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The IHRSA Foundation Steps Up

Most people agree that working out regularly in a fitness center provides tremendous, often life-changing, health benefits. And, yet, despite all the pounds lost and lives touched in health clubs, there’s still a common misperception that gyms are for fitness divas or people who are already in shape.

While there are clubs that cater to a certain clientele, most have the same goal: to help people get and stay healthy. Owners, operators, and fitness professionals inside the industry know this intimately. They possess a wealth of firsthand experience at helping members manage their weight and blood pressure, and improve their stability, bone density, cardiovascular health, and more.

But anecdotes, no matter how powerful, aren’t always enough to convince people that health clubs are essential to public health.

You need hard data.

The IHRSA Foundation, which will be featured this month, on May 28, during the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in San Diego, is pursuing that hard data.

The foundation is the association’s philanthropic arm, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization established in 2012 to help attain IHRSA’s goal of making health clubs primary solutions to the global physical inactivity crisis.

The foundation comprises Robert Brewster, the chairperson of IHRSA’s board of directors; Brent Darden, chairperson ex-officio; and senior IHRSA staff.

Its three-pronged mission is:

  1. To research, support, and promote the operation of wellness programs for promoting health through exercise;
  2. To provide educational resources for the operation of wellness programs to promote health through exercise; and
  3. To encourage individuals, corporations, and charitable entities to become involved in and provide financial and other support for IHRSA Foundation activities.

We want to increase the visibility of our industry’s success stories and the amazing work clubs are doing to improve people’s lives,” says Joe Moore, the president and CEO of IHRSA. “And there’s no better vehicle than the foundation to do this.”

Part of making the work of clubs more visible requires collecting those success stories and then turning them into quantifiable data. To do this, grant funding is required.

Amy Bantham, IHRSA’s vice president of government relations and health promotion, and one of the senior staff involved in the foundation, explains that the association has applied for three grants. If awarded, they’ll fund research studies to quantify the direct impact fitness centers have on helping people—namely, those with chronic diseases—to manage their health.

“We’d like to be able to say, ‘Exercise in a club improves health,’ not just ‘Exercise improves health,’ and to be able to back it up with hard data,” she explains.


To do this, the foundation will study the health outcomes of diseasespecific wellness programs that have been offered by IHRSA-member clubs. For example, one of the foundation’s three grant applications requests funding to implement a study of a cancer-recovery program, which was modelled on Back to Life, a cancer wellness program founded by Radka Dopitova Willson, of the World Bank Group Fitness Center, in Washington, D.C.

Back to Life is a six-week mind/body program that helps cancer survivors create their own personalized fitness regimens that include exercise and nutrition, stress management, support groups, and group activities.

In 2013, Willson, herself a cancer survivor, was presented with IHRSA’s Julie Main Woman Leader Scholarship for her work on this program, which spelled the start of her collaboration with the IHRSA Foundation.

“During my acceptance speech at the IHRSA convention, I shared ideas about helping cancer survivors adopt a healthier lifestyle and introduced Back to Life,” she recalls. “After I had successfully conducted this program at the World Bank Group for two years, collecting data, and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, the IHRSA Foundation reached out. Together, we started generating ideas about how to bring Back to Life to as many cancer survivors and IHRSA club members as possible.”

To date, the Back to Life program has been offered four times, and has helped 75 cancer patients or survivors. The results, at least in terms of member feedback, are outstanding: 96% of the participants say they’d like to take the program again, and 100% report that they’ve improved, or greatly improved, their understanding of how to make healthy lifestyle choices.

If the grant application is approved, IHRSA and its partner, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, will reach out to eligible member clubs in the Chicago area to host the Back to Life program and provide health outcome data for the study.

Because IHRSA knows many clubs are eager to get involved with the foundation, the association plans to bring the program to other states as the initiative grows.

Willson suggests that the future of the industry demands that clubs participate: “The fitness industry is facing some unique challenges now. Our population is changing. Our interests are changing. Simply being a gym is no longer a viable business model. People have different ideas about fitness and wellness. Our clients’ worldviews are no longer restricted to weights and cardio equipment. Looking at successful fitness centers, we see programs that include exercise, fitness, and wellness programs from Eastern and Western cultures. For example, yoga programs are now routinely included in fitness programs, along with Pilates, Zumba, and the martial arts.

“With the Back to Life program,” she continues, “we have a chance to, once again, expand our population and reach new clientele. By collaborating with IHRSA members, we’ll be looking to see if this program can be modified and possibly expanded to include other life-altering illnesses. With the changes in the healthcare industry, there’s a strong likelihood that this program could be funded as part of a wellness initiative and/or the Affordable Care Act.”


“The work of the foundation has great potential to expand the reach of health clubs and to make them more visible to consumers, policy makers, and medical professionals,” points out Bantham.

For years, the industry has been advocating for public policy and legislation that would remove barriers to, and incentivize, exercise—a key element of primary prevention and a low-cost intervention targeting many costly chronic diseases, including several types of cancer.

Being able to demonstrate the impact that clubs and exercise have on preventing and managing such diseases will strengthen the advocates’ case for policies that promote clubs, initiatives such as tax credits for memberships, and incentives for workplace wellness programs.

“When club operators go to Capitol Hill and ask their senator or representative to support legislation that creates a tax credit for a gym membership,” Bantham continues, “they’ll be able to demonstrate, statistically, the efficacy of their club’s program, or of such programs in general. Paired with personal stories about how clubs change lives, an advocate will have a very credible, compelling cause to champion.”

Meanwhile, the foundation’s research also will be used to forge relationships with physicians. Again, the benefit is credibility.

IHRSA has published several resource publications over the past year to help its member clubs create referral relationships with doctors and other medical professionals. All stress that solid data is essential to persuading them to refer patients to a club wellness program or personal trainer.

The foundation will also work directly with doctors to educate them about lifestyle medicine, how to incorporate it into their practice, and how to discuss the importance of physical activity with patients. These topics will be the focus of IHRSA’s session at ACSM this month, which will be presented in collaboration with Dr. Eddie Phillips, the founder of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (ILM) in Boston.

A third audience IHRSA intends to reach is consumers, vis-à-vis its member clubs. Bantham notes, “The IHRSA Foundation is a tremendous benefit of IHRSA membership because it gives clubs something to present to their members or prospects, and say, ‘Here’s what we can do to help you.’ Doing so will bring in new members, and prompt current members to be more active in the club.”

The foundation is young, but it has big, long-term goals. Ideally, IHRSA would like to have a scientifically proven study involving every chronic disease. “It’s both a great challenge and an opportunity,” says Bantham, “but it has great potential to expand the reach and credibility of our industry.”

Willson concurs: “IHRSA took the initiative to create the foundation, which is going to support the growth and quality of wellness programs. It’s up to each of us in the industry to marshal our resources and to do a little growing ourselves to address the need. The IHRSA Foundation provides an avenue for that. It’s up to us to bring healthy changes to our population. There’s no time to waste. Healthy changes have to start now!”

To keep abreast of the IHRSA Foundation’s activities, log on to

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