Think about all the feel-good experiences that compete with your group fitness classes: a fun night out on the town, quality time with family, a favorite Netflix series cued up after a stressful day at work. It’s no wonder half the beginners who start exercising drop out within the first 6 months (Wilson & Brookfield 2009)!
More than ever, people are seeking experiences that engage them on an emotional level and provide an immediate rush of positive energy. As a dedicated wellness leader, you know regular physical activity can do that. However, for new exercisers, doing a workout that’s designed to make it hard to get out of a chair the next day delivers the opposite effect.
Elevating your group fitness class to a wellness experience that engages newcomers and keeps them coming back for more is easy with the nine tactics presented here. These tactics also serve as “interventions” that naturally foster and support important skills and mindset shifts that beginners need in order to move from contemplating change to embracing exercise as a long-term, enjoyable part of a healthy lifestyle.
The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change
Before exploring the tactics, it’s important to gain a little insight into what’s going on with those shy people in the back row. According to the transtheoretical model of behavior change—a health behavior readiness continuum used by health coaches and personal trainers to gauge a person’s readiness to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors—beginners are at different levels of readiness to make change. Along with weak biceps and low cardiovascular endurance, new participants have fragile adherence skills that often include negative views about exercise. Newcomers typically find that working out triggers multiple reasons for giving up, including physical discomfort, negative self-talk, low self-confidence and a feeling that efforts aren’t producing results quickly enough.
It’s crucial for you as a group fitness leader to recognize that success with newcomers will increase if you provide an enjoyable, supportive experience that strengthens adherence skills and moves people in a positive direction along the behavior change continuum—all while they’re toning their triceps.
Jessica Matthews, MS, senior adviser for health and fitness education at the American Council on Exercise, in San Diego, and an expert on behavior change theory, agrees with this approach. “Regardless of the modality I’m teaching, I go back to the central theme of how do I make this single experience as meaningful and memorable as possible [for people], knowing that from a behavioral standpoint, I am laying the foundation for moving them along the continuum to [the place where] physical activity is part of their daily routines.”
Tactics for a Winning Group Exercise Experience
Help your students feel successful with these tips.
1. Make It Approachable
To be encouraged to take action, new participants in the preparation stage of behavior change need experiences that feel approachable. These newcomers may be asking themselves, “Is it convenient? Will I be able to keep up? Will it hurt?”
I struggled to attract a consistent group of inactive seniors to my beginner class until I eliminated all the intimidating “fitness” words like “strength,” “strong” and “coordination” from the description. I created a new class called “Moving for Wellness” and structured the first few minutes as a check-in to connect with participants about their wellness goals and daily efforts. There was an immediate surge in both sign-ups and consistent attendance because the class now felt approachable.
2. Personalize Your Class
Creating an experience that feels personal is crucial in the early stages of change. According to the ACE Health Coach Manual: The Ultimate Guide to Wellness, Fitness, & Lifestyle Change, “Rapport is an important determinant of adherence to an exercise program” (Bryant, Green & Merrill 2013). If you take the time to lay the foundation for a supportive and trusting relationship with a new student during the first few workouts, you may be able to minimize early-stage anxiety and create an important building block for improving self-confidence and motivation.
Robin O’Grady, owner of O’Grady Consulting in Calgary, Alberta, is a group fitness instructor who also runs an apprenticeship program for new instructors. She emphasizes the importance of arriving early, prepared to greet participants individually as they enter the room. She feels a particular obligation to her newer students. “Even just a smile or a bit of eye contact can change everything,” she says. O’Grady also builds rapport and trust by acknowledging and addressing any performance anxiety in new students with positive cues like, “Don’t worry if you’re going one way and we’re going the other. You can always catch up!”
3. Add a Social Element
Social participation adds a fun factor and positively influences adherence skills such as motivation, self-confidence and relapse prevention. When beginners feel welcome and part of something special, they’re more likely to return. O’Grady stresses the importance of creating a “culture of inclusivity and community” in her classes from the very beginning. At key times of the year, when beginners are most likely to arrive, she coaches her regular members to be especially welcoming and supportive. “I tell them they are just as responsible as I am—if not more so—for helping beginners succeed,” says O’Grady. “Their reactions toward a newcomer could change that person’s experience for better or worse.”
4. Make It Enjoyable
Beginners see more negatives than positives when it comes to exercise. Therefore, make it a high priority to create an enjoyable experience in the early stages of change. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, “I want my participants to really feel this the next day.” This approach may scare beginners away. Matthews suggests using cuing to help participants choose an intensity level that feels appropriate in the moment. For example, instead of labeling movements as “easy/hard” or “beginner/advanced,” use open-ended phrases such as “to create more sensation” or “to vary the intensity of this exercise.” This approach gives participants more autonomy, supports a more positive relationship with exercise and strengthens self-confidence.
5. Ensure Success
New participants often perceive exercise as one more task to add to an already-packed to-do list. When life impinges on plans, their date with the gym is the first thing to go, which can leave them feeling like failures. Improving a beginner’s self-efficacy—his belief in his ability to succeed—is an important mindset shift that happens over time and as a result of repeated “wins.”
“We can create opportunities where our students leave class feeling successful, because they were successful,” shares Matthews. “They came in, focused on their health and wellness, and took something positive away.” She says that ensuring success helps turn on intrinsic motivation, where participants have a positive association with exercise along with its deeper, emotional benefits. Intrinsic motivation propels students into the maintenance phase of behavior change and becomes a strong ally for life’s inevitable interruptions.
6. Make Movement Meaningful
Often, beginners become discouraged or disillusioned about exercise when hoped-for results like weight loss are slow to come. Matthews is keen on attaching meaning to movement so beginners connect with the immediate value of the time and effort they’re investing. “If I’m teaching a group strength class, whether it’s the specific exercises I choose or the way I cue the movements, I help my students make a connection between what we’re doing inside the gym and what we do outside.”
For instance, when teaching a primary movement like a squat she reminds participants how often they do this movement in the course of a day, adding this motivational comment: “But now, because of your efforts, you’ll be doing it with greater ease and efficiency.”
7. Co-Create Great Memories
When beginners tap into a memory of a positive experience they had in class, they can use it to get to the gym on a day when they’re feeling tired or unmotivated. They’ll be able to say, “I’m exhausted, but I know how good I’ll feel after a workout!”
O’Grady knows that facilitating a memorable experience during class can be as simple as planning for a “peak” emotional moment when participants feel the “high” that can result from exercise. After an intense set or interval, she often prompts students to turn to the person next to them and shout, “We did it!” Encouraging this celebratory moment validates and reinforces positive behavior while increasing the chances a person will repeat it in the future.
8. Be Transformational
People are motivated to seek and repeat experiences that make them feel transformed, like a relaxing vacation or a travel adventure. A single bout of exercise can positively influence many health and wellness metrics, including mood, energy level and mental focus. However, beginners need help making this connection until they’re able to make it for themselves.
In my class “Moving for Wellness,” I’ve found a simple way to facilitate this shift. At the beginning, I have students think of a word to describe how they’re feeling in that moment. They often choose words like “tired,” “stressed” or “just okay.” After the workout, I ask them to check in again. Without fail, they share feelings that are lighter and more positive, such as “energized,” “healthy” and “accomplished.” Some will even say, “Wow! I wish I’d known years ago how good exercise makes me feel!”
9. Make Moments Shareable
Progressing from the early, tentative “I might try an exercise class” stage of behavior change to a confident declaration that “I am fit and healthy!” is a success story worthy of being shared. When your students post healthy selfies on their social media pages or share their excitement for your class over lunch with a friend, it’s the ultimate validation of a stronger commitment to exercise. It’s also the best hope for creating a positive behavior-change loop that invites the most resistant populations into the process.
People who are in the precontemplation and contemplation stages of behavior change can often be nudged on the continuum by something as simple as scrolling past an image of a friend enjoying a happier, healthier lifestyle. The hope and promise of wellness may be all they need to begin formulating their own positive physical activity intentions.
Matthews beams at the thought of helping beginners succeed. “We have this amazing opportunity as instructors to create experiences that are memorable and meaningful and that get people excited about physical activity,” she says. Maybe it’s time to think beyond fun playlists and expert program design to ways we can make fitness feel as fun and inviting as a night out with friends—at least until it really is!
Bryant, C., Green, D.J., & Merrill, S. (Eds.) 2013. ACE Health Coach Manual: The Ultimate Guide to Wellness, Fitness, & Lifestyle Change. San Diego: American Council on Exercise.
Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. 2009. Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7 (1), 89–100.
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