The War on Obesity: The Final Word

These tips will help you work with your members to keep the weight off.

Although this is the last installment in our War on Obesity series, you can keep the fight alive by following this proven program strategy.

By the time this article is published, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will have released statistics indicating that obesity rates have increased 6 percent in 1999, compared to 1998.

While this increase may come as no surprise to fitness professionals, an important question remains unanswered: What can our industry do to help more Americans successfully manage their weight?

Program Awareness
Making members aware of the weight-management program is an important and often overlooked issue for clubs that already have weight-management programs in place.

Ongoing staff training is essential if a club owner or manager expects member enrollment into an existing weight-management programto grow. All of your staff - including front-desk personnel, fitness instructors, childcare staff, group fitness leaders, personal trainers, supervisors and general managers - must be well versed in your program.

At Wolff Health & Fitness Center, we utilize an ongoing staff-training program that involves a three-part training program. All staff must attend three two-hour sessions that educate them on everything we do in the program and why we do it.

After this training, our staff is better able to answer questions about our program and direct members to our free program orientation. Considering that we have more than 50 part-time staff interacting with members seven days a week, it becomes absolutely vital that they not only understand the program, but realize its value.

No Offense
Promoting your program is certainly important if you expect it to grow and be viable over time. However, promoting a weight-management program can present some problems. How do you tell someone that he needs to lose weight? This can be a very delicate conversation to have - even when dealing with members who may benefit from your program.

My experience over the past 13 years has taught me one very important thing when it comes to enrolling people into a weight-management program: You can't tell people that they should be in your program. People need to decide for themselves whether they are ready to enroll.

Rather than tell prospects how many pounds they should lose, I approach members by suggesting that they consider attending one of our free, no-obligation weight-management orientations - just to see how our program can support them with their health and weight-management efforts.

In addition, we offer free educational seminars that show people how we are capable of helping. We also get them interested in the weight-management program. For example, I recently conducted a free seminar called "How to Eat Right and Exercise Even When You're Not Motivated." Now this is a topic that appeals to everyone.

Once people come to the lecture, they see and hear that we really have something of value to offer them. Afterwards, we provide attendees with a brochure about the weight-management program and mention when the next free program orientation is.

Not only does speaking teach people about your program, it allows people to connect to the club more easily. Once they trust you as a skilled professional, the communication channel is open, and they feel more comfortable having more serious conversations about weight management.

Use these conversations to tell people about your program. For example, we guarantee our clients results. In fact, we have a guarantee that allows members to try our program for two weeks, no risk.

What to Avoid
Just as there are things that will enhance your ability to enroll members into your program, there are some things you should avoid when marketing your program. One of the more damaging things I see clubs do is overstate the benefits of their program while understating the effort required. Spectacular-sounding results may work to attract clients; however, not being able to deliver these results will ultimately interfere with the consistent growth of your program.

When prospects attend our free orientation, we let them know what weight-loss results they can expect (based on the data we track on our clients), and let them know exactly what they will need to do to achieve those results.

Getting the Message
Most people recognize that sensible eating and physical activity lead to better health and weight management. The reason more Americans aren't acting on this information has to do with our culture. In our program we call this cultural influence "the Gap."

The Gap is the difference between what health professionals recommend vs. what Americans do. Oversized portions of low-nutrition foods are everywhere, and energy-saving devices (garage-door openers, riding lawn mowers, etc.) are commonplace.

These cultural influences make a healthy lifestyle difficult to sustain. In fact, our food environment has become so harmful that some obesity experts are speaking out against it. Recently, Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Yale University, referred to our food environment as toxic.

The best way to combat the Gap is to make your members aware of it and then work with them to make changes in their own food environment. Participating in a highly structured program that provides weekly accountability and support for physical activity and lower-calorie eating is the best way to insulate your members from the Gap.

Help for Nonmembers
Many fitness centers offer their weight-management services to their members, while overlooking other people in the community who could benefit from the same services.

At Wolff Health & Fitness Center, we treat our weight-management program as a separate business. The program is open to all members of the community. We promote and advertise the program as a full-service, weight-management center vs. a fitness center that runs a few weight-loss classes on the side.

Many of our weight-management clients are not members of our fitness center. If we did not open the program to nonmembers, we would be missing a large percent of the community that could benefit from our services.

The full name of our program is "The HMR Program for Weight Management at Wolff Health & Fitness Center." When we get inquiries about the program, we immediately tell the prospects that they do not have to be a club member to join our weight-management program.

Of course, we always discuss the benefits of using the fitness center while they participate in our weight-management program. In an average weight-management class of about 12, we get roughly 25 percent to join the fitness center.

Program Partners
Fitness centers that do not offer weight-management services are in an ideal position to promote their expertise and services to existing weight-management programs (e.g., Weight Watchers) in the community.

The best way for clubs to market their services to these organizations is to give away some of their expertise. These weight-management programs are usually very receptive to having exercise professionals come in and speak to their members, discussing topics such as how successful weight management requires regular exercise. This is a great way to get exposure for your club.

When giving educational lectures to weight-management programs, be sure to include enough useful information and free educational handouts so that the group sees your presentation as more than just a commercial for your fitness center. Over the last 10 years, I have given several hundred free lectures to a wide variety of groups. These lectures have always been a good way to generate qualified leads for my fitness center.

Health Professionals
Clubs that do not have health professionals on staff should consider contacting allied health professionals to provide services at their facilities. Bringing in licensed nutritionists or registered dietitians can be as easy as contacting them and letting them know that you would like them to speak to their members.

These lectures are a value-added service for members, and can even draw nonmembers to your fitness center. To locate a nutrition professional in your area, contact the National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics at (800) 366-1655.

Client Referrals
There are many methods for marketing your weight-management program. One of the greatest methods is through client referrals. Referrals work because they cost you nothing (unless you decide to offer referral incentives), and clients pleased with their results speak highly of the effectiveness of your program.

At Wolff Health & Fitness Center, we offer referral incentives in order to motivate our program participants to make even more referrals. For every referral clients make, they receive a coupon for $30 that can be redeemed for products or services.

Don't underestimate the impact of this simple concept. When your clients get meaningful results, they will make referrals. If you want to grow your program, make absolutely certain that you are running a high-quality service that delivers lasting results. This means you must pay careful attention to every one of your clients. Make sure your clients aren't slipping through the cracks and not getting the results they came to you for.

Committed for Life
In January, clubs will experience the normal increase in numbers that occurs every year. By the end of February, some of those new members will begin to lose interest in their exercise and weight-management plan. This usually means they stop coming to the fitness center and begin to lose momentum with their weight-management goals.

Club owners and managers can prevent some of this by taking a serious approach to health and weight management. I would encourage clubs to put more emphasis on behaviors and the support of those behaviors (e.g., daily physical activity) and less emphasis on trendy yet unproven weight-loss products (e.g., fat blockers, appetite suppressants, muscle builders, etc.).

In our program, we don't experience the decrease in participation during the first quarter of the year like most clubs and programs. This is because we realize how difficult it is to sustain these behaviors without weekly support and accountability. Don't forget the Gap and how it can make even the most simple behaviors very difficult to engage in.

Getting your members involved in a specific program (a weight-management program, if you have one, or exercise program), having them keep a record of their physical activity, and reporting back on a weekly basis will help them maintain these new yet fragile behaviors. Another strategy that we use at Wolff Health & Fitness Center is to acknowledge up front the fact that it is harder to keep weight off than it is to lose weight. By entering this conversation early with your members, you can position them to begin thinking about the support and changes they need to make to sustain these new behaviors.

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