What If the Fitness Industry Sets Up Most People to Fail?

Conventional thinking in the fitness industry that people stop exercising because they are lazy or lack the ability to motivate themselves may be wrong Photo by Thinkstock
<p>Conventional thinking in the fitness industry that people stop exercising because they are lazy or lack the ability to motivate themselves may be wrong. (Photo by Thinkstock.)</p>

We in the fitness business have long believed that people seek results (weight loss, a fit body, better health, etc.) from their exercise activities. We have positioned our industry to deliver what we think people resonate with: logic-based, long-range, steady efforts to improve. New behavioral change information indicates that we may be dead wrong.

An interview by WELCOA's President Ryan Picarella with Dr. Michelle Segar, entitled "Re-Branding Health as Well-Being," elicits new thinking on an old problem: Why do people drop out of fitness activities so easily? A standard fitness point-of-view is that people are either ultimately lazy or lack self-motivation. 

Segar, who in addition to being the University of Michigan's director of Sport, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center, is chair of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan's Communications Committee. 

Segar said, "There is a disconnect between [people's] positive views of exercise and its value to them and their actual participation. We've all been socialized to adopt lifestyle behaviors for logic-based, future rewards or outcomes from these behaviors...Logic-based reasons for behavior change, in general, reflect instrumental, pragmatic outcomes, often realized in the future."

She asked, "Where do you think self-care behaviors like exercise sit on people's daily 'to do' lists if the reason for these behaviors won't be realized until weeks, months or even years later (if at all)?"

The fitness industry has an approximately 40 percent annual member turnover. The industry has sold almost 300 million memberships in the past 20 years but shows only 54 million members currently "on the books" of 34,000-plus fitness facilities. If you look at these numbers, you have to admit that our system has some kind of flaw.

Perhaps that flaw is not in the system of sales, but rather in the system of delivery of what people really want. Segar refers to that as the primary "why."

She said, "Our primary 'why' for a behavior change aims to achieve a future, logic-based outcome, feels controlling and/or has negative associations…many do not stay motivated and also don't consider these behaviors as relevant and compelling priorities today."

In an era where membership prices devolve and competition increases, and in which supply of clubs and demand from potential participants is out of balance, maybe we need to look at our "whys."

In my next blog, I'll delve further into behavioral change and how we might turn our businesses into much more positive consumer experiences.

What do you think? Does our industry set people up to fail? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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