Fitness Center Management Past to Present

Originally, fitness centers emphasized their exercise apparatus. It was a place where individuals could go to use the latest in fitness equipment. The advent of refined weight stack machines made resistance training increasingly appealing to a wider range of people. Varied types of aerobic exercise came to be offered, as well. Soon after came an increased attention to staffing.

In most cases, individuals who frequently worked out, and were part of the “workout culture,” were hired to assist with proper equipment usage and its maintenance. Not long after, it became apparent that attrition rates were problematic. The term “member retention” was used when speaking about countering the universal dropout phenomenon that plagued even first-rate facilities.

Since new member sales generally canceled out the “sting” of attrition, retention was viewed as a problem but was tolerated. New emphasis began to be placed on member service in the hopes of affecting the dropout problem; but these efforts made little impact. Staff responsibilities started to include better physiological evaluations and, often, more thorough counseling about equipment choices and usage. Certification became the norm for trainers.

More recently, the industry began to acknowledge that more than a friendly and experienced staff is needed to positively change dismal retention rates. Forward-thinking fitness centers are beginning to hire and look to their exercise leaders for adherence skills, as well as their physiological knowledge. In some cases, “retention specialists” have been named, and exercise professionals are evaluated on their ability to retain a portion of a facility’ s clientele specifically assigned to them. Generally, it is still assumed though, that frequent, cordial contacts and/or phone follow-ups will enable a new client to feel enough “at home” at the facility to continue exercising there.

That was a concise to-date review. Efforts were well-meaning but, unfortunately, did not make much of an impact when hard retention numbers were considered. Today, we realize that simply keeping in contact with members and providing them with a friendly, well-appointed facility is not enough to keep those who find exercise unappealing coming back. We must provide those “at risk” for dropout with the tools required to succeed. We need to counter their lack of motivation, time-constraints, frustration with slow progress and discomfort with the exercise process.

What is ironic is that while this evolution of the industry was taking place, many answers to the exercise adherence/retention problems were already available.

An important subdiscipline of an academic area called “exercise psychology” was compiling research on exercise’s effect on mood, anxiety and depression, its effect on disease and the immune system, and exercise adherence for some time.

Within research reports laden with statistical analysis and technical jargon was a science in the making. Behavioral scientists were actively publishing research that tested theories of exercise behavior and adherence promotion methods. Many of the answers to the retention problem were emerging but, given the nature of the academic world, information was kept inaccessible to those in need: the fitness center administrators and professionals that impact the lives of many new exercisers every day.

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