A Design Firm Rethinks The Entire Gym Experience

We know obesity is an epidemic, but gym memberships are expensive. So maybe what we need are new gyms.

There are a lot of reasons not to go to the gym. The membership is pricey. It’s far away. You have no idea how to use half the equipment anyway. It’s yet another place you’re going that’s inside.


The National Fitness Campaign’s (NFC) court, designed by NewDealDesign, challenges each of these barriers to working out at a gym. It’s a low-cost, open-air space that is constructed in factories, then modularly assembled on-site in just half a day. The idea is that any community could set up, customize, or relocate a gym in a public space–without any money at all. Communities can actually request a gym to arrive for free, and locals needn’t buy memberships.

How? The NFC courts are corporately subsidized. The platform is pursuing a model in which businesses can use the space as an advertisement, subsidizing community fitness while scoring some solid PR in the process. It’s actually an old idea, one that started by Mitch Menaged back in 1979. It was quite successful. The decade-long, international campaign reached 4,000 cities in three countries. Now, Menaged, along with Sam Lucente, is launching the idea again, updated with 30 years of innovation. The first NFC has arrived in San Francisco already, and more than a dozen others are planned for the area in 2013.

The design concerns of such a project are numerous. Materials had to be durable enough to withstand outdoor weather. The components had to be easily transported, assembled, and even rearranged. And equipment had to offer a full body workout for all fitness levels.

Off-the-shelf solutions wouldn’t work, so NewDealDesign brought on seven personal trainers to help develop and test what’s all-new (or highly modified) equipment. What they quickly decided on was to ditch weights–they’re heavy, and they’d be difficult to tether to the platform–and rely on a body’s own mass for resistance training. But while exercises like pull-ups may offer a great workout, not everyone can do a pull-up. The solution? Make exercises tweakable by designing equipment to work with various postures and grips. Then, put many of the hardest exercises along the structure’s single wall.

“The wall was a major enabling factor, allowing us to hang devices, but also give a few steps for people who are weaker or not trained enough to come onboard and enjoy the space,” NewDeal Director Gadi Amit explains. “You can lessen the stress level by standing on slats, then slowly reduce the support of your legs.”

Menaged and Lucente developed prototypes in a basement near NewDealDesign’s HQ, also bringing in trainers to constantly test and assess the designs. Once the NFC was complete, the trainers turned the circuit workout into a seven-minute podcast, so any couch potato can show up to be guided through each exercise by a virtual personal trainer. The idea is kind of like a museum audio tour, that is, if museums could give you 20-inch biceps.


About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.