Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
Many years ago, I nearly lost my legs in a commercial fitness center because a poorly maintained squat weight-rack literally fell apart.
Half of the rack—carrying nearly 800 pounds of weight—fell because the bolts hadn’t been tightened when the machine was assembled. The rack sliced off the end of a flat bench upon which I was reclining while doing cable tricep extensions.
If my feet had been on the floor like they usually are during this exercise, the rack would have sliced through my knees instead of the padded, ¾-inch plywood bench.
It was at that moment I realized the importance of solid maintenance practices.
After the shock wore off, I went—actually, I stormed—into the manager’s office and had my first experience with a textbook example of awful maintenance management.
When I explained what had happened, she casually said, “OK, thanks for reporting that. It’s what I expect clients to do.”
This was the same manager who, a couple weeks prior, told me, “Here is a wrench,” when I informed her that the nuts on the heavy dumbells were loose, and it was dangerous when doing reps above one’s head.
I said incredulously, “You want me to fix the equipment?”
She told me that she expected clients to help keep the equipment maintained.
Long story short, I wrote a long letter to the owner of the gym, explaining his manager’s philosophy on customer service. She was gone the next day.
That’s a long story to illustrate that maintenance of fitness-center equipment not only is good business, but can actually save a business. I could have sued the owner, but he took appropriate actions to make sure the incident didn’t happen again, so I was satisfied.
The point is that when people walk into a fitness center, they shouldn’t have to think twice about whether the equipment is maintained.
Standards For Equipment Maintenance
While fitness centers have become a way of life for many people today, standards for maintaining equipment weren’t established until the late 1980s, according to Harvey Voris with ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials.
In a 2004 article posted on its website, Voris writes, “Injuries that occurred on low-end exercise bikes in the mid-80s prompted the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to request ASTM Committee F08 on Sports Equipment and Facilities to form a subcommittee devoted to fitness products.”
That subcommittee went on to develop standards of safety, and thus maintenance, for equipment then and today.
Since the 1980s, the variety of cardio and strength-training equipment available in fitness centers has expanded considerably beyond bare-bones stationary bikes; now the bikes might have digital-gaming software that puts riders into scenic riding settings of their choice.
Many bikes, treadmills, and other aerobic machines now have TV monitors, hookups for audio players, and devices to monitor vital signs.
Now there are elliptical machines, rowing machines, ski machines, climbing machines, etc. There is an equally impressive variety of strength-training equipment beyond free weights.
Devise A Plan
For the professional fitness-center staff, keeping all of this equipment up and running is the key to keeping happy customers. It also calls for a well-oiled maintenance plan, especially as winter drives more people inside for exercise in order to prepare for the upcoming swimsuit season.
“We definitely see more people coming in, starting at the end of December and on into January and February,” says George Gagnon, owner of Greer Athletic Club in Greer, S.C., which opened its doors in 1980.
“Treadmills are probably more prone to having to be maintained and can potentially have breakdowns because they are the most popular, and eventually you’ll have to replace belts or motors,” he says, adding that elliptical machines run a strong second in popularity.
He adds that even though there may be costs involved in this maintenance, it is worth it.
“I don’t like things to be broken,” Gagnon explains. “There’s nothing worse than a club that constantly has broken equipment.”
He adds that if his staff can’t fix it, he has local maintenance contractors come in to get machines running again quickly.
“But really, these machines are very well made,” he stresses. “The main thing I find you have to do is clean, and we clean every day. If you’re doing that and keeping up with the general maintenance, you’re going to do well with the machines.”
He emphasizes every staff member—including maintenance personnel—is involved in cleaning and maintaining equipment.
“There are always down times in clubs—late morning, early afternoon, late at night—these are the times when the staff has to be out there cleaning and maintaining equipment,” he says.
Gagnon also points out that even though there is more technology in fitness equipment compared to that of the 1980s, manufacturers have found ways to minimize maintenance.
“These companies have learned so much over the past 20 or 25 years in terms of engineering and design that there is really very little maintenance to deal with,” says Gagnon, who is also a fitness enthusiast.
What’s Important To Patrons
In today’s fitness environment, having a wide variety of exercise options is a key to success, whether in the private sector or in municipal fitness centers.
“The wide variety of equipment doesn’t create a unique challenge for our facility,” says Brian Karr, Fitness/Wellness Specialist for the city of Brea, Calif., located in the foothills of Orange County.
“The strength and cardio machines are vital to our gym’s success, so we keep a close eye on our machines, from daily cleaning to monthly maintenance,” he says.
In addition to in-house service on machines, Karr says the city contracts with David Hare, owner and operator of Club Services, who is available within 48 hours to service nonfunctioning machines.
He adds that the most challenging machine from a maintenance aspect is the cross trainer, also known as the elliptical trainer. This machine uses a circular motion to simulate walking, running, and climbing with minimal impact to joints, thus minimizing injuries.
“They are challenging because they are heavily used by our members, which in turn creates more wear and tear on the machine,” says Karr. “Also, there are a lot of wearable and moving parts on the cross trainer, and over time this can create problems with the machine.”
Pushing Equipment To The Limits
Fitness equipment probably undergoes its greatest stress test on military bases, where fitness isn’t just a pastime, but a requirement.
“All of our equipment is high commercial-grade and must meet Air Force standards,” says Air Force Technical Sergeant Franklin Guerrero, Jr., the Fitness Center Operations Director at Travis Air Force Base in California.
“We service 6,000 active-duty and 4,000 reservists plus retirees and family members for a total of about 400,000 annual customers,” notes Guerrero.
“Treadmills get the most usage,” he says. “Equipment has been known to electronically fail and have parts such as belts needing replacement.”
In addition to daily maintenance, Guerrero says a maintenance contractor is there twice a week to quickly fix any broken equipment. Contractors also are brought in to install wireless theater equipment so patrons can plug in headphones and watch their choice of 17 TV screens.
A Growing Market
Fitness equipment and the emphasis on maintenance has come a long way from the 1980s, and continues to advance by leaps and bounds. The chances of my near-catastrophic situation occurring now are miniscule by comparison.
It’s a good thing too, since more and more people are finding value in fitness-center memberships. Even in tough economic times, fitness remains important to Americans.
“Clients are making better use of their memberships, coming in more often and taking advantage of what we have here,” says Gagnon, emphasizing that maintenance is more important than ever.
“I want my members to come in and be able make full use of the equipment and the programs we have available.”
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration and now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.