These centers are home to cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs, physical therapy, and a gamut of exercise, nutrition and wellness-counseling services for diabetics and others with chronic diseases. Each is staffed with exercise physiologists and trainers who are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and can operate an on-site defibrillator.
As hospitals focus on ways to keep patients healthy through exercise and nutrition, many have opened fitness clubs on their own or teamed up with businesses with expertise in club management and marketing.
"A hospital has never sold anything, ever, so they have no retail mentality," said Sam Young, owner of Tilton Fitness, which operates four health clubs in South Jersey. "This is a retail business. You need to create a fun, exciting atmosphere. You have to sell every day."
Operators of such clubs usually open membership to the public, while also pulling in hospital patients in need of continued cardiac and pulmonary rehab and other medically minded exercise programs.
Club operators benefit from such partnerships because hospitals bring in clients who usually wouldn't respond to radio and television marketing, said Young, a former U.S. Navy aviator, who has invested more than $1 million in his three hospital-affiliated clubs.
Young bought the Tilton Athletic Club in Northfield, N.J., from his father in 1991. It became obvious to him that the fitness industry was becoming stagnant and needed to attract new segments of the population.
In particular, it would need to target "people who were older, intimidated or deconditioned," Young said. "Ironically, the only people we were impacting were the people that didn't need us."
Young's first project with the Shore Memorial Hospital was a weight-loss and nutritional program launched in 1993.
In February 1998, the two business partners opened the 16,000-square-foot Shore Fitness Club in Mays Landing, which now has 3,000 members. A year later, they opened the 12,000-square-foot Shore Fitness Club in Somers Point, which has a current membership of 2,200.
Young said the Mays Landing club broke even by the end of the second year, while the Somers Point club became profitable during its third year.
On Nov. 30, Tilton Fitness opened its third hospital-affiliated club, the Ocean Club, in Stafford Township, N.J. The 35,000-square-foot facility is a joint venture between Tilton Fitness and Compass Health Care, the for-profit subsidiary of Southern Ocean County Hospital.
"If a typical club's market is age 18 to 30, our members are probably 30 to 50," Young said, adding that some members are in their 90s. He said he hoped to launch additional clubs with community hospitals in the near future.
Joseph Coyle, president of Southern Ocean County Hospital, said the hospital and Tilton Fitness found each other while both were eyeing the same vacant facility: a fitness center that had closed.
In the end, Coyle said the hospital decided to work with Tilton Fitness to open a club "rather than do it ourselves."
Rick Pitman, chief executive officer of the Shore Health System, said hospitals that launch fitness clubs by themselves run the risk of spending too much money and not understanding the market.
"You've got to have the right people - people that can handle the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and the cardiopulmonary rehab," Pitman said.
The Somers Point facility won the 2001 Distinguished Achievement Award for hospital-affiliated fitness centers under 20,000 square feet given by the Medical Fitness Association in Richmond, Va.
According to the trade association, the number of medical fitness centers in the country rose from just 90 in 1991 to 345 in 1997 and 550 in 2000.
Crozer-Keystone Health System, a network of five hospitals in Delaware County, operates the Healthplex Sports Club, one of the largest hospital-run fitness centers in the country. Opened in the fall of 1996 next to Springfield Hospital, the 176,000-square-foot facility features squash, racquetball and tennis courts, a running track, two pools, and an indoor golf driving range. The club now has 7,200 members. Last January, it opened a spa offering pedicures, waxing, facials and massages.
Jim Gallagher, the center's general manager, declined to provide financial figures, but he said the facility generated a profit margin of about 5 percent to 10 percent.
In July 2000, Virtua Health opened a 56,000-square-foot fitness center with pools, a running track, and a half-court gymnasium. The Virtua Health William G. Rohrer HealthFitness Center, based in Voorhees, N.J., is part of an 82,000-square-foot facility that also houses cardiac rehabilitation, physical therapy, and other hospital departments. Virtua Health operates four New Jersey hospitals, in Mount Holly, Berlin, Marlton and Voorhees. Fitness Management magazine gave the center an award in 2000 for best facility design.
Doylestown Hospital opened its 125,000-square-foot Health and Wellness Center in Warrington, Pa., in April 2001. The facility includes a 45,000-square-foot fitness center with pools. There is a spa, caf, bookstore, auditorium, and walk-in mammography and radiology services for hospital patients.
Contact freelance writer Claire Furia Smith at BusinessNews@phillynews.com.