Gyms As Motivational Third Spaces  
Kari Frontera in Sports

Image © Gensler

As I finished up my workout at a local gym the other day, I couldn’t help feeling something has been missing from my workout regimen lately. I have been feeling uninspired and frankly am finding it hard to get back into a routine. As I walked out, I realized what it was. I am no longer inspired by my gym. I looked around and noticed that the gym felt tired and un-energetic. It was the middle of a weekend day. The weather wasn't so perfect that everyone would rather have been outside, but it also wasn’t so bad that it would keep people from leaving their homes. This should have been peak gym time. The place should have been brimming at the seams with people all striving to reach their fitness goals. The gym is a well-established, national big box location in a densely populated area. So why was it so empty?

In some ways, there is a programming element at play. There is a lot of new competition on the market these days from new chains moving into the metro Washington, D.C., area (where I live). There are also a handful of high-end local boutique gyms and more specialized training centers like Cross Fit and MMA studios. Setting that part of the equation aside the missed opportunity for some of these big box gyms is the architecture. For starters, the layouts are formulaic: A large, oversized check in desk adjacent to a few lounge chairs that look like an afterthought greets patrons at the door. A sales area consisting of closed offices (some open with high panels between them) comes next. Past this area is floor, the entire floor, marked by lines and lines of treadmills, elliptical machines and bikes. Off in the distance is the weight area: A mixture of machines and free weights and maybe a circuit area. On the perimeter there may be couple of class rooms and of course the locker rooms and some back of house spaces.

Operationally, this layout makes sense. Your staff can monitor the entire floor at one glance. Your members know exactly where to find the equipment that they are looking for. Your prospective members can be impressed by the sheer size of the club while they are starting their tour or signing on the dotted line. But functionally, is this layout really the best to provide results for your members. Any fitness enthusiast will tell you variety is critical to your success. You need to change your workout occasionally to maintain or improve your results. So what if the design of gyms did the same?

Start at the reception area. The day of the oversized reception desk that is rarely used for the intended purpose is done. IF you are aiming to be welcoming and inviting to your members, placing their first contact behind two feet of high counter may not be the best way to go. Try something more like a kiosk, or restaurant concierge approach in the lobby. Allow your employees to be less tethered to a desk and more interactive with your clients.

Next, move the studios to the center of the space, have the equipment radiate around them. Another option is to bring some of the group classes out on the open floor. Why does spin class always have to be held in a closed room? Sure the music can be loud and your instructors should be focused on the participants and not distracted by their surroundings, but thoughtful space planning and an innovative sound control system can address those concerns. One of the most powerful stories of group exercise is the contagious group energy raising each participant’s efforts. It doesn't make sense to literally shut group exercise in a room and close the doors. Celebrate the group classes. And just think of all the special program activities that you can work into the day to day operations.

Create different areas of workout space. Not everyone wants to be on display and not everyone wants to be tucked into a back room or hidden area. You can use floor mirrors or translucent panels to create a variety of training zones. Leave room for some strategically placed open zones for members to work off the equipment. This also will allow more space for your personal trainers to work and interact with members. If your model is selling PT sessions separately, what better advertising for their services can you get then allowing the other members to witness firsthand how they work and interact with clients? This will also allow other members to see the results over time.

On the equipment side, the days of having just a few television sets in the cardio and occasionally the weight areas is over. Each piece of cardio equipment that allows it should have a personal TV screen. The walls should be used for establishing brand identity and motivating members. If you think the movement on the monitors is what brings that motion, then I challenge you to explore what is on those screens and who is actually watching them. The standards usually are 1) the news, 2) a sports channel or two typically showing either a talk show or a baseball or golf game (nothing against those two sports but when viewed from a distance with your head craned up, really you are just watching the grass grow) and 3) a music video of a song that you are not listening to over the speakers. Is that the best use of the prime wall space that your members see constantly throughout their visit? Moving the screen to their equipment gives them the personal choice to watch what they want and gives you the wall to capture their eyes with your message when they look around, which they will.

In all of this, it is important to recognize the importance of the gym as the third space. Yes, there is a good part of the membership base that just wants to come in, get their work out in and get out. But there is an equal part of your base that craves motivation to come back day in and day out. Sure we would like to think that everyone just automatically wants to come in and work out every day with no extra push, but that is not a reality. So why not use the design of the club to bring excitement back to the gym?

Kari Frontera secretly desires to one day turn every workplace into a gym thus eliminating the excuse of not having the time/opportunity to fit in a workout. Believing that the world’s problems can be solved through sport, she strives to bring in an element of recreation to every project. Kari is the Southeast region’s practice area leader in Sports and is always willing to discuss the intricacies of recreation and fitness facilities. Contact her at
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