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Y I CAN: A Roadmap to Lasting Wellness

Use this program template to get members hooked on exercise and healthy eating, even if they've failed many times in the past.

At the University Y in Seattle, we’ve found a way to better serve our overweight and underexercising clients. We call the program Y I CAN, and it reaches out to members who

  • feel intimidated by group fitness classes,
  • lack confidence in the weight room and
  • 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 the 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 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.

At the end of the 3 months, participants evaluate the program and offer suggestions for improvement. We also email them a questionnaire 6 months later, asking whether they adopted any of the nine exercise or eating behaviors, whether they feel more confident about attending exercise classes and whether they feel more comfortable in the weight room (see the sidebar “Quotes From Program Participants” for some participant responses).

A Sample of Monthly Program Components

Build your program’s goals around the number of hours you expect participants to devote to the program. Ideally, you want a commitment that suits working parents as well as retired people. Here’s a look at some sample program goals:

Exercise. Reverse pull-up (assisted).

Posted goals. With your chin above the bar, hold for 5 seconds and then take 5 seconds to descend. Use a stool for support.
Method. Members spend 20 minutes together as part of the weekly group class; they also exercise independently twice per week.
Estimated weekly time. 1 hour, not including transportation, but we hope participants are already coming to the facility.

Posted goals. For 7 consecutive days, take a family member, a neighbor or your cell phone for a 20-minute walk after dinner.
Method. Members do this independently—except for the 30-minute circuit, which is part of the weekly class. Trainers check on participants’ progress.
Estimated weekly time. 1.5 hours, but this will vary. For efficiency, set goals that can be completed close to home.

Eating Habits
Posted goals. For 7 days, dish out 10% less food than you think you want, but add 20% more vegetable servings than you had in mind.
Method. Members do this independently. Trainers check on their progress. Participants have succeeded when they’ve involved the whole family.
Estimated weekly time. 1.5 hours, but this will vary. Some members need to plan more, cook more or cook differently.

Setting Appropriate Goals

Make sure your goals are measurable and are designed to promote behaviors that participants can adopt for the rest of their lives. If a goal involves a friend or a family member, bravo! You cash in on the multiplier effect. Be realistic and take into account the ages and abilities of your participants. Always remain within your scope of practice.

Here are some examples of inappropriate goals:

Eating. Do not set specific goals, such as “Avoid cheese for 7 days.” Offering specific dietary advice is a registered nutritionist’s job, not a trainer’s, and some women in your group may need more calcium in their diets.

Cardio. Take the realities of people’s lives into account. Setting a goal like “Take a 2-hour hike in the mountains twice a month” could be unrealistic if people have to drive several hours to reach the trail.

Strength. Depending on their ages, participants may have significant hip and knee issues. Think about that before you assign goals like “Perform 10 box jumps from a 12-inch riser.”

Success and Satisfaction

Our trainers beam with the personal satisfaction that comes from making a big impact on members’ lives. They also practice juggling exercise modifications and they learn a lot from other trainers, because we post all weekly class notes online and track member progress via document sharing.

We hope that what we described here has inspired you to create a program of your own. Beginners and overweight people may just need a little extra support and push to reach their goals and become happy, active members of your facility.

Quotes From Program Participants

Participants shared these comments 9 months after their programs ended:

“The program got me addicted to exercising regularly. That is great and ongoing. It is totally worth the price of admission. I love taking classes at the Y now.” —Lynn

“I kept up doing the neighborhood stairs as a regular routine after the program ended, and I did a ÔÇÿboot camp’ session at the Y during the summer.” —Romany

“I felt the most useful part of the program was the weekly goal. Before the program, I had more of an ÔÇÿall-or-nothing’ approach: Give up sugar forever, do a certain exercise forever. Net result: discouragement and then failure. The weekly goals were much more doable and led to more success, which led to more confidence and more willingness to push myself a little further.” —Elizabeth

Ruth Callard

Ruth Callard has participated in and coached several sports and is an ACE-certified® personal trainer.

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