear that having a full-time medical fitness director was necessary. “I’m sitting down with hospitals and insurance carriers, because ACAC has been doing this for 12 years,” he said. “But for the average club, it’s not necessary to have a [full-time] medical director.”

However, Degnan went on to say that having a physician in some sort of advisory role is critical. “You need a physician champion who believes in what you do, who is willing to help you with your programming and who is willing to help you in the community to sell your [club] to the people you need to reach,” he said.

According to George, having some sort of medical director is important because they help bring credibility to a medical fitness center and its medical-based programs. Unlike regular fitness programs, medical-based programs should provide specific, measurable data on a participant’s biometrics before and after he or she goes through the program. For example, how much weight did the participant lose? Did their cholesterol levels go down? Was he or she able to get off of their diabetic medication?

According to Mike Liskai, the co-director of ProMedica Wellness at ProMedica in Toledo, Ohio, a common challenge for many medical fitness facilities is proving to physicians that a partnership is worthwhile for both their practice and their patients. “With physicians, it’s been a slow process,” he said. “But the physicians that finally get it and see positive outcomes with their patients keep referring.”

Having a medical-based program with proven data on the benefits to the patient can help make bridging the gap much easier.

For many clubs, it takes a bit of patience and more importantly, education, to forge a mutually-beneficial partnership. “You have to make sure you have a foundation before you go seeking referrals [from physicians],” said Suzette Valiton, the general manager of ProMedica’s fitness facility, ProMedica Wildwood Athletic Club. “You really have to do your homework … because then you’re going to have to educate the physician and convince them why it’s a good idea they trust you with their patients.”

Looking towards the future, Liskai said, “I don’t know if it’s for every fitness center to be a medical fitness facility. It’s a niche, just like anything else would be. However, with the way healthcare is trending, I think it makes sense to have that capability, or at least to be known in the community as a safe and effective environment with an association to a health system.”

When Degnan was at this year’s IHRSA Convention & Trade Show, he made a specific observation on medical fitness and how he sees it progressing in the health club industry. “What I saw was a lot of hand waving and a lot of smoke and mirrors about the opportunities that are out there with [medical fitness],” he said.

According to Degnan, not many were addressing the commitment it takes to truly move into the medical fitness arena. “You have to make adjustments to your club layout and you need to invest in a good team and a bit of outreach,” he said.

For ACAC, its investment into medical fitness has paid off. “Phil Wendel committed to [medical fitness] philosophically and financially, and the return has been phenomenal financially and in terms of what it’s done for our community,” said Degnan.

Although “medical fitness” is the current buzz phrase, making the transition from a traditional club to a medical one takes time, money and education. Ultimately, a club must weigh the pros and cons, considering whether it’s a move that will benefit them in the long run.

By Rachel Zabonick

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