The Role of Fitness in Medicine in 2014 and Beyond…

When experts try to elucidate the increase in global obesity the explanation is usually marred because they use a reductionist approach to explain the phenomena. Obesity has been blamed on the transition from strenuous work to the more heuristic work of our current information age. Other researchers have pointed to modern urban design and advances in transportation that decrease the need for physical activity. Sometimes nutrition is the culprit ranging from increases in dining plate circumference, as well as increases in portion size, to the strides made in food science that have created energy-rich, ready to eat products that make over-indulging easy and inexpensive.  In reality, we are likely where we are today because these events (and others) converged around the same time probably in the early 1970s creating a powerful force that would not be recognized as harmful until decades later. However, I’m optimistic that a convergence of a different kind is upon us today that will help correct this current trajectory and get us back on track. These convergent forces should open up new opportunities for health clubs as health care continues to be steered towards prevention and away from treatment.

One trend is the increasing acceptance that exercise is potentially as effective as many drugs used to control diseases. Our industry has anecdotally known this for years but recent empirical findings from the Stanford University School of Medicine, London School of Economics, and the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School have brought these facts to the forefront.  Advances in wearable technology that effortlessly track activity and other health metrics continue to improve and become more ubiquitous. Peripheral hardware to accomplish these tasks is quickly beginning to be consolidated and replaced by sensor-loaded smartphones and (soon) smartwatches, which will lead to even wider adoption. In parallel the Affordable Care Act is motivating physicians with monetary incentives to deliver positive patient outcomes, in contrast to previously being rewarded for treatment volume. However, this paradigm shift in the way doctors are compensated has yet to affect their patient load. Therefore, primary care physicians are increasingly going to look to allied health professionals to aid with the continuum of treatment strategies outside office visits. This is not simply conjuncture, it’s supported by the strides that the American College of Sports Medicine have made through ‘Exercise is Medicine’ and Kaiser Permanente adding exercise as a one of their ‘Vital Signs’.  As this trend collides with the deluge of data made available from the advancement and adoption of consumer health technology, electronic medical records (EMRs) will be populated with more data from exercise and activity modalities than medical visits. This will likely expand the scope of practice of many traditional health club roles as the concept of care is shifted from doctors to the empowering the individual. It will be more patient-led in contrast to provider-led, and it will start at the health club instead of the doctor’s office. As health clubs embrace this new role and evolve from the equipment rental business to becoming more of a partner in the well-being of their members the potential for increased opportunity is substantial and imminent.

This is the extended version of an article written for Club Business International, Fourteen in 2014. An original version of the Fourteen in 2014 article is available here.