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Strike Gold:
Profitable Pilates Programming
By Lindsay Merrithew as published in THE JOURNAL ON ACTIVE AGING, 2002

The wellness rush is on. Baby boomers heading north of 50 prospect for ways to preserve their health. And they’re discovering the landscape of mind-body fitness, thanks to the mainstream media’s interest in the subject.

Heavy publicity fuels public awareness of and demand for holistic programs across the age spectrum. But today’s older adults have a special affinity for mind-body approaches such as contemporary pilates, and they increasingly stake their well-being on these practices, as the walls between conventional and alternative medicine erode.

An aging demographic with disposable income and a liking for mind-body fitness adds up to a great business opportunity for professionals who serve this growing market. If you own or manage a fitness/wellness center, you can meet client needs and realize more profits by integrating pilates programming into your facility. But before you dig in and stake your claim, here are some nuggets of advice to help you strike gold.


The typical pilates enthusiast tends to be an educated female, age 30-60 years-old, with an above average income and a serious commitment to fitness. However, more men, rehab patients and mature adults are starting to participate in pilates. Word is also spreading geographically. No longer just a big city movement, pilates now pops up in smaller towns worldwide. But don’t jump on the pilates bandwagon because it’s the trend du jour. Do your homework.

Effective ways to measure and assess the demand for pilates in your area include surveys, focus groups, market research and face-to-face communication. Talk to people. Determine whether your clients and community are receptive to mind-body fitness. Find out what current and potential members want, need and can afford.

“Use your front desk [or receptionist] as a barometer,” advises Gayle Winnegar, owner of The Sweat Shop in St. Paul, Minnesota. “If you’re getting several comments a day asking for pilates, it’s time to take a serious look at starting a program.”


Get some first-hand experience with the exercises before presenting pilates to your clients. Take a few private or group classes. Watch some videos and attend workshops. Try the equipment at trade shows and network with people who have established pilates profit centers in their facilities.

Assess whether you have the space to accommodate pilates equipment—600 to 1,500 sq. ft. is ideal. Some facilities have converted an underused apartment, back office or even a squash court into a pilates studio. While a dedicated area allows you to maximize your equipment investment throughout the day, some pilates equipment is portable enough to bring into a room for classes or personal training if space is a problem. Or limit your program to matwork and small props, so you can easily share a multipurpose room.

You might consider another business model altogether: leasing space to an independent pilates program manager.

Allan Lockhart, owner of the North Shore Athletic Club in Massachusetts, leases an 800 sq. ft. studio to P.J. O’Clair, who oversees the club’s contemporary pilates program. This arrangement provides members with added value and relieves Allan’s managerial and administrative burdens. The pilates studio also draws new members to the club, making it a win-win proposition.


Pilates provides an abundance of programming options. These range from introductory mat-based group classes to challenging equipment-based personal training sessions. Adapt versatile workouts for a variety of intensity levels and themes to appeal to the older exerciser. For example, promote functional fitness, back care and independent living, or target golf or tennis training.

Hybrid programs that blend pilates with disciplines such as yoga or group cycling are also becoming popular. “Our Cycle-lates classes are always sold out,” says Kris Kory of the Special Care Holistic Wellness Connection in New Britain, Connecticut. “People really enjoy the combination of cardio followed by strength and flexibility training—they feel like they are getting it all in a one-hour time slot.”

Many facilities start by adding group matwork classes to their schedules. These classes allow owners/managers to introduce pilates to members and gauge interest before investing in equipment.

If you decide to offer matwork classes, try to limit participants per instructor to a manageable ratio. The precise pilates exercises require instructor supervision, especially when working with an older population. Small, personal classes allow instructors to build relationships, customize routines and guide clients safely toward optimal results—which keeps clients coming back for more.


Most facilities are already equipped to start a basic pilates program: it takes only a small amount of space and one mat per participant.

Matwork classes have a low barrier to entry and accommodate beginner to advanced participants. Add resistance, support, challenge and variety to your programs for little upfront investment by introducing small props, such as the Flex-Band, Fitness Circle, Arc Barrel or Stability Ball.

On the other hand, a progressive pilates program requires some specialized equipment. It pays to invest in top-quality brands. Look for durable, adjustable, commercial-grade equipment, which is engineered for safety and backed by service.

Because of pilates’ foundation in rehab, its special equipment is inherently age-friendly. Most Reformers and Cadillacs are bed level, with comfortable padding and adjustable springs for incremental increases in resistance. Stability Chairs and supportive barrels are easy to mount, with many exercises performed in a seated position.

Ensure your room layout has adequate distance between each piece of equipment, so clients can get on and off with ease. Some pilates manufacturers have modified their lines to take space restrictions into consideration, offering Cadillac wall units, mat converters and rackable Reformers for greater efficiencies.

But if space permits, a dedicated studio can elevate the perceived value of your pilates program. “Our pilates studio has natural carpet, a gentle sound system and natural lighting—no florescents,” says Cheryl Haselden of the Cape Fear Valley Health Systems Healthplex in North Carolina. She adds, “Many older clients prefer to workout behind closed doors.”

Other facilities place their equipment in central locations, finding the visibility helps generate interest in their pilates programs.


The key to a successful pilates program is the certified trainers who conduct classes. The intricacies of the exercises, the physiology behind them and the complexity of the specialty equipment require in-depth knowledge. Be sure your pilates instructors hold credentials from a reputable institution—one that requires class instruction, practice teaching, observation, examinations and continuing education as part of its certification process.

When dealing with a mature client base, qualified staff becomes even more critical. Instructors need to understand the effects of aging and the ways pilates can positively influence the aging process. To design a safe program, they must know about disabilities, chronic conditions and medications that could impact safety, as well as appropriate pacing, intensity, duration and movement progression. They must also know how to modify exercises for age-related health issues and physical limitations.

Unfortunately, qualified pilates instructors are in short supply, but don’t let the shortage tempt you into lowering your educational standards. There’s a big difference between those who learned a little choreography in a weekend workshop and those properly certified to serve diverse clients and develop programs.

“You can’t train people in some fly-by-night course and expect your program to succeed,” says The Sweat Shop’s Gayle Winnegar. “Our single most important investment was spending money upfront to train great staff.”

Several accredited institutions offer matwork, reformer and full certification programs, and permit instructors to train and teach in stages. Courses can also take place at your facility for your convenience.


A profitable pilates program should attract new members or residents, retain current ones and enhance services in your facility. You can include pilates with the cost of membership/housing as a value-added offering, or you can open it to clients and nonclients, if you choose, as a fee-for-service specialty program. In October 2000, IDEA Fitness Manager reported that one-third of fitness facilities offer pilates, with 40% of these facilities charging an additional fee. Unfortunately, figures are not known for the senior housing industry.

“We justify the fee for our pilates program with the cost of equipment and instruction,” says John Boyd, program manager of the Chelsea Piers Sports Club in New York. “Members understand that supervision is a necessity for them to learn and execute the exercises safely and effectively.”

Schedule classes and fees carefully. You may need to experiment a little to know what your market will support. Some facilities offer a free introductory class to give members or residents a chance to experience pilates, then roll out prepaid packages of five to ten sessions. This upfront commitment increases the potential for positive results.

“Our clients understand pilates is a progressively learned skill, so they commit to long-term programs,” says Bruce Stapleton, founder of the Ohio-based Lifegevity Institute. “They perceive its value and are willing to pay a premium for it.”

You can launch a solid pilates program with group matwork classes, a Reformer for personal training sessions and a certified instructor and grow the program from there. Group classes and one-on-one sessions tend to feed each other. And you can expand your program as demand dictates. Having a wider range of equipment obviously adds to your programming potential. With a fully equipped studio, you can offer personal training sessions, semi-private classes, matwork classes, group Reformer sessions and more for a lucrative revenue stream. You may also want to stock pilates videos, accessories and other items in your retail store for additional profit.


Although the mainstream media has made much ado about pilates in the past few years, you still need marketing strategies to help drive your success.

Develop staff incentives and a client referral program to promote your program. Prepare flyers and signage to display at reception, in locker rooms and around other high traffic areas. Advertise in community newsletters and local papers. Post information on your company website. Consider hosting an open house and inviting the media to attend.

Position equipment in a visible area and conduct informative demonstrations. Tell clients about the benefits of pilates and word-of-mouth will spread.

“We educated our members about pilates before we added matwork classes to our schedule,” explains Michele Zamora, fitness director at the Adobe Spa and Fitness Center in Arizona, which is part of the Sun City Grand/Del Webb Pulte adult community. “We put up flyers to describe the program and had a sign-up sheet to make sure we’d have enough interested participants.” She also made sure she educated her personal trainers, fitness instructors, massage therapists and other staff throughout the facility. “Networking ensures crossover support for all our programs.”


A contemporary pilates program taps into society’s growing interest in holistic health. It also particularly benefits older adults, because the exercises blend fitness and rehabilitation principles. With the population aging rapidly, you can hit the mother lode if you plan your program carefully, implement it intelligently, let it evolve progressively and communicate about it effectively. Then your pilates program will become a golden profit center for your facility.


IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey, 2001

Profiles of Success, IHRSA’s Industry Data Survey of the Health & Fitness Club Industry, 2001

IDEA Fitness Manager, October 2000

Medical Fitness Association Industry Guide, 2000

Milner, Colin. “Expanding Horizons,” Fitness Business Canada, November/December 2001

Lindsay Merrithew is president and CEO of STOTT PILATES and Merrithew Corporation.
For more information about STOTT PILATES, call 1-800-910-0001.