Health and fitness leaders are already aware of the importance of exercise.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the lack of understanding from the media, general public and government officials about the important role gyms and health clubs play in the overall health continuum. Because of this, many club operators are turning to medical fitness to better serve both their members and the public.

Bill McBride, the co-founder, president and CEO of Active Wellness, said:

“The importance of health, wellness and an active lifestyle are more important than ever. With social isolation, depression, obesity, inactivity and compromised immunity all on the rise — plus a litany of other concerning conditions — it is more critical than ever to provide our essential services to our communities.”

According to McBride, there are three baseline requirements to be successful in medically integrated programs and offerings: credibility in the community and the medical practice community, a commitment to the highest standards of delivery, and establishing relationships with medical partners — i.e. hospital systems, physician groups, physical therapy, etc.

“In addition to having the highest standards in delivery and operations, it is also important to have science-based, safe and effective programs,” said McBride. “With credibility and specific programs with proven outcomes, it becomes a little easier telling your story to the medical community and increases the possibilities.”

Active Wellness has been offering medical fitness programming in various forms since the company started. Some offerings include Parkinson’s Mobility, Cardiovascular Rehab, Arthritis Aquatics, Diabetes Fitness, Cancer Fitness, Physician Referral and Post-Physical Therapy.

To determine what fitness programs to offer at each site, McBride said they work with the community and their medical partners to decide what programs make the most sense for their members.

Beacon Health & Fitness, with three locations in Indiana, offers similar programs to their membership.

Alan Loyd, the executive director for Beacon Health & Fitness said:

“From a programming perspective, Beacon Best Medicine is our driver, connecting patients who have chronic, life-changing conditions with fitness programs to improve their quality of life and disease management. Held weekly in our fitness centres, we offer classes for people with heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s, autism, peripheral artery disease, arthritis and more. We also work through our Wellness Surroundcare model, which is a gathering of our clinical and fitness experts who talk through tough cases together. This is an incredible way to connect the frontline fitness team with your clinicians.”

Beacon Health & Fitness opened in the early 1980s as a department of their health system, so they have always been medically integrated. According to Loyd, however, it has taken many forms over the years.

He said:

“Early on, it mostly meant education and community outreach. We still do all that, of course, but now integration to us includes seamless connectivity from sports medicine to physical therapy to fitness.”

In order to offer medical fitness programming, your club must have well-built relationships to make it work.

Loyd  said:

“They’re just absolute musts. You’ve got to have a strong physician connection and not just on an organizational chart. The clinical providers you’re looking to incorporate need to nurture relationships with the fitness team and instructors.”

Natasha Ward, the director of community health improvement at Western Wisconsin Health in Baldwin, Wisconsin, agreed with Loyd that relationships are key to success.

Ward said:

“[Health clubs] are certainly a gateway to better health and wellness, and preventative health maintenance. Creating trusting relationships with local health care providers for referrals can be a nice avenue for the health care provider to help their patients get healthier, as well as beneficial for fitness facilities to gain more members. It is helpful to collaborate with health care providers to make sure you are on the same page about appropriate treatment methods for patients’ diagnoses and health needs.”

Ward said having access to health care providers and professionals within the same facility is a huge benefit to members. This is why they provide membership incentives to patients who finish clinical treatment plans and other clinical programs in their facility to start a regular community membership in the fitness center.

While the opportunity for member referrals is a key selling point for clubs to integrate medical fitness programming into their facility, Loyd said there are more benefits it can offer.

Loyd said:

“I think people get excited when they think about medical fitness because they see a lot of opportunity for referrals — and that’s great, of course — but more importantly, both from a mission perspective as well as a business one, is the ability to insert one’s services into the larger continuum of care. Whether your fitness services are at the front, middle or back-end of a person’s wellness journey, what’s important is that movement is represented somewhere in the journey.”

However, in order for health clubs to reap the full benefits of being a medically integrated facility, they must gain more credibility with the health care industry. As health care shifts from an episodic to a relational model, Loyd said you can earn credibility by honouring this approach.

Loyd explained:

“It’s not just about member retention anymore — it’s about caring for the individual’s well-being long term. Go above and beyond with your safety protocols — don’t just try to meet the bare minimum standards. Go all in with upholding high standards of education and certification with your staff. What is the relationship you’re going to have with your community, with your members, non-members and even former members? This can help you align with the health care providers in your community.”

While the coronavirus pandemic has been challenging and the narrative the media created surrounding gyms was frustrating, it has shown the health and fitness industry has an opportunity to grow. Gyms can foster strong relationships with health care professionals to better serve members. Because at the end of the day, the pandemic revealed exercise isn’t going anywhere.

Loyd said:

“The great news for the fitness community is that, when we do it right, exercise is the thing the person comes back to — either they’ve been released from physical therapy, their doctor has cleared them to exercise, or perhaps they have a chronic condition and want to improve their quality of life. All roads lead back to exercise for most people.”