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What Is Medical Fitness?

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), there were 39,750 fitness centers/health clubs of all types in the U.S in 2019. Other sources estimate the number of “medical fitness centers” in 2019 were approximately 1,460 or 3.5% of total health clubs. You might be wondering what the difference is between a fitness center and a medical fitness center. While they are indeed similar, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Cooper Wellness Strategies Vice President David Evans, FMFA, looks at the rise of medical fitness, who it serves and how it differs from traditional exercise programming or a standard gym or fitness center.

In his book Medical Fitness Essentials, Robert Boone states “the first known medical fitness center was started by Dr. Kenneth Cooper in 1970 following the tremendous success of his book Aerobics, which advocated aerobics exercise as an essential component of a comprehensive wellness and prevention program.” Indeed, Dr. Cooper’s pioneering vision set the stage for the emergence of the preventive health, wellness and fitness industries the entire world benefits from today. Globally these sectors are now multi-billion dollar industries.

Cooper Aerobics Activity Center—now Cooper Fitness Center—was the original prototype for today’s multi-purpose fitness centers that provide a variety of cardiovascular and strength training exercise equipment, exercise classes and programs. By contrast, “workout gyms” prior to 1970 focused almost exclusively on strength training for men only and primarily used free weights, Olympic bars, power racks and dumbbells for training with very limited, if any, cardiovascular exercise options. Dr. Cooper is credited with introducing and emphasizing the importance of cardiovascular exercise to not only the fitness industry, but also to the health care industry and the world.

So what is medical fitness? By definition, the term medical means “relating to illness and injuries and to the treatment or prevention thereof.” When applied to the definition of fitness—the condition of being physically fit and healthy—medical fitness means improving the fitness and health of individuals with illness or injury through the “treatment” of exercise. This is not to be confused with rehabilitation, which relates to clinically supervised treatment (for example, cardiac rehab, physical therapy, etc.) after a patient receives medical care related to an episode of illness (for example, heart attack) or injury (for example, torn knee ligament).

Essentially, medical fitness is the next phase of “treatment” for an individual after they complete rehabilitation or have been diagnosed with a chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer and arthritis. In fact, the origin of the medical fitness industry in the late 1970s occurred due to requests by cardiac rehab patients to continue exercising for a fee in hospital cardiac rehab facilities after they had completed their supervised rehabilitation. Medical fitness programming incorporates exercise training and education specifically related to an individual’s health conditions. 

As good as participation in medical fitness programming is for a patient’s long-term outcome, unfortunately many hospitals and other types of health care providers do not provide it because these types of programs are currently not eligible for reimbursement by Medicare or health insurance companies. As a result, most health care providers do not believe medical fitness programs align with their financial business model and therefore are not considered part of their “core business.” However, this position is short-sighted because medical fitness programs provide opportunities for patients to more fully recover from an illness or injury after their reimbursable treatments and sessions have ended—thus providing better long-term outcomes for the patient and contributing to decreased readmissions of these patients to the hospital, both of which have a positive financial impact for the hospital. Additionally, medical fitness programs serve as a means of “secondary prevention” for those diagnosed with chronic health conditions. These programs help slow, or in some cases eliminate altogether, the progression of a chronic disease and lower the need for ongoing high-cost clinical services.

Sounds relatively simple; however, people managing chronic health conditions or recovering from a significant injury are significantly less likely to exercise on their own or join a fitness center because they are unsure about how to exercise safely given their personal health condition. And in the case of joining a fitness center, they often will not do so because they do not believe staff at traditional fitness centers or health clubs are trained to provide exercise and fitness advice and oversight for people with their specific health condition. As a result, many individuals with pre-existing health conditions do not engage in a sustained exercise regimen of any kind and sadly never experience full recovery and become physically fit.

Well-designed medical fitness programs bridge this gap, contribute to the overall continuum of health care and play an important role in helping individuals become “physically fit and healthy” within the context of their chronic health condition or injury. Additionally, medical fitness programs help traditional fitness centers expand their market reach by engaging a new segment of the population they have not previously served. Not only can medical fitness programming provide a new source of revenue, but some fitness centers have seen up to a 70% conversion of program participants to full-time fitness members.

To address this important need, Cooper Wellness Strategies, a Cooper Aerobics company, has developed of the Cooper Tracks medical fitness program. Five tracks are currently available:

  1. Cardiovascular disease
  2. Diabetes
  3. Cancer
  4. Arthritis
  5. Immunity & Reconditioning (for those who want to boost their immune systems (for example, post-COVID survivors/patients) or simply recondition the body after an extended illness or inactivity)

Each track lasts eight weeks and provides supervised exercise and education sessions in a small group setting twice per week. The tracks are turn-key—providing all the content and materials needed to deliver the programming. Cooper Tracks can be delivered in fitness centers of almost any type and size, as well as a variety of physical rehabilitation facilities. For more information about Cooper Tracks, visit cooper-tracks.com.

To learn more about Cooper Wellness Strategies’ clients and services, including Medical Fitness services, visit cooperwellness.com or call 972.560.3263.

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