Making a Real Difference

by Carol A. Kennedy, MS on Jan 01, 2004

Enhance and encourage healthy lifestyles with creative programming.

January is an exciting time of year. It’s all about making resolutions, reflecting on the past, projecting the future and taking inventory. Our clients go through this process every year, and so should we. Our programs are a good place to start. We often focus on offering programs that will bring new members into our facilities. We also ought to consider why we offer these programs and ask if they make a real difference.

The bulk of our population is struggling to become active. Our programming choices need to reflect the true needs of this majority. As an active participant and programmer for almost 25 years, I have observed fitness becoming more specialized for those who are already fit. For example, we currently offer multimuscle group activities with balance and stability exercises. These are not beginner choices. With this trend toward more specialized programming, the less active are backing away from the activities we select for them and they aren’t making healthy lifestyle choices. But it’s not too late for the fitness industry to step out of the box and meet new clients, as well as bring back clients who have given up.

Getting Reall

We call the places where we work “health clubs.” If we truly are about health, we need to broaden our perspective and our programming to include activities that enhance and encourage healthy lifestyles. Americans are getting heavier and have more health risks than at any time in our country’s history, owing in large part to poor lifestyle choices. The evidence is overwhelming:

  • The proportion of Americans with clinically severe obesity increased from 1 in 200 adults in 1986 to 1 in 50 adults in 2000 (Sturm 2003).

  • Among young people 12 to 19 years old, the prevalence of overweight was 15.5 percent in 1999-2000 compared with 10.5 percent in 1988-1994 (Ogden et al. 2002).

  • The age-adjusted prevalence of obesity was 30.5 percent in 1999-2000 compared with 22.9 percent in 1988-1994 (Ogden et al. 2002).

  • Obesity and overweight in adulthood are associated with large decreases in life expectancy and increases in early mortality (Peeters et al. 2003).

  • Of those who lose weight, 95 percent regain it (Miller 1999).

A recent Sports Illustrated editorial stated, “This could be the first generation in American history to live fewer years than the one that came before it (Reilly 2003).” What can we as an industry do to provide a solution to this epidemic? One suggestion is to stay away from the quick fixes that are part of the fitness marketing tradition. Instead, we can market from a sense of purpose, eliminating weight loss and aesthetic changes as the main advantages of exercising. A recent health club ad read, “Our personal trainers will change your body, results guaranteed!” Can we really guarantee physical changes?

Conversely, a Nike® advertisement read, “I’m 50 years old, and I’m proud of what I can do.” The ad included no hard bodies or false promises, just a note about how exercise made the person feel. This is a better way to measure outcomes. We already know that exercise makes you feel better. We can guarantee this, but we cannot guarantee weight loss or body image changes. Everyone can benefit from improved daily function, and testimonials are powerful. As Dr. Phil McGraw would say, it’s time for us to “get real” with our promises.

Meet and Greetl

Sometimes a little forethought and footwork will give nonexercisers the impetus they need to start a program. Baby steps can ultimately lead to giant ones. The following strategies are good general ideas to get the juices flowing.

Help Nonexercisers Get Started at Home. Newcomers won’t be successful if they can’t last 5 to 10 minutes on a piece of cardio equipment or can’t lift one plate on a variable resistance machine without becoming sore. Helping beginners get their daily activity up to par or start a resistance training program at home might encourage them to join your facility at a later time.

Recently, McDonald’s started handing out pedometers with their new “Go Active” meals, which are being test-marketed at 150 McDonald’s restaurants in Indiana. Shouldn’t we be the ones doing this? Go out and distribute pedometers to local companies. You may not get new memberships initially, but recording daily steps might turn people on to physical activity. Put your logo on the pedometers so recipients will return to you for guidance once they decide to move to the next level. You can also give every new club member a pedometer to encourage exercise outside of the facility.

In the same creative recruitment vein, you can interest beginners in strength training through an outreach program that teaches them how to use resistance bands at their desks. If potential participants see we are genuinely interested in their health, they may join our facilities.

Give Orientation Sessions. Newcomers are intimidated by the vast array of choices in fitness equipment. Where to start—on the stepper, elliptical machine or treadmill? And that’s just the cardio equipment. Wading through the sea of conditioning equipment can be even more intimidating. To help put new exercisers at ease, offer orientation sessions that include general workout plans. One-on-one orientations are ideal, but not all clubs can afford these. You can still simplify and organize equipment with instructional signs and give brief lectures on how to get started.

Swap Shops With a Colleague. Feedback from industry colleagues can be valuable in terms of seeing your facility with the “fresh eyes” of a newcomer. I once arranged a swap with the program director of another local nonprofit fitness center. We each worked out at the other’s facility, serving as “secret shoppers” for each other, and gave feedback on how to improve our facilities’ design and layout for beginners.

For example, I could not figure out the distance on their walk/run track. I looked everywhere but could not find it. I finally learned by asking, but the information was not obvious to a newcomer. I recommended they add a sign in a visible place.

Create Turnkey Areas. Curves has built its franchise business on a simple concept: a 20- to 30-minute circuit that is easy to do and builds camaraderie. The format brings nonusers into a small, intimate environment. The effect is to ease participants into the concept of working out in a gym. I once met a regular Curves member who told me she would start there and then come to my facility once she had achieved a basic level of fitness.

Curves has been very successful, and we need to take note of that. Many facilities have converted racquetball courts to basic strength and conditioning areas. These can serve as wonderful “orientation corners” for newcomers or for those wanting basic “turnkey” areas. To help beginners acclimate without feeling that others are watching them, place a few cardio pieces plus strength training equipment for all major muscle groups in one area. Consider not having mirrors in this area. A recent study (Ginis, Jung & Gauvin 2003) found that “regardless of body image concerns, women in mirrored conditions felt worse after exercising than women in the unmirrored condition.”

You can also use this area as a “launching program,” a safe space where people can meet staff and learn how to use the equipment. This intimate environment can help make a newcomer a regular member of your facility.

Group Exercise for Alll

Our advanced participants are often the most vocal about what they like and don’t like. They will come to the club no matter what you offer, because they have already made exercise a part of their lives. The 2003 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey states that 21 percent of our participants are “advanced.” That means the vast majority consider themselves beginning or intermediate exercisers. They may prefer a 30-minute stretch class over a 75-minute turbo step class, but they don’t often speak up. Cater to this group by making sure they feel welcome and free to express their desires. An open dialogue can lead to unexpected changes that can shake up and wake up programming. The following scenarios are examples of this.

Offer Express Classes With Simple Names. People often say they don’t exercise because they don’t have enough time. Take this excuse away by changing class periods to 30 minutes and advertising by time. A focus group of nonparticipants required to attend classes at Indiana University stated that they didn’t go to group exercise classes that listed “turbo, ultimate or extreme” in their titles. We took these words off the schedule and instead called each class by a simple descriptor plus the class’s length. For example, we changed “Ultimate Step” to “Step-45” (45 minutes long). This change brought approximately 20 percent more users into our group exercise program.

We’re not sure if it was giving class lengths or changing the titles that made an impact—I suspect it was a combination of both. Most classes on the schedule now have times attached to them and no intimidating adjectives—for example, “Cycle Fit-45,” “Step Strength-60” and “Trekking-30.”

Our biggest barrier to adding 30-minute classes wasn’t our participants, but our instructors. Many didn’t want to teach such short classes. Instead, we used our incoming instructors to lead these new classes, and it worked out fine. We are often our own barriers to new programming ideas because we can’t get past what we used to do.

Set the Stage for Socialization. A research study on group exercise found that adherence was better when instructors had been trained in team building (Spink & Carron 1993). Another study found that “although a number of social factors were found to be important (family, class, instructors, etc.), the presence of a highly task-cohesive group was found to have the greatest influence on exercise adherence” (Estabrooks & Carron 1999). How do we apply this research to our settings?

Look for commonalities in your classes. For example, a 10:00 am class may attract stay-at-home moms who drop their kids off at school and then come to work out. Have a juice break afterwards and discuss parenting issues. Once participants feel they are part of a group, their adherence is much higher. They come not only for the exercise but also for the social support.

Personal Training That Fits

Personal training has gained a lot of ground and respect over the past 15 years. But is this service being fully utilized? If not, why not? The following suggestions may offer a solution.

Offer Customized Plans. As exercise equipment and selection become more complex, people are turning to personal trainers to set up customized workouts. This is a good trend; however, I’ve noticed that getting some personal trainers to broaden their exercise choices is very difficult. Many give their own workout plans because these work for them. We need a process that helps us decide which exercises are most appropriate for different populations. For example, when introducing abdominal exercises, it is appropriate to start a beginner with crunches on the floor before introducing destabilization on a stability ball.

Hire a Diverse Group of Trainers. Many personal trainers are 35 years old or younger, while many people requesting training are Baby Boomers (50 and older). No wonder a lot of clients perceive personal trainers as “those big guys who make us sore!” Hire a wide range of trainers from different backgrounds and strive to recruit people 45 and older. From my experience, clients appreciate trainers with a “life certification” in addition to a fitness certification.

Establish a Standard of Progression. I still remember my first personal training experience. The next day I felt like a truck had run over me—I could barely move! This did not encourage me to return. All I wanted to do was sleep and recover. Exercise is work; it takes time and dedication. Progression is necessary in order to succeed and make exercise something that new people will enjoy for life. A progression model ultimately helps keep clients longer, because they enjoy exercise instead of feeling sore all the time.

I realized while teaching that our selection process for choosing beginning exercises doesn’t always take into account our clients’ fitness levels. We can’t relate to how beginners feel, and wanting to make sure they get their money’s worth, we give them complex exercises. In reality, the basics might be what new clients need.

Work with staff and make a list of exercises that are relatively easy to explain, are safe and don’t require much skill. Contrast these with exercises that are hard, less stable and safe, and require a lot of skill. A colleague and I came up with a functional progression system that might help you do this in-service with your staff (Yoke & Kennedy 3003). I use the following model in my academic classes to help grade students on exercise selection:

  • Level 1: Isolate and educate.

  • Level 2: Isolate, educate and add resistance.

  • Level 3: Add functional training positions.

  • Level 4: Combine increasing function with resistance.

  • Level 5: Employ multiple muscle groups with increased resistance and core challenge.

  • Level 6: Add balance, increased functional challenge, speed and/or rotational movements.

Appropriateness is the key issue. Personal trainers must select exercises that suit clients’ needs and fitness levels.

Offer Group Personal Training Sessions. Social support may have an important influence on exercise adherence (Fern 2002). People who train together are more likely to continue training. Social support also makes them feel more connected to the organization. One study reported that married couples had a higher rate of monthly attendance in a structured exercise setting than married participants who did not exercise with their spouses (Wallace, Raglin & Jastremski 1995). Offer a discount to help families begin the exercise process together.

Ultimately, if we want to enhance healthy lifestyles, we need to breed independent exercisers versus dependent ones. If our personal trainers are needed for dependent reasons, we will run out of qualified personnel very quickly and exercise will only be for those who can afford it.

Returning to Roots

In our modern society we will all continue to need more intentional exercise in order to maintain our health. Our bodies were made to move and they want to move, yet our society has made everything so convenient that we no longer need to move. As fitness professionals, we will find it easier to get out of our boxes if we see ourselves as “agents of change” for health and not just exercise programmers.

Just as we encourage our personal trainers to broaden their workout recommendations beyond their personal perceptions, we also need to broaden our programming perspectives. Most important, we need to encourage healthy lifestyles and independence if we want to get back to our roots—programming for health. After all, that’s how we got started in the first place and why we initially called ourselves “health clubs.” To celebrate the New Year, let’s resolve to make a difference in the health of our participants and ultimately the health of America.

IDEA Health Fitness Source, Volume 2005, Issue 1

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© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Carol A. Kennedy, MS

Carol A. Kennedy, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, Ph.D. is a Senior Lecturer within the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University, Bloomington. She has worked in both the private and university setting during her 30 years in the fitness/wellness industry as an educator and supervisor of fitness staff. She has taught/created academic courses on group leadership, personal training, and fitness management and produced books and DVD’s on group exercise, water exercise and functional exercise progressions. She is on the ACSM Health and Fitness Journal editorial board and has served on the ACE National Advisory Board and the ACSM certification and credentialing committee. Contact Carol at