FitTech Insider

How will the transformation of gyms into health clubs look like, Eric Durak?

There are still many people with diseases who don’t have enough access to physical activity they could use as a therapy. Medhealthfit-founder Eric Durak shares his view on how the fitness-industry can change that in the near future. 

“Medical Fitness” is relatively new terminology for many people in the fitness industry, can you start by giving us your definition of medical fitness in its current state?
The definition that I expound to people is that medical fitness is the application of exercise wellness, nutrition, and behavioral services, in the health club industry, to people who have been diagnosed with a medical condition, or people who may have a precondition like pre-diabetes, their blood sugars are high, but they don't have a clinical diagnosis. It's essentially providing fitness to a group of people who need to manage a medical condition better through the use of exercise and wellness. It started with cardiac rehab back in the 1950s, and 60s.  I would say that, that even though medical fitness may be a newer type of terminology, the application has been around for 50 or 60 years.

When you look at the current state of the medical fitness industry, globally and domestically, what are your insights on where it is right now in 2022?
One of the things that people observed in COVID is that health clubs were shut down. But certain types of medical clinics remained open, like blood draw clinics, because people needed to get blood draws. And one of the things that I'd like to do in terms of his insights, and the direction is to get more types of medical and clinical services into health clubs, that would allow them to remain open, and to be an “essential business.” That's really one of the things that I want to have as part of the medical fitness components, is that we want health clubs to remain essential. How can we do that, just because you do an exercise program with someone who may want to lose weight, they may not consider that to be an essential business. But if you provide blood labs, or metabolic testing for that person, then you may enter into that realm of clinical application, in addition to the actual exercise prescription.

A lot of people who will be attending this virtual event will be health club owners or work at health clubs. If they're interested in moving down this path, how can medical fitness industry be the next evolution of health clubs, gym owners and fitness professionals?
Well, I'm going to answer that by taking you back in history about 20 some years to an IHRSA conference, where Paul Zane Pilzer, who's an economist from the Reagan administration, said that over 83% of Americans didn't engage in health club activities, and a lot of those people were older and had medical conditions. The industry wants to look at this crystal ball as to where they might be in the coming years or how they can develop a game plan and business model for medical fitness. In my community, I may be able to garnish a group of folks that could benefit from exercise, and it might be the local breast cancer support group, it might be the local senior center down the road, it may be a joint venture with a retirement community, where you're offering services in their community, but some of their folks may want to come in and use the high level strength equipment, etc., and train with trainers. There’s a number of ways to do it at the local level. 

How do the health clubs need to change to achieve that?
They try to get relationships with some sort of health care professional, whether it's a primary care doctor behavioral health specialist of physical therapy group, that has people that work with them, and then when they're done, where do they go? This has been a big thing in physical therapy for 30 or 40 years. And when they're done with PT, now where do they go? How can they continue the evolution of their rehabilitation and post rehab, and just their general health and well-being. I think that's where the health clubs can look because it's not just the exercise. It's having the nutritionists come in once a week and give a general lecture, but then work with people individually. It's about having someone who's a relaxation or Tai Chi specialists come in and do classes as part of the medical fitness experience. And then you've got the exercise, the stretching, and the rest of the normal offerings. 

How do you speak a common language with the medical professionals that you want to partner with?  And for medical professionals that are more open-minded to working with health clubs, what advice do you have for them?
Well, I'm going to say sort of look to the history of the profession and look to where we have gone. Cardiac rehab has always been a clinical setting program. But 30 years ago, when I started one of the nation's first exercise and cancer programs, we started with healthcare. And today, I've seen explosive growth in the area of exercise and cancer, which I call the new cardiac rehab, because of a few different levels. Andrea Leonard is the CEO of the Cancer Exercise Institute, she's trained more than 10,000 Certified Cancer Exercise Specialists, which is amazing. The American Cancer Society and the American College of Surgeons, probably within the next 12 months, is going to mandate that through their organizations that exercise become part of the standard of care for cancer recovery. 

And if they say that exercise is part of standard of care, where can these people go for long term programming? 
They're going to go to health clubs. So if I'm a health club, I want to develop medical fitness, I first want to look at where's the need? Do I have a lot of cancer survivors in my community? Weight loss is a clearly the biggest need. If you look at COVID, and you look at the vast majority of people who had severe COVID symptoms, they were obese and diabetic. We really have to hone in on with laser focus categories like cancer care, behavioral health, and stress management. This is where things like Tai Chi and yoga come in because they're relaxing, they're building strength, they're teaching proper breathing, etc. And if I'm that health club, I say, “Okay, well what type of technology do I need to implement? Do I need blood sugar monitors? Do I need blood pressure cuffs? What's the best software program?” So, I'm going to build my foundation. And then I'm going to go off and market my community, invite doctors into my club, have regular lectures, you do community building with people and just don't stop.  Just continue to do it until you could get not just the Silver Sneakers type program, but weight loss for medical fitness, cancer care in your community, and you just keep building it. And then, after a while, you become ingrained in the community because you're part of the “fun runs” and you're part of the fundraising events.