To recruit the 80% of the population that doesn’t participate in regular physical activity, the health and fitness industry needs to change its behavior.
Every year, gym owners can make this prediction: Exercise classes will swell on January 2 and shrink right back to their normal size within a very short time.
This is a tried-and-true pattern. No matter how firm their New Year’s resolution, a portion of the newcomers will drop their membership, often out of a sense of failure, guilt, or shame—or a combination of all three. These are the people who fall into the 80%.
Who are the 80%? According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), only 20% of the population get the recommended amount of exercise per week. It’s a statistic that’s as stubborn as it is troubling. Nothing seems to work to keep these 80% engaged in regular physical activity.
These outcomes are not just familiar to us, they also align with research showing that idealized goals of new members—e.g., New Year’s resolutions—often do the opposite of motivating and retaining people. In fact, it predicts worse achievement outcomes and dropouts.
So what works? How do we keep the 80% committed? Three ways:
Understanding the Boomerang Effect
Avoiding the Shame Spiral
Shifting From Sets and Reps to Flexible Mindsets
Understanding the Boomerang Effect
Ironically, idealized goals—along with many other popular behavior-change strategies our industry promotes—often have a boomerang effect on newcomers. People may briefly be enticed to enter the gym, but shortly thereafter, they fly right back out, landing further away from the facility than they were before they entered.
The fitness industry has unwittingly perpetuated this pattern for decades. Then COVID hit, shattering every norm and bringing us to our knees. Some clubs barely survived, while others had no choice other than to close their doors for good. Online options became a lifeline for some and even a boon for others.
But this transformation will only happen if we are willing to do the deep self-reflection that is the foundation of real change.
Avoiding the Shame Spiral
If you’re like most people who work in the fitness industry, you love the joy that physical activity brings. You may have grown up playing sports, and the mindset behind hard training—no pain, no gain; grit your teeth and get through it—have worked for you.
These experiences, while common for fitness folks, are definitely not common for everyone else. Most people—the 80-percenters—have not had a lifelong, positive relationship with exercise. In fact, many have had the opposite: a lifetime of painful and shaming experiences with sports and exercise.
In my work as a sustainable-change coach, I regularly see clients who tell me that they feel embarrassed just getting dressed to go to the gym. An initial inability to keep up with a class routine is enough to send them into a shame spiral. They tell me about their humiliating memories from PE classes during their school years, and the punishing experiences they’ve had in the gym as adults.
While this may not be news to you, you may be surprised to learn that new theories about exercising explain how people’s past negative experiences with working out thwart their ability to succeed. And they also show us how we can turn this around.
A Call to Action: Shifting From Sets and Reps to Flexible Mindsets
Here’s the truth: The way the fitness industry has traditionally communicated working out and the “right” ways to do it have created an all-or-nothing fitness mindset. This communication isn’t just happening in the gym but across the full consumer journey—e.g, marketing, onboarding, gym design, personal training conversations, etc.
This all-or-nothing mindset doesn’t work for the 80%. Worse, it demotivates and discourages them. Despite our best intentions, the strategies often used—prescribed sets and reps, advocating perfection-promoting strategies like habit formation, SMART goals—set the 80% up to fail. The prevailing industry culture cultivates rigid thinking and unrealistic goals that all too easily result in shame, self-blame, and dropping out.
It’s time for an industry-wide reset—a new mindset.
It’s counterintuitive, but research is mounting that shows that doing less reaps better results. Offering permission for imperfection when it comes to exercising, as opposed to trying to stick to an exact plan or goal, actually predicts better long-term engagement and even bodyweight maintenance. This is true of healthy eating, too.
Is this science really surprising? I don’t think so, because in our work we’ve seen over and over that an all-or-nothing mindset winds up being nothing for most people, most of the time. And this leads to a deep sense of personal failure, which converts into lost memberships—and unhealthy people.
Flexible thinking lets people be nimble and pivot to meet the unplanned changes in their day that conflict with their planned workout. It enables them to stay on track by devising an alternative strategy that still brings them some of the benefits of the original planned workout. It keeps them on the physical activity track.
We need to slay the all-or-nothing dragon by helping members learn that when they can’t do what they had planned, they can still do something—and that something really is better than nothing.
Sometimes when I’m training professionals how to teach their clients to adopt a flexible mindset, they express concern that such flexibility will turn into an automatic and permanent pass from doing exercise. While this seems logical, the research clearly shows this isn’t the reality.
A flexible mindset frees people from the constraints of the “should” jail and gives them the energy and autonomy they need to figure out a way to do something instead of nothing.
So how do we make this shift?
How to Create a Flexible Mindset
The only way we can change the mindset and behavior of others is by changing ours first. Face it: It’s not the consumers who need to do the work on this, it’s us. If we can’t connect with the 80% where they are, our fitness centers won’t truly be welcoming spaces for everyone who enters.
What I am proposing may seem like a radical shift in thinking, but it’s a shift based on emerging science, and decades of experiences show it works for most people. Here’s how to make the shift:
Rid yourself of inflexible language and strategies. We need to promote the exact opposite type of strategies and messages that work for us and experiment with ones that work for the 80%. This means promoting a flexible approach to workouts—no shoulds, musts, or absolute target numbers.
Everything counts. We need to embolden our future members to count all physical activity, no matter how brief or light, as contributing to their total exercise output—whether it’s inside or outside our four walls. If they can’t get to the gym at all that day, they might still be able to do some jumping jacks with their kids at home or walk up and down the stairs at work. It all adds up.
Something is always better than nothing. We need to help people understand this basic concept when it comes to exercise. This includes encouraging our members to get to the gym and join in, even if they need to arrive to class late, leave a little early, or just do seven minutes in the weight room instead of the planned 30. They need to give themselves permission to be flexible.
Don’t use weight loss as a goal. We need to help our clients and members stop using physical activity and exercise to lose weight—that not only cultivates all-or-nothing thinking, it creates a losing proposition for them and for us.
Eliminate “no pain, no gain” permanently. Last but not least, we absolutely need to replace “no pain, no gain” with “do what makes you feel joy.”
We need to model, communicate, and create this new fitness mindset for the world, one that teaches that flexibility equals feasibility and celebrates the “perfect imperfect” workout.
I’m optimistic we can do this. In my conversations with industry leaders and club owners, I’m hearing the drumbeats of change already starting to resonate through the fitness world.
This is our time of reckoning, and I’m excited to get started. I hope you are, too.
Michelle Segar, Ph.D., MPH, MS, is a University of Michigan researcher and lifestyle coach. She is a member of IHRSA’s Medical, Science, and Health Advisory Council and was the inaugural chair of the National Physical Activity Plan’s Communication Committee. She has spent almost 30 years helping individuals and organizations learn how to create sustainable, healthy lifestyles. Her new book, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise, helps individuals and the professionals who work with them to create lasting changes through purpose, positivity, and joy.
The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) is a global community of health and fitness professionals committed to building their businesses and improving their communities’ health and well-being. The mission of IHRSA is to grow, protect, and promote the health and fitness industry, and to provide its members with the benefits that will help them be more successful. IHRSA and its members (health clubs and fitness facilities, gyms, spas, sports clubs, and industry suppliers) are dedicated to make the world healthier through regular exercise. For more information visit www.ihrsa.org.