How to Develop and Drive Fitness Programming to Increase Exercise Adherence and Retention


Neal I. Pire is president of Inspire Training Systems, a health club business consulting firm specializing in staff and program development. He has served as author and associate editor for the American College of Sports Medicine’s Resources for the Personal Trainer Manual, and is the author of Plyometrics for Athletes at All Levels (Ulysses Press, 2006). A fitness expert to medical, professional and community groups, Neal served as lecturer for New York Medical College, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. He is frequently featured in national media such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Family Circle, Shape, Fitness and alsoMSNBC, Univision, WABC-TV Eyewitness News and CBS’ “The Early Show.”He can be reached at [email protected]or

It’s not enough to create a nice flier and offer prizes for leading participants to ensure the success of your motivational programming. You need to be creative, personalize your program activities and make members and your staff accountable to get the most out of your programs.

Retention has been an industry buzzword for more than 15 years now. Today, there are vendors who provide retention-management systems, member incentives and rewards programs for club operators with the sole purpose of retaining current members for the long-term. It is a logical investment for many operators who understand that the cost of new-member recruitment is much higher than keeping a current member. The key to retaining your members, however, is not found in the free gym bag incentive gift or juice bar credit that they’ll get if they commit for the long-term. The key is developing a multi-layered relationship with your members—a connection between your member and your staff, as well as your other members. Programming is uniquely positioned to develop these relationships. In fact, effective programming will increase both facility usage and member retention.

Here are five simple things that club management can do to ensure productive programming:

1. Personalize your programs. Whether you use the traditional national observances (i.e. “Have a Healthy Heart” during February, which is National Heart Month) to build your programming around, or simply select themes that are seasonal or timely (“Bikini Boot Camp” during get beach-bod-ready month in May), you need to personalize the program theme so that it speaks to your target audience. Develop programs that are inclusive of a sizeable portion of your members. Weight-loss oriented programs are very popular (i.e. take-offs on the popular TV show “The Biggest Loser”), as are programs that tally miles or minutes completed, or pounds lifted. You might also consider teaming up with a local charity and organize a 5K or 10K walk/run. Nationally recognized organizations, such as the Arthritis Foundation (Joints in Motion), the American Cancer Society (Relay for Life) and the American Heart Association (Heart Walk), sponsor fundraisers that you can easily participate in and bring your members and staff together to do something good for your community.

2. Simple to execute, simple to track. Develop programs that are easy for your members and staff to understand. The easier it is for your staff to explain the particulars of a program, the more often they will share this information with members. If the program activities are easy to track, it will also be easier to get members to participate and actually increase participation. Be sure to thoroughly communicate the details of your programs with all front-line employees. Often, it is the receptionist or even a locker room attendant who shares the details and actually propels the member into participation.

3. Recognize members’ program participation. Everyone likes to see their name in lights. Use a top 10 or 20 list if you are running a robust program with many participants. If you provide prizes to successful program participants, announce the winners and distribute the prizes publicly in the club. This will help get others excited about next month’s program. If your budget allows, distribute T-shirts with the program name and slogan on them to every program participant.

4. Develop team-oriented programs. Run programs that lend themselves to team involvement. Designate front-line employees to serve as team captains and make them accountable for mixing and matching their team members. This will introduce members who might otherwise never meet and integrate your staff, thus developing the staff-member relationship.

5. Include your high-profile programs in your membership marketing. Take advantage of your programming activities, and plug them in your external marketing. It will add excitement to your advertisement and tell readers that something special is going on at your facility. This approach can pique a reader’s interest and provide you with exciting and new advertising themes each month. It also provides an opportunity for your club to send a single message to your members and your community.

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