Every January, Gyms and Fitness Clubs throughout the country become busy as thousands of people with good intentions join up hoping to make some changes to their lifestyle.

The sudden growth in numbers attending is often greeted with annoyance by existing regular members who find it challenging if they can’t use “their” regular equipment of access ”their” regular classes.

Instructors can often view this increase in numbers with cynicism as their experience shows that these people won’t be there for very long.

It must be tempting to regard these new enthusiasts as time wasters as every year by March or April the numbers attending have dropped back to “normal”. It must be difficult for instructors and PTs to discern the value of investing time in these new joiners.

However I would argue that the annual join up/drop out cycle is not an inevitable social phenomenon. The cycle can be broken and these clients retained but only if only clubs and their staff adopted a different mind-set and adapt their practice.

Here are some ideas to consider;

1)     Understand and empathise with this segment:  New Year Resolution Participants (NYRPs) are not nearly as committed to regular physical activity as the members who turn up week in and week out. However they are not lazy people. Most are fully aware of the benefits of regular physical activity and would like to get fitter. They have just got somewhat different values to the regular members and may face more significant barriers to participation. Their motivation to attend will often be different from regular members. 

2)     Spend time with them and talk to them: For quite natural reasons, Instructors often focus their attention and time on regular members. They know them, find them easy to get on with and easy to empathise with.  I suggest that at this busy time FORGET the regulars who tend to be a very self-motivated bunch. Focus all efforts at communication on the NYRPs. There is a wealth of evidence that simply talking to new customers massively increases the likelihood of retention

3)     Invest in a very long conversation before exploring exercise programmes: People new to the Gym have contemplated joining and preparing to join very seriously. Just turning up represents a huge step out of their comfort zone and is a significant change from their normal behaviour.  Spend time and develop an empathetic conversation and relationship with the NYRP.

4)     What to talk about: A good question. There are no wrongs or rights here but if you have rapport and empathy your instinct should be your guide. Common things to speak about are

*Motivations to exercise

*What they would like to achieve

*Previous experience of exercise participation (may be nothing since school)

* Barriers to regular participation

* Likes and dislikes in terms of exercise modalities

5) What to avoid: Don’t collude with “regulars” moaning about the busy gym or class. Defend and value the newcomers.  Don’t overestimate their commitment or readiness to change. Don’t impose or prescribe what you think will benefit them no matter how well intentioned you are. Don’t judge what they are saying. Don’t refer to your own experience or offer unasked for advice. Don’t do all the talking. Don’t “progress” the client too quickly.

6) Do: Listen deeply to what they are saying. Explore their feelings about exercise. Give them what they want to do.  Build self-efficacy and confidence. When they are ready (and not before) agree SMART goals with them. Do ensure that they exercise at self-selected intensities. Working too hard has been shown to be an enemy of retention!  Similarly, classes with over complex motor skills can be really off putting and induce feelings of worthlessness and frustration. Your goal is simple; put establishment of the exercise habit as your number one priority. Support the NYRP especially when they first begin. (ask how they would like to be supported). Do discuss relapse and explore their feeling about how to prevent it or deal with it.

7) How long do you have to work in this way? Again, there no hard or fast rules. A reasonable minimum time to establish some form of new behaviour is around 100 days. However do adopt a strategy of gradually diminishing support as you try to encourage self-sufficient exercise behaviour.

In short, cherish your NYRPs. Change is difficult and challenging for them. The adoption and maintenance of a fitness programme is a massive challenge for most people new to exercise. The percentage of the population who are members and regular attenders of gyms and health clubs is miniscule. The vast majority of the population do no exercise whatsoever and the cost to their lives and the NHS is demonstrable. Would it not be brilliant if we could see those brave souls who turn up in January still there exercising and having fun for the rest of their lives? The commercial case as well as the case for the health of the nation is profound.

There is a body of evidence that communicating with people in the right way significantly increases the likelihood that they will change their behaviour. If you are interested in learning these skills, Ad-Lib Training has developed a one day CPD module entitled “Communication: A Motivational Approach”. Such skills can also be applied to regular members and participants to assist you in helping them achieve their goals.  Robin and Denise look forward to welcoming you.

By Robin Gargrave (Co-Director)