Rags to Riches: Inside the Spectacular Rise of Michigan’s Fitness Programs

fitness programs

Everyone loves an underdog story. There hasn’t been a more unexpected success story than the rapid rise in popularity of the University of Michigan’s fitness programs.

In just three years, Michigan’s campus recreation department has gone from no fitness training programs to having an extremely popular lineup of programs including group training, personal training, and Group-X classes in the country.

“If we’re looking at fall of 2014, we have about 20 classes a week,” said Ellen Dixon, the assistant director of the University of Michigan Recreational Fitness department. “Now, we have over 95 classes per week. And that fall of 2014, we had about 60 group passes sold…We ran the numbers about a week ago, and we [have sold] over 750 passes. The semester just started for us, so [we’re expecting] probably another 200 sales in passes.”

This sudden explosion in student participation and engagement in campus fitness can be directly attributed to Dixon and the rest of the recreational fitness department. They found their vision for the campus fitness programs and pursued that goal relentlessly, starting in 2014.

“A lot of work went into it, but I think a big part of it was coming in to the university with quite a bit of experience and a clear vision for them,” said Dixon. “So [the university] was very supportive of our decisions and the direction to take it, and provided the resources needed to get it rolling.”

Among the contributing factors to the programs’ popularity is the effectiveness of the group training, personal training, and Group-X classes. These three programs all have strong attendance and are aimed at getting students to take their health and fitness seriously.

Each of the classes are made to give students personalized and engaging workout experiences, helping them meet their fitness goals.

“Our small group training is that nice hybrid of personal training and group fitness,” said Dixon. “So [it provides] the participants with a lot of individual attention [while also having] them in a group setting to build a community. And with that, the programming for those small groups is very goal-oriented and progressive.”

A major advantage of the group workout sessions is their diversity — each class can have students who have been attending all semester, and others who are checking it out for the first time.

But no matter their experience level, students will still find an engaging workout environment in the group training classes.

“Everyone still gets a good workout, but if you’re looking for more performance stuff, small group or personal training are the programs you’d want to participate in,” said Dixon. “It’s the same group, [a] set timeframe, and your program is all laid out for you, so you’ll continue to build off your skills.”

For the students more comfortable in one-on-one settings, Michigan offers personal training sessions. All of the department’s trainers are nationally certified, and undergo extensive training before working with students.

And from there, Michigan takes things a step further. In order to help students maximize their personal training sessions, they are paired with a handpicked trainer.

“The clients are each individually matched,” said Dixon. “The clients will submit a request form, and we’ll do a brief intake interview so we can get a sense of what their goals are, a little bit of their personality, and what motivates them. Then we can assign them to a trainer that really fits that training style and personality, so the client can get the best service possible.”

This system of matching up students with trainers based on personality traits and other characteristics has made the personal training program extremely popular on campus.

And finally, for those who prefer a complete group setting when working out, there are the Group-X classes.

The classes that are offered — focusing on arms, shoulders, back, and core — aren’t groundbreaking themselves, but the department navigates which instructors, class formats, and exercises are trending in order to give the students what they’re asking for.

“I would say the popularity of [Group-X] is with our scheduling,” said Dixon. “We are constantly data tracking. We are constantly tracking what our numbers are in every class, and we do participant evaluations. Between the evaluations and class counts, we tweak our schedule to see where we’re trending, peak class times or instructors, and trying to fill that with [the latest trends].”

As is the case with any fitness program, professional or on a college campus, sustainability is the key to success.

“Staying on top of fitness trends and always trying to bring in new things [is important],” said Dixon. “New programs that are going to be sustainable and [not] just ‘flash-in-the-pan’ kinds of programs [are what we bring in].”

Staying relevant is paramount in the fitness industry, especially where college students are concerned. Young adults want to feel a connection to any place they’re going to invest time and money.

Michigan’s campus recreation department has cultivated this kind of environment.

And the secret to that success is a persistence and a staff full of people who share a common vision.

“I think a big part of having a successful program is not only hiring the right people, but being able to develop the right people,” said Dixon. “In that, [you have to make] sure your team [has] bought into the department’s philosophy around the program.”

Bobby is a staff writer at Peake Media. Reach him at bobby@peakemedia.com.

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