Trimming the Fat Off the Fitness Industry

This post is part of a series on sustainability in the health and wellness industry, curated by Becky Eisen, Dana Ledyard, Izabel Loinaz. Follow along with the series here. By: Stuart Walker In 2008 I was terminated from my job as the GM of a 85,000 sq foot, 11 acre, 300 parking spot health and fitness center that I would have to diagnose by the American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary as “Obese.”  The industry’s description of our club was “a small market dominator” and we often received advice to grow that baby as big and as fast as possible, which we did. Our utility bills increased, our payroll expanded, our parking lot spread, our insurance multiplied, and the drive time market area needed to fill our facility definitely plumped up dramatically.

The industry stands at the pulpit every day extolling the virtues of a lean, mean, highly efficient body but like so many industries today, ours does not always practice what it preaches. Fat is fat, and the health and fitness industry is comprised of a whole lot of clubs that are pretty unhealthy. Smaller, neighborhood driven, environmentally sustainable clubs are going to gradually pick away at these larger clubs market share.  Many times I pitched an environmentally friendly, boutique style club to my employers, but was laughed out of the office. “Too expensive, over-rated, can’t prove the savings, and customers want a big club with one-stop shopping” would be their reply. “Just sell more memberships!” I heard every day.

In the end, the overhead to run a facility of that size was just too much.  I had to fire many of my closest friends and it was one of the hardest times of my life.  The employees were the driving force behind the business and as they exited, the membership followed suit. The industry defines this scenario as the “death spiral” and I knew I was the next to go.   As the father of 3 children, one with autism and another with several life threatening disorders, I knew that I had put my family in a perilous situation by staying with this company for so long.

When I decided to stay in the field of health club management and open my own gym, my priority was to trim the environmental and financial fat while running a profitable operation. My wife, a commercial interior designer, took the LEED AP exam, and we began the process of designing a green health club.  Site selection was crucial as I knew if I could build in the most densely populated area of town, I would find shared parking and members who could walk or ride to my club. I my goal was to reduce people’s drive time by 8 miles.

The building was chosen because it satisfied several of the LEED criteria, such as south facing sunlight, proper balance of live work community and close proximity to trails, city parks and recreation resources. Our task was to take this out of shape building and make it a vital part of the community. Recycling the demolition revealed 60 yr old mint condition timber for the walls, enough for 75 percent of the framing material. Low VOC paints and stains for superior air quality as well as sustainably harvested doors and floors all come together to show our customers that we care about both their indoor and outdoor quality of life.

The industry has definitely come a long way in terms of sustainable products and services and it is just of matter of making proper choices when designing and maintaining your facility. Our members thank us every day for our commitment to the environment. I know that we are attracting a customer that is not simply price shopping but sees value beyond the treadmill.

Competition is heating up in the health and fitness market, but mostly with big box facilities designed for mass customer volume. If you are planning on opening a facility in the near future, make sure to step on the scales and let a more eco-friendly business be your niche.


Stuart Walker is a 20 year veteran of the health and fitness industry and the owner of Clubhaus Fitness, an LEED registered project, and one of the first privately owned fitness centers in the country to apply for LEED status.


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One response

  1. ClubHaus Gym is just another example of a progressive Green Business located in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Stuart Walker, is the progressive owner who see’s that future market desire is all Green, pent-up, and under represented.
    Arkansas ranked 8th in the Nation for LEED Certified building square footage on a per capita basis. That is public will willing to spend a little more to build Green and certify that commitment with LEED. Way to go Stuart! Much appreciate your enthusiasm in general and for going the extra distance to go green. Mikel

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