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Feel the fear and do it anyway? Probably not...

Get out of your own head. In order to get people to join, start thinking like a new member not a fitness junkie. This article looks at what really stops people joining gyms


I worked as a membership consultant for about 18 months all up. I used to believe that the reason people didn’t join gyms was all logical stuff. The reasons they gave me: It’s too expensive, the classes aren’t at the times I can attend, there’s no parking, and there isn’t enough cardio equipment.


The ridiculously named International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA for short) did a massive research study in America called ‘50 million members by 2010’ in 1999. It is the largest study done to date on the fitness industry. One of the things the study looked at was what stopped people joining fitness centres. 5 fears were identified as being why people ‘really’ didn’t join clubs:

1)      The fear of feeling stupid. People don’t know how a club works, they don’t understand fitness equipment and so they don’t    join for    fear of looking ‘stupid’

2)       The fear of feeling isolated. We often refer to gyms as clubs. People imagine that everyone else is part of the ‘club’ and if they join they will feel left out.

3)      The fear of looking and feeling like a klutz. Many people have bad memories of sport (for example getting picked last for teams at school) therefore the idea of voluntarily joining a gym where they will look uncoordinated is not appealing.

4)      The fear of having their body judged. Many people have what is known as ‘physique anxiety’. I have heard many people say they will only join a gym once they are fit enough.

5)      The fear of being ‘forced’ to join. Many people have heard about high pressure sales and believe that clubs are only after their money. They are scared of walking through the gym doors and leaving with a 3 year membership they don’t want.


So, not quite what I thought stopped people joining. The research showed that the ‘logical’ reasons people give are a cover for what is really stopping them. If only I’d known that when I was a membership consultant! So how can gym owners, membership consultants and personal trainers use this knowledge?


Club Owners

Think about your club’s advertising. Is it aimed at allaying the 5 fears? I have seen some advertising campaigns for fitness club’s that would scare the living daylights out of the exact group they are targeting. For example the sales campaign that used a weigh-in of potential members to give them a discount off their joining fee is probably not ideal for members that are scared of looking stupid and having their body judged. Another example of a sales campaign to think twice about: is a timed wall-sit in front of a busy reception area. If I’m sedentary, unfit and self-conscious, a painful and humiliating initiation will only stop me turning up.  

 What might work better? Maybe a picture of normal sized people working out rather bronzed Adonis types. There is a market beyond the what we currently have - ie the sector could grow 2-5% if it was promoted keeping it's old attraction but also becoming a 'soft in' for the fearful.  Currently many people steer clear of clubs altogether and use non threatening solutions (the ab king pro anyone?).

Also think about how you currently induct members. Does a new member get 30 mins with a fitness instructor and then nothing for 6 weeks? How would allocating a solid amount of time (4 30 min sessions over a the first month)  help new members get over the fears of being isolated, judged and feeling stupid? Would this mean higher retention? 


Membership Consultants

Dig around. In your initial chat to a member really get to know why they are there in the first place. Also find out what has stopped them until now. Avoid the pushy you must join because we have a great special. If the gym is right for them and can help them meet their needs then a discount isn’t needed. This is especially true if you know your staff will follow through and ensure they get the results they are after.


Personal Trainers

Think about how to make clients feel comfortable in early sessions. Is caliper testing right for everyone? Does someone need to know that they are obese according to the BMI scale? For a client that is worried about looking like a klutz, exercises that they can’t do or find embarrassing are never a good idea. Don’t start with a single leg squat on a bosu ball with bicep curl.

Think of something that terrifies you. Is it going to the Dentist? Public speaking? Getting an injection? Imagine how you feel in that situation: clammy hands, racing heart, nervous and anxious.

Most of us that work in the fitness industry enjoy exercise. A gym is not a scary place for us to be. As a result we find it hard to understand where our clients are coming from. The 5 fears are however very real for clients. A colleague of mine had a client get to the reception of his gym and leave in tears 3 times before she managed to meet him. Joining a gym was genuinely terrifying for her.

So what do I take from this? Walk in your clients shoes. Before anything else we must make clients feel comfortable. Don’t poke, prod or push your client until you know them very well and they feel at ease with you.