It's an annual ritual that health club owners, managers, and trainers see play out time and time again: January rolls around and memberships skyrocket. The cardio machines, free weights and fitness classes are filled to the brim with the New Year's' resolutions crowd who, after weeks of unrestrained snacking and entertaining, are determined that this is the year they will finally lose those last few pounds. Or run that marathon. Or stave off diabetes.
Predictably, the crowd begins to thin out after a couple of weeks until only a few brave souls are left standing by March. In spite of a desire to be healthier, the majority of people who make New Year's resolutions inevitably fail every year. They may set up to fail from the get-go.
"The problem is that people make their resolutions in a bubble of overindulgence," said Michelle Segar, PhD, author of "No Sweat: How the Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness" and director of the University of Michigan's Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center. "They make these lofty, unrealistic, perfect-world resolutions. And of course, once that bubble bursts, which could be within two days of making it or two weeks, depending on how life turns out, the resolutions can't survive."
Segar compares resolutions made within this bubble to a helium balloon: eventually the helium escapes whether or not the balloon pops.
For the gym operators, losing the majority of these new members year after year can be just as disheartening as failing at New Year's resolution over and over again. But health club operators have ways to keep the resolutions crowd from dropping out—and help them achieve their goals.
A common mistake that health club operators make with the New Year's resolution crowd is that they don't follow up or offer a plan for helping them reach their individual goals, according to Karen Woodard, president of Premium Performance Training.
"Simply selling a membership and turning people loose will not impact retention or future sales in a positive way," she said.
To keep members motivated and engaged, operators should partner with members on their goals from day one. For this, Woodard offers a three-step process:
1. Identify the members' goal(s) during the intake process so that both the member and the club have ownership of the goal(s).
2. Create a systematic monthly follow-up plan. This will be done by the membership advocate that enrolled the member, as well as any other professional involved in the goal plan. The plan should be agreed to by all parties and is intended to keep the member engaged and committed.
3. Invite the member to participate in three health club services that will affect his or her goal(s). This can be done at the point of sale and during monthly follow-up conversations.
Health clubs could even take advantage of the widespread interest in healthy living by creating special New Year's programs or packages that bundle complementary services to aid a particular goal. For example, a weight loss package could offer a personal training session, a nutrition consultation and body composition testing. Meanwhile, a healthy living package could include yoga instruction, access to supplements and a nutrition overview with a registered dietitian.
The key is to remain engaged with members and continue to follow up with them regarding their goals and concerns.
"Checking in with people at critical junctures, such as after their first month, is important because we can address any issues or concerns they might have before they just quit," said David Dellanave, co-owner of The Movement Minneapolis. "Let's say someone joins and their knee starts hurting and they don't tell us about it until we ask. They might just quit instead of using the physical therapy resources we have to get them fixed up and back on their way."
Prioritize Enjoyment over Intensity
When new members—some of whom haven't exercised regularly since the previous year—kickstart their exercise routine, some of them push themselves too hard, ultimately leading to burnout or even injury. Trainers may even encourage this "no pain, no gain" philosophy. However, for the majority of people who are not hardcore exercisers, this punishing mentality just isn't motivating enough to sustain exercise for the long-term, especially when everyday demands distract and sap energy.
One of the best ways gyms can boost retention among the New Year's resolution crowd is to encourage these new members to do the activities they enjoy doing, as opposed to the activities that burn the most calories, according to Segar. Though it may seem counterintuitive, especially if the goal is weight loss, advocating enjoyment over intensity actually leads to greater long-term success because enjoyment leads to consistency. It's only human nature: Members will stick with activities they like, and quit the ones they don't.
"One of the strongest pieces of science we know that exists is that people who enjoy or feel good during physical activity are the ones that actually keep it up," Segar said.
Become an Ally
Some health club operators may hesitate to teach their members how to be successful with their goals both inside and outside of the gym because they fear people will cancel their membership if they are able to achieve results on their own. But becoming an ally to members can increase retention, Segar said.
"When I have helped people identify the gym as a partner inside and out, they feel successful," she said. "They're more successful and that means they stick with it."
Despite best intentions, work deadlines, family obligations and tight schedules mean members may go through times where they can't make it to the gym. On these occasions, members need to have at-home workouts so they can stay on track. Personal trainers should give clients some workouts to do at home, and the intake packet that new members get should include tips for easy, equipment-free workouts. Not only will members feel empowered to lead a more active lifestyle, but they will come to view the health club as a true partner.
When health club operators take the initiative to partner with their members to keep them moving—whether they are at the gym or in their basement at home—members achieve greater long-term success and consistency. And when members feel successful, they let people know.
"People would feel good and talk about a product or service that helped them be successful anyway," Segar said, "but imagine how someone is going to feel about a gym that helps them be successful when they've failed for the last 30 years."