“Y I Can”: For Exercisers Who Lack Confidence

by Ruth Callard on Feb 20, 2014

At the University Y in Seattle, we’ve found a way to better serve our underexercising and overweight clients. We call the program Y I CAN, and it reaches out to members who feel intimidated by group fitness classes, who lack confidence in the weight room, and who have tried and failed at weight loss.

We form groups of about a half-dozen members who work together for 3 months to improve their physical strength, cardiovascular fitness and eating habits. We give them new strength/cardio/dietary goals each month, so they end up trying nine distinct healthy behaviors.

The result is an economical, semiprivate program that lasts long enough to allow people to change their behaviors: It requires no more than a 3- or 4-hour weekly commitment, and it offers 13 hours of personal training time. The program works really well for us, and I’m sure it can be a boon to fitness facilities and personal trainers who offer small-group training. This article presents a basic template that other fitness managers may want to pull from.


When reaching out to your membership base, keep the following in mind:

Marketing. In your fliers and announcements, be clear about whom you’re trying to reach. Here is how we worded our announcement:

“We’re looking for members who are at least 30 pounds overweight and are eager to be exposed to a variety of tools to improve their cardiovascular health, muscle strength and eating habits, in order to modify existing behaviors.”

Health status. Members should have a doctor's clearance for exercise and should be able to walk continuously for at least 20 minutes and get down on the floor and get back up. Participants should be enthusiastic about committing up to 4 hours per week to work on their personal wellness.

Design Elements

To get started, invite interested parties to attend an orientation and fill out a Change Readiness form (based on the transtheoretical model of behavior change, or TTM). At this initial meeting, we describe nine behavioral goals and explain why they are important. We ask participants to dedicate about 4 hours a week: 1 hour at the weekly strength-focused class and the remaining 3 hours working on cardiovascular and dietary goals. Members who decide they’re ready to commit draw the name of a personal trainer who will guide them through the next 12 weeks. Each group has five or six members—large enough to build relationships, but small enough to enjoy a bit of privacy.

In the first week of the program, members meet one-on-one with their trainers. Since all participants have the same nine goals, this is the best time for the trainers to assess members’ needs. Each assigned trainer makes contact weekly; regular check-ins are essential, because the participants work independently toward their monthly eating and cardio goals.

A trainer leads a weekly 1-hour group fitness class that focuses on the monthly strength goal. The group warms up in a circle on stationary bikes—a great time for bonding and for exchanging ideas and frustrations. After that, the trainer spends 20 minutes on the monthly foundational strength exercise, such as picking up a heavy bag of groceries from the floor (dead lift). Members work on variations of this same exercise for all four group classes during the month, and they are expected to work on it twice a week on their own with the help of a written handout. The repetition ensures not only that all participants gain strength, but also that they can remember and demonstrate this exercise in the future. The last half of the hourlong class is a strength/cardio circuit in the weight room.

We rotate weekly class times between 6:30 am on Tuesdays and 5:30 pm on Fridays. Some members groan about getting up at the crack of dawn, but early-morning meetings often present the fewest time conflicts. Three trainers trade off in teaching the weekly strength class. The rotation keeps them enthusiastic and affords scheduling flexibility. Members benefit from exposure to different teaching styles.

Participants also have flexibility. They attempt monthly eating and cardio behaviors for 7 consecutive days, choosing whichever 7-day period works for them. We encourage them to start on goals early in the month so they can restart if something unexpected comes up. Requiring them to do one thing for 7 days in a row guarantees that on at least one of those days, they’ll get it done. This is one of the most important aspects of the program, because members have a chance to overcome an obstacle. The result is empowering, because it allows participants to make the behavior a priority rather than something to be done only when it’s convenient.

For more details about program design, please see “Y I CAN: A Roadmap to Lasting Wellness” in the online IDEA Library (see the October 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Manager). If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Ruth Callard

Ruth Callard IDEA Author/Presenter