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Column Personal Training

Psychological Barriers to Fitness


I recently came across an advertisement from a reputable personal training organization that looked something like this: anonymous female’s six pack abs, tiny shorts and crop top with the phrase “Are you cut out to be a Personal Trainer?” To me, this is a painful representation of everything that is wrong with the fitness industry. I can assure you that I never encountered an image like this when researching physical therapy schools, and I’m still unclear about how this delineates any prerequisite to becoming a personal trainer.

While this is my opinion, I believe perception is reality. Is it possible we are unknowingly turning people away from our clubs and the idea of exercise in general with similar messaging?

I recognize that obtaining washboard abs, dropping 10% body fat and competing in fitness competitions all have their appeal, but these “sexy” or aesthetic goals primarily motivate younger people who have been brainwashed with advertisements that measure self-worth with the idea of physical perfection.

For the majority of the population, “sexy” may realistically be the ability to lift both arms overhead, walk without a cane, conquer a flight of stairs without knee pain, return to playing golf or be capable of hiking on that dream vacation with their spouse. Their goals pertain to quality of life, such as relief from chronic pain or chronic illness. Intrinsically motivated goals like these tend to be the most powerful because contrary to weight loss or high blood pressure, there is no pill or diet to manage the loss of physical functions that we take for granted.

One of the biggest deterrents and misconceptions about the gym is everyone there is already in shape. A lot of people really want to exercise but foster a genuine fear of intimidating machines, bodybuilders and size zero cardio bunnies. Just watch a commercial for Planet Fitness; while industry professionals know that is not reality, it is an honest depiction of the grandiose psychological barriers associated with fitness.

Consider some of the major barriers:

  • Fear of being judged
  • Fear of looking stupid (social comparisons)
  • Fear of feeling like you don’t belong*

Why is this essential to understand? Because emotions, not knowledge, are the primary drivers of action, we make emotional decisions and justify them rationally.

According to Harvard University, one-third of our population is 50 or older. Ironically, this is a large segment of the market that most clubs completely ignore. Sedentary lifestyles are an undesired trademark of modern society affecting a significant portion of the population. More importantly, 4 out of 5 of these adults suffer from one or more chronic condition. Age itself is not always the barrier, in fact while the active aging population is a huge market, the lack of a welcoming and non-threatening environment is a detractor for all ages.

It’s not difficult to attract and retain confident fitness enthusiasts to our clubs, the challenge is to keep timid and anxiety ridden individuals, the ones who need us the most and will reward us with their loyalty in return for a little empathy. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”


Katie Mitchell is the TechnoGym Director and Member Experience Manager for Newtown Athletic Club.


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  1. Bruce Gehrig September 6, 2018

    Why don’t you have a link to LinkedIn. Great info that I would love to share on my page.
    Can you send me a copy that I can share on Linkedin?

  2. Michael September 6, 2018

    That is the basis of the wild success of Planet Fitness. They figured it out over twenty years ago.


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