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You're a Big Boy / Big Girl now!

Once upon a time, kids engaged in lively, playground-inspired activities in health clubs. Parents, meanwhile, participated in more serious, adult-type endeavors––things such as yoga, suspension training, and weightlifting. They each went their separate ways in the club and enjoyed their individual, age-predicated pursuits.

But that’s been changing.

Today, facilities are beginning to offer younger members access to programs and services once considered the privileged purview of adults. From the cardio room, to the group exercise studio, to the spa, kids are turning up in all sorts of unexpected places.

This new approach appears to be working for clubs. By focusing more on their juvenile clients and offering them a wider variety of options, they’re achieving signifi- cant growth in this sector. According to IHRSA’s Health Club Trends for 2012, membership for the under-18 cohort grew impressively—from 3.8 million to 6.1 million (60.5%)—between 2007 and 2010.

It’s a development that’s great for kids as well, says Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, a pedi- atric exercise scientist and professor at the College of New Jersey, in Ewing Township, New Jersey. “The trend of inviting children to participate in what were once considered adult-only offerings has great potential, since it’s a way to expose them to activities that might be new, fun, and exciting. Anything that gets them moving is a good thing.”

However, he also imposes a caveat. “We have to appreciate the fact that children aren’t mini-adults,” he warns. “You can’t take the same mentality and approach that you’d use with adults and simply apply it to kids.”

Moreover, catering to the unique needs of children requires more work than most fitness center operators realize, Faigenbaum points out.

So what “adult” activities should you offer younger members? Perhaps, more importantly, how should you offer them?

CBI surveyed four clubs that have had significant success in this area to answer those questions. All agree that having the right staff—people who can choose the right programs and modify them, as required—is absolutely essential.

Make it fun—and safe

At the Newtown Athletic Club (NAC), a 120,000-square-foot, full-service facility in Newtown, Pennsylvania, approximately 3,150 (about 26%) of the members are under 18. Some of its “grown-up,” kid-friendly options include yoga, Zumba, boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA), and triathlon clinics and events. All of these programs have been remarkably successful and are well liked by both kids and adults, attests Linda Mitchell, NAC’s public relations (PR) director.

“The importance of serving the entire family in one location is immeasurable,” she says. “It’s our brand differentiator and has been very effective for us. It’s definitely a great way for a club to set itself apart from the competition.”

Like Faigenbaum, Mitchell emphasizes that such programs, if introduced, must be “appropriately personalized.” She suggests that the offerings strive to make everything “more like a game and less like a traditional workout.” 

She also urges clubs to choose the staff for these programs carefully. “Hire instructors who really want to work with children. Don’t utilize someone who’s already on staff and just looking to teach some extra classes. Ultimately, the personality of an instructor can make or break a kid’s class.”

Faigenbaum wholeheartedly echoes this sentiment. “The most important quandary for management is deciding who will be on the front line. Some professionals do wonderfully with adults, some are great with kids–– few are exceptional with both.”

Brandi Perkovich, NAC’s aquatics director and the person in charge of its triathlon efforts, emphasizes another essential consideration––proper modification. Carefully planned customization is necessary, in her opinion, not only for safety reasons, but also for enjoy- ment and effectiveness.

Launched earlier this year, NAC’s kid’s triathlon attracted 150 children this summer, and, as a result, will likely be made an annual event. It’s a good example of how adult activities can, and should be, modified to suit kids.

“We shortened the length of the run, bike, and swim to accommodate our smaller athletes,” Perkovich explains. “We also opted to have smaller starting waves. Fewer kids on the course at one time meant less chance of them accidently hitting one another in the pool, or of having their bikes collide. Finally, rather than rewarding them based on who finished first, we gave everyone a finisher’s medal. We wanted them to be proud of what they did—not worried about competing or winning.”

Understand age groups

The kid’s programming at CrossFit Brand X, in Ramona, California, has also been modified in a variety of ways to make it safe, effective, and satisfying for younger members.

“It differs by degrees,” notes Jeff Martin, the site’s founder and its director of youth programs. “Children have different physical, psychologi- cal, and social needs,” he points out. “Even within the subgroup of ‘kids,’ different age groups have vastly different requirements.” While a 16-year-old may do squats to build strength for athletics, for a six-year- old, learning to do a squat properly may allow them to lift a school back- pack safely, he explains.

Martin’s facility, as its moniker suggests, specializes in the CrossFit-branded strength and conditioning workouts. Its main gym is 4,500 square feet in size, and an additional 2,500-square-foot area is reserved exclu- sively for preteens and teens.

Brand X’s menu includes nearly 20 classes per week for the younger set, and the revenues they generate have been considerable, he acknowledges. Business has nearly doubled over the past few years and the bulk of his new clients are juveniles. Surprisingly, even pre- schoolers are on the club’s roster. “We have kids coming in now who are two-and-a-half and three years old.”

Those participants who are under 18, and there are roughly 125 of them every week, all do the official, franchise-prescribed workout-of-the-day, or WOD, as enthusiasts refer to it. “We don’t change the program,” he says, but he and his team do tweak it. Alterations are made, he says, “in terms of how we teach and present it. We scale down loads, reps, intensity, and duration as appropriate. We respect the different capacities of each age group and adjust our expectations.”

Keep up with trends

Sue Matyas, the fitness direc- tor for the Bellevue Club, a 200,000-square-foot fitness, wellness, and social complex located east of Seattle in Bellevue, Washington, echoes Martin. She, too, stresses the need to recog- nize and appreciate the unique abilities and distinc- tive demands of children in specific age groups. When asked for her best advice, she offers a fundamental tip.    

“I suggest separating kids,” she says. “For example, we distinguish between those who are 6 to 11, and 12 to 15, and those 16 and up.”

Matyas further recommends that, if clubs want to attract and retain younger clients, they should schedule “trendy programming.” Taking her advice, Bellevue pro- vides a number of options that are currently “hot,” including yoga, weightlifting, cooking classes, TRX- branded suspension training, and, like NAC, triathlons.

“Held in a private studio, TRX allows kids to gain strength, develop balance, and increase their flexibility. We find that young yogis improve their body image and awareness and boost their confidence. And, with our Mini Muscles class, children seven and up build muscles by lifting downsized weights.”

The feedback, overall, has been very positive, she reports. “Parents and kids love the different choices. They actually want us to add more classes.”

Ask kids what they want

Generating that sort of enthusiasm is the goal of another facility, the VillaSport Athletic Club and Spa. Kim Sanders, the vice president of club programs, says that manage- ment has an overriding objective: “We want children to repeatedly ask their parents if they can jump in the car and visit VillaSport.”

With two locations—a 175,000-square-foot facility in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a 300,000-square- footer in The Woodlands, Texas—VillaSport is a resort- like, healthy-lifestyle destination brand. At each site, pleasing young clientele is considered quite important, particularly given the fact that, as Sanders puts it, “Parents frequently choose a club based on where their kids want to go.”

Sanders suggests that club operators who want to discover what will appeal to this demographic should listen and learn. “Talk to the kids, watch how they participate in programs, observe how they interact with one another. If you do so, you’ll discover what they like.” At each VillaSport location, children are now enjoying a number of activities that formerly were reserved for adults only. Among them are group cycling; yoga (even babies are welcome on the mat); and boot camps, which allow kids to use their bodyweight, along with light dumbbells, to perform high-intensity exercises to improve their speed and endurance.

There’s also the children’s version of Zumba. “In our Zumbatomic classes, the moves and music are in keep- ing with what kids prefer and will respond to,” Sanders adds. Even the spa has gotten on board the new trend by offering massages, facials, and nailcare for image- conscious teens.

While the options are diverse, there is a common denominator: they all produce joyful reactions. “Every- thing needs to be full of fun,” she contends.

Faigenbaum agrees. “No matter what you’re offering, there are three essential elements that you have to keep in mind. Kids need to be able to make friends. They need to have the opportunity to learn something. And, most importantly, the activity has to be fun. If you take the fun out, you take the kids out—period! It’s that simple.” 

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