Nutrition: The Element Most Health Clubs Miss in the Fight Against Obesity

(Editors' Note: This story originally appeared in Club Industry's December 2018 report, "America's Obesity Crisis and the Fitness Industry's Role in Resolving It," which can be downloaded for free by going here.)

Though the number of overweight and obese American adults continues to climb, many health club owners continue to shy away from dispensing nutrition advice at their clubs. But with more than 70 million U.S. adults considered obese and 99 million overweight, owners of health clubs that offer their members everything from farm-fresh cooking demonstrations to guidance on other healthy life choices say that to focus on exercise alone is to short-change the member.

Many club owners and staff members are afraid to go outside their purview of signing people up for memberships, scheduling group-fitness classes and picking equipment, said Trina Gray, owner of Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan.

“My gut instinct is that [gym owners] overthink it, are fearful of taking on something they think would be a huge monster of a project,” she said. They forget the other huge half of someone’s success and health is nutrition.”

If you own a gym today, you have to be about more than just exercise, she said.

“You cannot be in the business of prevention and wellness and only focus on sweat,” she said. “We know so much more now. In the 1980s or 1990s, we all taught group fitness and thought that was enough. Now we can use more, do more. What can we send them home with?”

Although it feels great to give people the adrenaline rush of a great workout, focusing solely on that doesn’t bode well for retention, according to Brent Gallagher, owner of Avenu Fit in the Houston area. Too many people in the big box part of the industry are too fixated on full classes, more locations and quick fixes, he said. Boutique gyms have made talking about nutrition popular, mainly owing to Crossfit.

“They were one of the first to tack the food component on it,” he said.

Avenu Fit offers both small-group training and personal fitness coaching, each in 30-minute blocks. Small-group training (two to four people) is $35 per session. During workouts, trainers ask about food or sleep every time in an effort to induce purposeful discussion about food as it relates to exercise. If a member is interested, they can avail of private, 30-minute nutrition sessions at $55 each. Avenu Fit’s staff includes dietitians (one even has a counseling background) and Precision Nutrition coaches.

“We are taking out the shakes and the bars, and talking about real food,” Gallagher said about the sessions.

David Barlow, owner of RehabGYM in Vermont, said clubs want to keep their business models simple. Health organizations tend to focus on diet or exercise, but not both, he said.

“What’s missing is the whole-person approach,” Barlow said. “You can’t just focus on one aspect and expect the outcomes.”

Kim Evans, who is a registered dietitian, said health clubs tend to punt to personal trainers when it comes to nutrition education, which means the education ends up mostly piecemeal, one-size-fits-all advice about what to eat or not eat.

Evans’s company, Whole Health Nutrition, is in the early stages of a partnership with Barlow’s RehabGYM, using nutrition not just as a means to weight loss but also toward reducing inflammation and other discomfort that keep people from exercise.

“Diet really does improve health outcomes,” she said.

RehabGYM provides in-depth nutrition services and pop-up culinary demonstrations to its members via a small teaching kitchen and rooftop garden, which Evans uses.

“David and I have sat at the table and put together something of meaning and value,” Evans said.

Topics include workout nutrition or boosting your immune system. They’ll even take clients to the grocery store and then back into the teaching kitchen to apply what they’ve learned.

At Mark Rullo’s gym, My Fitness Kitchen in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, it’s all about what happens the other 23 hours you’re not working out.

“I always felt the missing ingredient was that no one was addressing nutrition,” he said. “It all comes down to food. We teach people to eat their foods on their terms, which for most people are their taste buds.”

Success Leads to Retention

These health club owners say nutrition education has been a boon for member results and retention, as well as return on investment for them. Coupled with a basic membership, this creates a community that sees results, then refers friends and family, they said.

Nutrition classes come with a My Fitness Kitchen membership, which Rullo said earns a strong revenue per member. A foundation (Level 1) membership is 12 months at $74 a month; month-to-month is $94. The sweet spot, he said, is Level 2, which includes personal training from at least once a week ($204 a month), and up to unlimited ($314 a month).

At Gray's facility, which is a low-priced club, every member gets fitness and basic nutriton coaching for under $50 per month. Members receive a food plan and a recommended list of pantry must-haves, plus sample recipes and weekly nutritoin tips. Upon joining Bay Athletic, members meet with a personal trainer, follow up after 30 days and avail of additional refreshers if needed.

For more personal, in-depth nutrition coaching, members can choose to purchase three packs of individualized nutrition coaching for $97. The accountability component around food offers members a lot of wiggle room depending on the member’s goals, she said. It’s good for ROI, too.

“We have always incorporated the conversation about nutrition in that they will only stay—and refer—if they are getting results and are happy with their investment,” Gray said. “We’d also love them to sleep more, be less stressed and be happier, but this is a huge retention piece for us. You help one mom feel and eat better, and all of a sudden, she’s referring her mom, her sister, her husband, her teenage kid. I’m proud that what we do is effective and cost-effective.”

Bay Athletic recently ran a month-long community weight-loss contest called Thinner Winner. In the contest, 132 out of 244 participants were not members of the gym, but each paid $50. For that, participants could work out a few days per week at the club, rating their nutrition and tracking workouts on a simple calendar. To foster community, a private Facebook group encouraged posting about trying new foods.

It turns someone on to trying edamame with his or her hummus instead of bread,” she said. “We try to demystify healthy eating.”

Talking at the Table

For Gallagher, it took creating a kitchen-like environment in his gym circa 2012 to make members comfortable discussing how and what they eat.

“Families and friends connect at the dinner table, so let’s take it out of a stuffy, cold office and bring learning into the environment they’re actually in when they eat,” he said of his approach.

Avenu Fit’s kitchen has no oven, burners or stove—initially because of funding—and over time Gallagher said members found the stripped-down food-prep area unintimidating.

“When chefs come in to do a small-group cooking demo, they are just using a burner they can plug in,” he said. “People have more than that at home usually, so it looks more accessible. They see they can cook a healthy meal quickly.”

Meals, Shakes and CSAs

Regardless of some owners’ aversion to promoting products, some health clubs do promote shakes and meal-replacement bars in their nutrition education. As a component to Rullo’s nutrition classes, he sells supplements and sometimes recommends them at members’ weekly accountability checkups.

“If they are not seeing the weight loss they want to see, they can supplement with a meal replacement, which I sell,” he said. “The more points of contact, the more upsells, and the more I can ask for referrals.”

Many gyms, he added, only want to invest time with members when they first sign up.

“They puke on you trying to sell you everything in their club, and you’re overwhelmed, you run away scared,” Rullo said. “We don’t advise on supplements until we truly know what you’re eating. We can wait and see. Turn people away from buying first.”

Gray also sells nutrition products, saying health club owners should find products they trust that can also boost ROI.

“Supplements are not all good,” she said, “so do your homework. People don’t know what they’re buying, and we are leaving money on the table if we are not promoting something we can get behind.”

Gray sells Shakeology shakes, about $6 each, in her gym’s juice bar. They sell hundreds each week.

“We can pay our rent in juice-bar retail,” she said. “We have been so clear on our messaging that it’s a super healthy choice after your workout. It leaves out all the guesswork [for members].”

Barlow gets phone calls all the time from people selling nutrition products— but he is skeptical, he said.

“It feels unnecessary to me,” he said. “We want to push people toward unprocessed stuff. I bet you can make more money that way, but we get the outcomes.”

Barlow’s partner Evans does recommend some supplements, however, though she cautions club owners against selling too many products.

“I think a protein powder here and there or offering a smoothie bar is awesome, but I think there are other approaches,” she said, adding that she has referred people to Blue Apron or Sun Basket meal-delivery plans. “It builds skills and confidence and makes things easy.”

Partnering with a community-supported agriculture (CSA) group is another approach Evans likes.

Gallagher has invited local farmers into Avenu Fit’s kitchen, which led to his gym becoming a drop-off location for a local CSA. He views it as an ongoing referral opportunity.

“If people come every week to pick up their veggies, maybe they are already thinking about living healthy and may invest in our services eventually,” he said.

Affordable Guidance

Gray’s club is in a lower-income community, so the challenge for her is getting potential and current members to view their involvement in a health club as an investment, not an expense, she said. And as such, she takes it easy on the add-ons she recommends to members.

“There is nothing wrong with upsells. but that’s not our MO,” she said. “We want people in the doors. And I believe small changes create huge results.”

Any health club owner curious about offering nutrition education can begin by adding free programs to gauge interest, Gallagher recommended.

“Start a weekly talk,” he said. “Get a restaurant or grocery stores to donate a couple of fresh bars. Sometimes you have to feed people to get them into the door."

He recommended vetting a local dietitian if you don't have one on staff, to see if they would be willing to do the weekly talk. 

Evans recommended health club owners also look into insurance coverage in their state to determine potential attendance rates. Medicaid in Vermont, she said, offers unlimited dietitian coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s mandated preventative coverage,” she said. “If you have other health insurance carriers, they will cover at least three sessions per benefit year. If they have preventative coverage through their plan, they do have unlimited access with no copay or deductible.” 

Further, the PHIT Act, which recently passed the U.S. House but had not passed the Senate at the time of this story, would allow people to use health savings accounts or flex-spending funds for everything from baseball leagues to gym memberships.

Partnership Possibilities

For health club owners who don’t want to tackle a slew of nutritional education offerings in-house, there are several creative workarounds. For the past four years, Gray has partnered with a local, health department–certified caterer, Chez Amy, which drops off individual, home-cooked meals to the club on Mondays and Wednesdays at $6 each.

“We get 10 percent of her total sales just for being a drop-off location, and we include a mention of her in our monthly newsletter,” Gray said.

Although none of the gym owners interviewed for this story currently partner with a larger entity such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, several said they would encourage gym owners to consider it as a bridge toward greater integration of exercise and healthy food.

“Align with a brand or company that you agree with their philosophy, ingredients and the product they are putting out,” Gray advised.

Gallagher concurred, but he’s not sure ready-made meals are the ideal way for people to learn about food.

“I think anything is better than nothing, but is it the ultimate long-term solution? I don’t know,” he said. “You can be a vegan and still eat poorly.”

Barlow said that if a large population of a club’s membership is obese or overweight, a partnership should absolutely be on the table. It’s a safe way to add a nutrition arm to your business, which as time goes on could be scaled up or back, he said.