About 18 months ago a high court rulingdeemed lengthy gym membership contract tie-ins unfair. This may well have been one reason for the recent increase (in the UK at least) of several low-cost/no-frills gym groups.
For too long gyms have happily taken our joining free and monthly standing order whether we do or don’t use the gym, and until now those who don’t use the gym haven’t been able to get out of the contract easily. It is my guess that the majority of people who do try to cancel their contracts are those ‘New Year Resolution’ January-joiners: new exercisers who have not yet developed a regular fitness routine or habit, and who just don’t use their membership enough.
50% of people who begin an exercise program will drop out within six months the majority of which in the first 2 weeks of a new exercise program (Dishman, 1991)
Even with all the best intentions, a new exerciser often has difficulty staying with a program. Their life isn’t yet geared up to accommodate a new fitness regime, and they have several competing lifestyle habits and some unhelpful beliefs about their own exercise ability, all of which can interfere with their desire to be more active.
If people exercise consistently, for long enough, good habits have a chance to form, which hopefully improves their fitness and health across their lifespan. But it takes a long time for a new habit to form, especially something like exercise that isn’t usually done daily.
Recent research suggests that it might take 66 or more regular repetitions for habitual exercise to develop (Lally et al., 2010)
That’s about three months if you are going five times a week, five months at three times a week and longer if you don’t make it that often
If gyms want to stop people cancelling their contracts, then, rather than dishing out the usual uninspiring gym induction and leaving them to their own devices, they must think seriously about innovative ways they can encourage new members to start and maintain a new exercise habit and learn to enjoy the gym so that they see it as an essential cost they are happy to incur.
How might gyms, fitness trainers or exercise class leaders do this?
Gyms can be daunting places for new members, and people like to feel that they matter. Make new members feel part of your club by trying to learn people’s names and using them, and encourage receptionists and other staff to do so too. In a class environment, this can also help people feel like an important part of a “team” and more likely to return. Welcome people back after an absence.
People are more likely to stick with their programme if it is fun and convenient and if they can gradually build up their confidence in what is often quite an intimidating environment, especially for people who aren’t happy with their body image. The better a person is able to perform a task, the more confident they feel about their ability to do it in the future (and the more likely they are to actually do it again).
So don’t just trot out the usual gym induction and programme of 60 minute weight and cardio workouts to be done three-five times per week. Studies show that people are less likely to continue their programme if they exercise at higher intensities too soon and long workouts are also associated with higher drop out rates. Personal trainers and members of staff who do the gym induction program might benefit from taking a step back from the “science” behind what gets the best or fastest results, and realise that their new clients might not get any results at all if they don’t start off with shorter, more enjoyable workouts that are within their abilities. This might produce slower physical results, but psychologically you are laying the foundations for some positive attitudes, self-belief and self-confidence about exercise in your clients.
Encourage new members to try out several classes on the timetable and find something they enjoy. Ideally, run some specific taster classes just for new members in January so that they can experiment with other novices in a pressure-free environment, rather than feeling intimidated by existing cliques and experienced members in the regular classes.
Remind new members that there are likely to be some times of the day that are better for them to workout and that they should experiment with different classes at different times. If membership includes access to multiple branches find out which are closest to your members’ home and work, and create a monthly email of the class timetables for both to encourage them to find something they can fit in: reassure them that even a 30 minute session on the cross-trainer at lunchtime will benefit their health.
Many new exercisers join the gym to lose weight but the danger of measuring success using one single outcome goal is that there is plenty of scope to feel disheartened when the scales don’t move as quickly as they would like. This can lead to a spiral of negative thinking (“what’s the point, I am still overweight”) that can discourage them from sticking to their program.
There are so many other potential markers for improvement that can help people feel positive about their progress. Previously sedentary members who come to the gym even once or twice a week are likely to see measurable improvements in bleep tests, a timed kilometre on the treadmill, their recovery time, taking fewer breaks during an aerobics class, and even body composition. The latter helps people see how they are gaining more muscle and losing fat, even when there is no change in weight or size.
So think about taking a range of non-weight-related measures when you welcome new members, and scheduling regular progress updates each month (or even more often) during their first year of membership. This can keep motivation up and reinforces their continued effort. Even better, encourage them to set a new goal for each measure for the next progress session (improve my timed kilometre by one minute; lose 1% more body fat etc.).
Hopefully now that gyms have to be more flexible about contract cancellations they will think instead about how they can encourage new members to become lifelong members by improving their initial gym experiences to foster new healthy habits.
Helen O’Connor is a sport and exercise psychologist, in training with the British Psychological Society. She established her psychology consultancy in 2009 and works individually and in groups with adults and teenagers who are looking for support to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as increased physical activity. Follow @psycurious
This article was first published online here