Behavior Modification is Key to Member Retention
It is the most troubling statistic in the fitness industry. Whether you are an executive director, a fitness director, or a wellness coach, it is a figure that probably sometimes keeps you up at night. You know it instinctively and research has proven it: most people who start an exercise program will fail. Studies on exercise adherence show a startling dropout rate of 50-65% within 3-6 months of an exercise regimen being initiated. That means as many as 65% of fitness center members will not reach their goals and, as a result, many will drop their membership. Simply stated, that is the problem of the fitness industry, but is there a solution?
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture of what members are trying to accomplish. When someone walks into your facility seeking to get fit or lose weight, think about all that has to happen. They need to carve hours out of their schedule each week, figure out what to do with their kids, change their eating patterns, motivate themselves to get to the gym each day, and learn how to start again when they relapse. What they are trying to do is change their behaviors and habits and on an even larger scale, they are trying to change their lives. Fitness Directors and coaches need to understand that learning how to use the facility’s equipment and eat right are critical skills, but they are of no value at all if your members can’t make these more comprehensive behavioral changes. Beyond just teaching people how to exercise, you need to be asking, “How can I give them the tools they need to change their behavior and their lifestyle? This was exactly what was on the mind of Dr. James Annesi, the Director of Wellness Advancement at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, when he began asking what would happen if the science of behavior modification was applied to the fitness center environment
Behavior Modification in the Fitness Center
Dr. Annesi’s behavior modification research involved a test run on over 1,700 people, split into two groups. The first group received the standard coaching regimen: prescribing an exercise and dietary program, then following up once a week to monitor the results. The second group, received the same basic regimen, but also techniques based on the science of behavior modification. The results were astounding! At the conclusion of the eight month trial period, Dr. Annesi found that of those receiving standard coaching techniques 54.7% had dropped out. But, of those that received behavior modification techniques only 20.3% had dropped out, a stunning 79.7% remained!That is a 76% in increase in the member retention rate. That statistic that should grab the attention of everyone in the fitness industry, especially health and wellness coaches. Here is a scientifically-proven method that will increase the number of your members that reach their goal and stay with your facility by 76%. The even greater news is that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Human Behavior to use these techniques! All you have to do is to master and apply these seven simple practices that Dr. Annesi used in his study.
Engaging your Members through Principles of Behavior Modification
Here are the principles of behavior modification that Dr. Annesi applied that allowed him to see such dramatic results in helping people reach their goals and retaining them as members:
- Set proper goals. At the beginning of any exercise routine, it is vital to help the member clarify the reasons why they are starting the routine. Is their aim to lose weight, gain more energy, improve cardio-vascular health, or something else? Break each goal down into both short-term (e.g., 1-2 month) and long-term (e.g., 6-12 month) objectives. This helps the member keep the big picture of why they are exercising firmly in mind, but also improves their self-efficacy, their confidence that they can actually reach that goal, by allowing them to celebrate smaller achievements along the way.Dr. Annesi found that it is critical to set process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented goals. Outcome-oriented goals, such as losing five pounds in two weeks, are notoriously difficult to hit and when failure occurs, the member’s confidence goes down and the risk for dropout dramatically increases. Outcome-oriented goals work well when setting long-term goals, but when a member is starting an exercise routine, it is always advisable to stick with process-oriented goals, such as minutes of cardio per week, number of visits to the gym, etc. Help your member build their self-efficacy by setting process-oriented goals that are challenging, still achievable.
- Help them enjoy working out. It is very easy to fall into the “no pain, no gain” mentality and sometimes, new exercisers even ask for it. They want quick results and feel that the more strenuous the exercise, and the more pain they feel afterward, the better. But, that is not the feeling you are shooting for, at least not at the start. Dr. Annesi states, “Pilot research has indicated that when after-exercise [feelings] of positive engagement, revitalization, and tranquility heighten, and physical exhaustion declines, adherence is increased.” What that means is with new exercisers, you need to aim for exercises, intensities, and durations that are enjoyable to your client and leaves them feeling good after their exercise session. The difficulty of the workout can be gradually increased as the member’s competency and self-efficacy increases.
- Keep their goals in front of them. It is amazing what human beings will endure if we feel like we are making progress toward a goal. But it is just as incredible how quickly we will give up if we feel as though our efforts are purposeless. Leverage this. Every time you meet with a new exerciser, celebrate the short-term goals they have reached, set their focus clearly on the next short-term goal, and remind them of their progress toward their long-term goals.
- Coach them in preventing relapse. Every single one of your clients is going fail at times. Whether it is a few missed workouts on a busy week, breaking their diet plan, or missing a goal, they are going to have disappointments. The key is ensuring that these disappointing days or weeks don’t explode into full-blow relapses where they drop out of their exercise routine all together. To help bring this about, be sure that the member understands at the start that slips are inevitable and expected. Much like a football team driving toward a goal, some plays where they lose yardage and some where they gain are expected. Knowing this in advance, they don’t walk off the field after a first quarter sack, they understand its place, get back up, and keep striving toward their goal. Help your member understand this principle and help them find the root causes of each slip up so those factors can be avoided or overcome in the future.
- Give them public recognition. We all love to get recognized for what we accomplish! Your members are working hard to achieve their goals. Reinforce that by recognizing them publicly. When someone reaches a milestone, or sets a personal record, or reaches a long term goal, post it on your Facebook page or post it on a bulletin board. Studies have shown that public recognition can increase exercise adherence by 45%!
- Help them recruit social support systems. Nothing helps us reach our goals like the support of other people. Be sure that you are not the only one giving accountability, encouragement, and support to your member. Ask them if they have told their spouse what they are trying to accomplish. Have they shared their goals with friends? Who are the other members you can connect them with that are shooting for similar goals?
- Coach them in self-management skills. Any behavioral change takes intentionality. Teach your members how to manage their time and remove barriers to exercise. Is the member scheduling their times to exercise in their calendar? Are they working out at a consistent time each week? Are they going to bed at a time that allows them to get up early the next morning? Even simple preparation such as laying out exercise clothes before bedtime can be a stimulus that helps prompt exercise.
When it comes to folks starting a new routine, don’t just teach them how to exercise, give them the tools they need to change their lives! For a more complete discussion of behavior modification principles, download the free ebook, Behavior Modification.
Have you seen behavior modification principles work for you or those you coach? Share it in the comments section below.
Other posts in this series:
 Annesi, James J., Jennifer L. Unruh, and Ann C. Whitaker. “Relations of Changes in Self-Efficacy, Exercise Attendance, Mood, and Perceived and Actual Physical Changes in Obese Women: Assessing Treatment Effects Using Tenets of Self-Efficacy Theory,” Journal of Social, Behavioral, and Health Sciences vol. 1 issue 1 (2007): 72-85. Accessed April 10, 2015. doi: 10.5590.
 Annesi, James J. “Effects of a Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Package on Exercise Attendance and Drop Out in Fitness Centers,” European Journal of Sport Science, vol. 3, issue 2 (2003). Accessed April 10, 2015.
 McKenzie, Thomas I. and Brent S. Rushall. “Effects of Self-Recording on Attendance and Performance in a Competitive Swimming Training Environment.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 7 (1974): 199-206.Follow us: