When Resolutions Fail, the Fitness
Buddy Steps In
by Abby Ellin - from
York Times Health
JUDY McMILLIN used to be a
perennial quitter. Every January, gym-going would become her new favorite
hobby, and then, poof, she would abandon it. I just did not grow up
exercising or enjoying it, said Ms. McMillin, 57, a homemaker in
If someone had told her that
partnering up with a college kid would be the silver bullet, she would have
laughed. But having a sidekick accompany her twice a week to strength-training
did make the gym less daunting; no longer was she alone in a sea of
And she appreciated how her
fitness buddy, Sarah Prochaska (an exercise science major paid to encourage
members), suggested swimming and Pilates and gave her exactly the push she
I told her, I need
you to really pump me up and encourage me, call me and brag on me and really
help me because this is not my favorite thing to do, Ms. McMillin
said. And she did.
This matchmaking is a come-on
where Ms. McMillin exercises, the 7,000-member Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center
in Dallas. Participants pay a $200 deposit; if they attend at least 12
appointments in six weeks, they get their $200 back. As an added incentive, the
intern phones them if they dont show up.
With habitual renouncers like
Ms. McMillin in mind, a handful of gym owners and health club managers have
devised innovative ways to create brand loyalty as they turn gym dodgers into
gym rats. The thinking is basic: members are more likely to show up if they
feel someone cares.
Personal trainers, the original
exercise truant officers, have spawned a whole new level of prodding. Now clubs
coddle members with advisers to help them choose suitable yoga classes,
frequent-flyer-type programs that track progress and award prizes, telephone
calls to the lackadaisical to see whats come between them and the stair
climber, and even home visits to bring quitters back into the fold.
Were going to see
clubs do more hand-holding in the future, said Pamela Kufahl, the editor
of Fitness Business Pro, a publication for health club owners. Only about 16
percent of Americans belong to a health club, she said, and those people tend
to be the already fit. That leaves 80 percent presumably lolling about, ripe
for the picking.
Health club owners may worry
about their customers bottoms, but are most concerned with their own
bottom line. They see there is this huge population out there thats
untapped, Ms. Kufahl said, and they want to bring them
January is the time to do it,
because thats when out-of-shape first-timers or recliner recidivists
gather their courage and walk in the door. About 12.5 percent of annual
memberships are purchased this month, compared to 7.7 percent in November,
according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association in
While it may seem curious that
gyms would go all out to ensure that members show up (as opposed to those who
pay but dont), it makes a lot of sense, said Rick Caro, the president of
Management Vision in Manhattan, a consultant to health clubs.
The clubs now realize
that if they satisfy that member they can provide additional services and
charge more per month in the future, Mr. Caro said. Also, he added,
its more expensive to acquire a new member than to serve an old one.
The idea of exercise enforcers
may also seem strange to the more disciplined among us. Youre
hiring someone else to make you work, said Micki McGee, the author of
Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (Oxford, 2005).
It follows the same social schematic as hiring a personal coach or job
coach its externalizing the voice of authority. Its a
feature of late modernity that this is how we operate.
But for the anxious novice, an
encouraging voice may make the difference between opting in or opting out.
Thats why two years ago, Yoga Works, a chain of 15 studios in California
and New York, started an adviser program to help the unenlightened distinguish
Iyengar from Ashtanga.
People would come in and
be intimidated, said Phil Swain, the chief executive. Theyd
see some dude with his foot behind his head and get a weird vibe instead of
coming in and hearing someone say, Hello, can I help you?
Now advisers work with students by phone, e-mail or in person to find the right
level, style and teacher.
Sean Nass of Los Angeles, 39, an
importer, had long felt that people who werent flexible (him) should not
attempt yoga. But after a half-hour consultation with Allison Richard, an
adviser at Yoga Works, he began attending a 90-minute beginner class.
Daily. At 6:15 a.m.
Hes been at it for 10 days
and plans to continue after his $25 two-week trial. They were so good in
welcoming me, said Mr. Nass, who convinced a friend to join him.
Clients at yoga studios and gyms
want to know that someone cares if they fall off the wagon or the
treadmill. The top two reasons people leave clubs are because they did not have
an exercise partner and because a favorite staff person left, according to a
1998 sportsclub association study.
The bottom line is
accountability, said Gabriella Filippi, an exercise physiologist in
Wayne, Ill. She likens new gym programs to weigh-ins at Weight Watchers
The staff at the Gym, a
1,300-member center in Manhattan, goes so far as to escort clients to the
elliptical machine. Three times a week at 6 a.m., Thomas Santos, a trainer
there, picks up Donna Flagg, 42, at her apartment and walks her to her hourlong
workout. The hardest thing for people is that 10 minutes of getting
there, Ms. Flagg said. Its easier to have someone come get
Virtual coaches offer some
measure of accountability, too. About 700 facilities nationwide use FitLinxx, a
computerized system that attaches to gym equipment and tracks clients
progress. Members receive e-mail reports on pounds lifted, calories burned and
other statistics. Clubs that use FitLinxx usually cut their dropout rates by
about 16 percent, said David Crampton, the companys chief executive.
There are even pats on the head
for out-of-gym exercise. Spectrum Athletic Clubs, a chain in California and
Texas, rewards everything from jogging to lawn mowing. Members are given
pedometers; a Web site calculates how many miles an activity is
worth. For pedometer-proof activities like rowing and swimming, the club uses
an honor system.
Participants can earn up to $250
in gift cards from retailers like Bloomingdales. But the programs
goal is to motivate members to remain active and committed for more than
90 days, said Matthew Stevens, Spectrums chief executive.
Why would a mad dash after
miles or points foster exercise success or club loyalty? Youre
trying to establish a routine for people and allowing natural reoccurring
reinforcers the good things you get from going to the gym to kick
in, said Robert H. Reiner, the director of Behavioral Associates, a
cognitive behavioral therapy institute in Manhattan. Anything that you
associate with something pleasurable is likely to be repeated, he said.
Thats what creates brand loyalty.
Ms. McMillin, the reluctant
gym-goer in Dallas, never missed a meeting because she wanted her $200 back
and because her buddy kept after her.
Lucky for the gym, she soon
turned her gratitude into green. She works out with a personal trainer twice a
week at $60 a session, and also sees a $75 Pilates instructor once a week. On
other days, she runs on the treadmills, finally making use of her $176-a-month
membership (thats for her and her husband).
About 30 Landry Center members
participated in two such programs last year, with a 100 percent retention rate
so far, said Ryan Tompkins, the assistant managing director.
They appreciate the fact
that someone notices them, Mr. Tompkins said. Its nice to be
involved with such a large facility and have everybody know your