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Fitness Buddy

When Resolutions Fail, the Fitness Buddy Steps In

by Abby Ellin - from New 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 Dallas.

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 spandex-clad know-it-alls.

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 needed.

“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 don’t 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 what’s come between them and the stair climber, and even home visits to bring quitters back into the fold.

“We’re 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 that’s untapped,” Ms. Kufahl said, “and they want to bring them in.”

January is the time to do it, because that’s 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 Boston.

While it may seem curious that gyms would go all out to ensure that members show up (as opposed to those who pay but don’t), 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, it’s 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. “You’re 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 — it’s externalizing the voice of authority. It’s 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. That’s 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. “They’d 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 weren’t 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.

He’s 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 meetings.

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. “It’s easier to have someone come get me.”

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 company’s 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 Bloomingdale’s. But the program’s goal is to motivate members “to remain active and committed for more than 90 days,” said Matthew Stevens, Spectrum’s chief executive.

Why would a mad dash after miles or points foster exercise success or club loyalty? “You’re 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. “That’s 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 (that’s 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. “It’s nice to be involved with such a large facility and have everybody know your name.”

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RICHARD DAFTER

I am a full time Beachbody Coach. I motivate and guide close to 2,500 Club members and head a team of 11 Beachbody Coaches who are all committed to helping you reach your goals. Before joining BeachBody, I was a certified personal trainer for more than a dozen years and have been a running coach for over 20 years. Continued...

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