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7 Ways to Motivate Your Gym Members Based on Science

Shiny new sneakers might help, but these methods are oh-so much more convincing.

Aug 2019

7 Ways to Motivate Your Gym Members Based on Science

Remember that episode of Friends when Chandler tries to quit the gym but fails and tries to quit the bank instead in a desperate attempt to stop the monthly payments going out? 

Quitting might be hard but finding the motivation to go to the gym regularly is also, well,  hard. According to a motivation and adherence study, up to 50% of gym members drop out within the first six months of a new exercise program. And that’s pretty depressing if you’re a gym owner in charge of retention. One big reason people quit is because exercise plans are based on sports science when, really, they should be based on psychology. It makes you wonder: what does actually motivate people to turn up again and again?

Let’s dive into seven ways to engage gym members, based on psychological factors that have been scientifically proven to motivate: 

1. Create a sense of belonging 

Gym retention guru Dr Paul Bedford is an expert at membership behavioral patterns for the fitness industry and has done large scale studies all over the world, looking at four million member records across 40 countries. You know what he found? That the product a gym is selling is the experience, not the building or the equipment in it. Not that we’d say no to a rooftop pool.

Members hugely value interaction, as long as it’s done at the right time. It’s really nice if the receptionist says hello, but it has a huge impact if the gym instructor or the group exercise instructor interacts with a member in the place they’re active. It’s a way of letting them know that their presence is noticed. Like a little nod to say, “I appreciate you being here and I’m going to look for you next time.” 

Adele the singer says hello

Idea: Power up the sense of belonging by using gamification among your gym and group exercise staff by asking them to introduce themselves to at least three new members a week - and to learn something about them. Make sure you test them on it later.

2. Make intrinsic goals key

Why do you go to the gym? If it’s because you genuinely enjoy exercise, or developing skills, you’re probably an intrinsically motivated person. If you’re doing it because you want to impress your new partner, or because those “Beach body ready” ads hit you hard, you’re possibly someone who’s extrinsically motivated. 

A 2011 study found that people who set intrinsic goals enjoyed higher levels of enjoyment and much lower levels of tension and pressure than those who set extrinsic goals. The intrinsically motivated people also stuck to their workouts for longer than the extrinsic group.

Idea: To encourage more intrinsic motivators, create a newsletter for your members share their stories of how exercise brings added value to their daily life through stress reduction, increased energy, better mood, and what impact that’s had on their overall wellbeing.  

3. Encourage people to get competitive with a workout buddy

You know why those “bring a friend for free” vouchers work so well? Because being able to bring a friend to the gym makes members want to stick around for longer. A study showed that 95% of people who started a weight loss program with a friend completed it, compared to 76% of those who did it alone. 

Socially engaging with other people while you’re exercising can also mean you exercise for longer. Specifically, if you think your friend is fitter than you are, a Kansas State University study showed that it’s likely to motivate someone to work out for up to 200% longer. 

Idea: Offer a “Friends Go Free” day once a month to encourage members to introduce family and friends to the gym.

4. Help customers create a habit

A behavior is much more likely to turn into a habit if it’s something enjoyable and rewarding. But forming a habit takes on average 66 days according to Phillippa Lally, research associate at University College London, who studies habits. She clearly doesn’t live nextdoor to a chocolate shop.  

One way of helping to form a gym habit is by joining exercise classes. Dr Bedford’s gym retention research found that people who do group exercise stay members for longer because group exercise requires a person to turn up at a set time, which in itself is habit forming. Exercising in groups also taps into the competitive motivation mentioned above and things like accountability to the group, and a shared experience of success. 

Idea: Start a “30 classes in 30 days” fitness challenge. Make a physical board and and put it up in reception so everyone can see it and hold the participants accountable.

5. Tick off those tasks 

When we leave a task unfinished, it creates mental tension. Want to know the one thing that will relieve this tension? You guessed it, completing the task. The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that means you remember incomplete tasks or events more than ones that have been completed.

Dr Bedford suggests that an exercise programme is that unfinished task that will have members coming back in order to get to the resolution.  

Idea: Make sure your gym instructors design S.M.A.R.T. exercise programmes and follow up on them, so people can see their resolution is just up ahead and know that, with a bit of hard work, it’s attainable.   

6. Encourage loss rather than reward

This may surprise people but, when it comes to exercise, losing a reward is a bigger motivator than gaining a reward according to a research study at the University of Pennsylvania. For example, imagine you buy those cool sneakers you really wanted, then promise yourself you’ll go to the gym every day for a month. And if you don’t meet your goal? You have to r e t u r n the sneakers. They obviously have to be box fresh so you can’t wear them at the gym – until you’ve earned them!

Idea: Give members a discount or upgrade on their membership, then agree on an exercise goal and a deadline. They have to give back their reward if they don’t stick to the plan.    

7. Turn TV screens from distractions to inspiring information radiators 

As members battle their own minds just to get to the gym regularly, what else can you do to help them out once they’ve bothered to turn up? 

One communication tool available to pretty much every gym are the many TV screens. But is using them to show news, films and programmes really the best use of that prime real estate? Last year, 128-location U.S. gym chain Life Time Fitness decided that showing cable news was against their mission of making people healthier, so they banned it in all their buildings. Pretty radical move, right? Because, in case you didn’t know, news will make you sick according to Swiss author Rolf Dobelli’s essay, The Art of Thinking Clearly. Not to mention that the distraction of an always-on news feed, or repeats of The Office, also makes your workout less effective. 

Instead of distracting or even aggravating members with the news, TVs could be used as information radiators that push out bite-sized, genuinely useful information. 

Idea: Use your TVs to promote group exercise classes, suggest gym exercises and how to complete them correctly, celebrate members who’ve reached exercise milestones, display motivational quotes, or introduce members of staff to make them more familiar and approachable. The possibilities are endless. 

ScreenCloud makes it really easy to manage all your gym TV screen content across your workout floor. We think you'll like our pre-built apps that help you set up in no time, and you can try them free right here: screencloud.com/getstarted

Thanks to Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash for the cover photo – we love your work!

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