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Psychological Barriers to Fitness — Part 2


Fitness has given me a passion and purpose in life. I’ve dedicated my time to improving others’ quality of life through fitness instruction. With that said, as discussed in part one of this blog series, there are still plenty of reasons people aren’t comfortable in our clubs and hesitate to start any type of physical fitness program.

Nothing frustrates and saddens me more than when I hear someone say they need to get in shape before they can meet with a personal trainer, or lose weight before they join a gym. What can we do as an industry to knock down some of these barriers?

Communication is the Basis of Everything

Different members, at different ages and different fitness levels, want different products. Seems simple, right? Or, sometimes it may just depend on how we communicate services to various types of members. We all have different triggers that determine our decision to buy.

Advertisements vs. Testimonials

When did it become acceptable to use shame and negative body image as a good way to get people to adopt healthier behaviors? A lot of fitness advertisements communicate through exclusion making people feel like outcasts is not the most useful tool to encourage healthy behaviors.

Let’s be real, people who don’t exercise aren’t stupid. They know they should be in the gym exercising and certainly don’t need to look at “motivational posters” of fit people to be reminded of this fact. People relate to advertisements when they feel the model or circumstances are familiar to them. When targeting potential members, we must consider demographic, background and injuries, etc.

Social proof is a powerful tool, and we can use this to our advantage by using testimonials from all types of people from different backgrounds. Step away from the weight loss stories I’m talking about real people, real struggles and real successes. Consider a testimonial from a member who is pre or post-knee replacement surgery, using exercise to battle Parkinson’s disease, cancer or a traumatic brain injury, or a member who beat type two diabetes. Real people overcoming real struggles can be really inspiring.

Use Language, Not Labels

Problem areas: “muffin tops,” “thunder thighs,” “junk in the trunk,” “flabby arms,” “butts and guts,” “dad bod.” I see these phrases daily when looking at fitness advertisements on social media.

Instead of classifying a program or service by age or buzzwords, how about using ability level? The best example of this would be to avoid the use of the word “senior.” As people continue to live longer they don’t see themselves as seniors. Believe it or not, “senior” is a mindset and a label.

Another word thrown around often is “functional.” Functional training is an outcome, not a method. When designing and describing programs, try to include the intended outcomes. For example: with the active aging crowd, you may design a program that mirrors daily activities and explain the intended outcome as being able to get out of a chair, do laundry, vacuum, garden, hike, drive and carry your own suitcase, etc.

Group X and Group Training

People attend Group X classes for a bigger reason than exercise. There’s an innate human desire to connect, feel a sense of belonging and have a support system. When it comes to group exercise and personal training, a good instructor is the difference-maker. A great leader will create a space for safety, acceptance and interaction, and they put a lot of time and emotional investment into their clients. They show up early and stay late to make it easy for members to ask them questions, they introduce themselves to new members and they can tailor a class to address everyone’s fitness level through exercise modifications.

They ask these questions about group fitness classes:

  • Do your classes include gradual progressions, regressions, duration and complexity?
  • Are there different intensity and size levels?
  • Is music appropriate and set to reasonable volume levels?
  • Do you have enough equipment?
  • Do you offer low stress classes?
  • Are classes scheduled during retiree hours?
  • Is there qualified staff available for anyone to ask for help?

Do you offer new members a way to get acquainted with your group classes, programs or services? Perhaps offer quarterly new member demo classes in short ten to 15-minute teasers. If you have a lot of classes, a good way to do this would be to group participants by beginner, intermediate and advanced fitness levels. Not everyone will be comfortable just trying a class without any experience. When you make people feel like part of something, it’s harder for them to leave.

Personal Training Protocols

Think about an insecure member’s idea of personal training: “measured, weighed, photographed, assessed and told I need to be fixed, corrected or repaired.” Whether or not you do these things, a lot of people fear the idea of personal trainers.

If you offer an initial fitness assessment, do you provide an opportunity for a follow-up assessment within eight to 12 weeks? Does every trainer approach the assessment the same way? Are they required to deliver a consistent experience to all members, or do they cater to the member in front of them?

Growth of the Hybrid Trainer

As preventive care practitioners, today’s fitness instructors need to be comfortable with both chronic and acute injuries and illness. They need to be “hybrid trainers,” meaning they have dual certifications or licenses in areas such as physical therapy, athletic training, nutrition or life/health/wellness coaching to accompany their personal training credentials. The growing focus on wellness presents an opportunity for clubs to set up programs and classes that help their members create the positive behavior changes that can be sustained for a lifetime. Interventions should focus on health as both the primary motivator and desired outcome for behavior change, rather than messages that emphasize achieving an ideal weight, which may perpetuate the psychological barriers we are trying to avoid. This creates a whole new market and incentive for hiring career trainers and qualified staff.

Retention, Retention, Retention

It’s more expensive than ever to acquire new members. Competition keeps increasing, so getting someone’s attention in today’s environment is tougher than ever. To retain those who become our prospects or members, it’s about exceeding expectations. Are you focusing on gaining new members and forgetting about keeping the ones you already have? We are officially in the experience economy and it’s no longer about just the services we offer. People want to be treated well, and they want someone to make them feel valuable and important. We’re either going to exceed their expectations or fail to meet them but often it’s what we stop doing, not start doing, that makes the biggest impact.

Let’s break down the barriers.


Katie Mitchell is the TechnoGym director and member experience manager for Newtown Athletic Club.


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