While the entire country is facing an obesity epidemic, rural America is struggling the most with the problem, according to the findings of a recent Club Industry report. The takeaway for fitness business owners in these regions? Reaching out to these groups can not only help them, but can also be a major business opportunity. Here’s a closer look at the issue and how fitness businesses can come out ahead.

Obesity in Rural Areas

“Urbanization is sometimes labeled as one of the causes of the rise in obesity, but new research suggests the prevalence of obesity is actually higher among rural Americans,” proposes Club Industry’s “America’s Obesity Crisis and the Fitness Industry’s Role in Resolving It.” Specifically, 9.9 percent of men in rural populations have severe obesity compared to 4.1 percent of their peers in rural populations, while rates are even more troubling for women: 13.5 percent and 8.1 percent, respectively. 

While the research didn’t conclusively determine the reasons behind the disparity, it did share a couple of factors rural health club owners cited as barriers for community members, including the fact that the health club concept was largely foreign to them, plus low household incomes and high poverty rates.

Reaching Rural Members

The good news? Fitness business owners did report heartening outcomes after reassessing their recruitment and programming.

Take Lake City, Minnesota’s Anytime Fitness, for example. According to co-owner Teri Bissonnette, it was the first gym of its kind in the area and was therefore a “tough sell” for people who not only hadn’t belonged to a gym before but may not have known anyone who had either. The solution wasn’t just about getting the word out, but about getting it out in the right way. Bissonnette told Club Industry that using actual club members in advertising was an effective tactic. Upon seeing people they recognized, the response was, “Hey, that’s the superintendent in my school, and if he can go there and work out, I can, too.” 

Bissonnette also reinforces the importance of helping new members feel familiar and comfortable with the facility and its equipment. On their first day at the gym, new members are assigned a trainer who works with them to assess their histories and goals in order to come up with a customized workout program. 

Hand shake at a gym.

Anytime Fitness’s initiatives have been so successful, in fact, that it no longer needs to advertise. Instead, word-of-mouth and sponsorship of local events keep bringing members in the door. “That’s the beautiful thing about a small town. Once you build a good reputation, that’s what sells memberships,” Bissonnette reveals. 

As far as keeping members coming back, Bissonnette offers healthcare reimbursements. While these offer no immediate financial benefit to Anytime Fitness, they do motivate members to keep them coming back for more.

Trina Gray, owner of Bay Athletic Club in rural Alpena, Michigan, meanwhile, says that while the club does attract high-earners, income remains a major barrier to membership for many locals. So how does the club reach them? By going to where they are and offering practical solutions to common health-related problems. For example, regular workouts may mean reduced pain, less medication, and fewer medical visits and co-pays. 

To offset the upfront financial burden of membership, Bay Athletic Club offers flexible payment plans, including the option to make installment payments on payday. “I want to be accommodating because I want people to invest in their health. I don’t want to make it harder or more challenging than it already is for them,” said Grey. 

Once the club gets one family member in the door, they prioritize getting the others, as well, with discounted membership fees. “If you can get a household healthier, you’re way more likely to retain them and for them to get lasting results,” Grey continued. 

Whether you already operate a fitness business in a rural area or you’re thinking of doing so, you may face different challenges than you would in an urban area. At the same time, you’ll face different and exciting opportunities — not only to thrive as a business, but also to help your community members achieve their health and wellness goals.  Wherever your fitness business is located, wearable technology is another powerful member recruitment and retention tool.  Request a demo today to learn more about what Accuro can do for you.