Feature Article - November 2005
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Fit Facilities

Mixing old and new ideas to fulfill fresh niches

By Kyle Ryan

The Coach Approach

Are health clubs inadvertently discouraging member retention?

Creating the exercise habit in people takes more than it seems. According to Jim Annesi, Ph.D., director of wellness advancement for the Metro Atlanta YMCA, between 45 and 65 percent of people will stop exercising within the first six months of starting it. Those numbers hold steady no matter where or how people exercise, be it at home, with a friend or at a health club.

In 1994, Annesi began a research program to address the issue of member retention. Eventually, it evolved into a YMCA program based in Atlanta called Coach Approach, which directly challenges the traditional business model used by most facilities.

When he created what became Coach Approach, Annesi read studies that used exercise adherence to measure the success of techniques designed to make people exercise longer. These techniques came from smoking-cessation, chemical-dependency and other behavior-modification programs with well-developed psychological backgrounds.

"There were two problems: [Fitness professionals] weren't tapping this kind of academic research, and the academic research wasn't written in a way that it would reach out and really help anybody," Annesi says. "I tried to package those treatments up and make them usable for the exercise professional."

As Annesi continued to reformulate his program, he made a few startling discoveries. One, telling people how important exercise is in their lives has essentially no effect on adherence. Second, simply being nice and personable to members is similarly ineffective.

Even more surprising, Annesi discovered that what facilities offer in terms of programming or equipment doesn't really affect people's workout habits, either. It comes down to members' attitudes and abilities. From that standpoint, facilities actually could be discouraging exercise by marketing their exercise programs as especially difficult.

"Group-exercise classes are marketed to how tough they are," he says. "The whole Tae Bo, that stuff gets right at the heart of what 95 percent of people have problems with. 'We're gonna make you drip sweat. We're gonna work you out so hard that you're going to see quick results.' Fine—for 5 percent of the people."

For example, typical boot-camp classes attract a certain group. Yet when the people who need exercise most, say out-of-shape Boomers, join the class, they will "fall off like flies," according to Annesi.

"[Instructors are] going to take credit for the few that can stay with it," he says. "There is no credit to be gained in a person that would succeed without you succeeding with you. There's no residual credit you get. But everybody's taking credit for it."

Coach Approach considers people's ability to tolerate discomfort and their self-management skills to create a lasting exercise habit, which is partially sustained by social support (six follow-up appointments for six months). Instructors and participants track all of their workouts through software.

"The actual product of a facility changes from providing equipment and providing exercise advice," Annesi says. "The primary product is the facilitation [of exercise], as opposed to simply writing out an exercise prescription and simply showing people how to use the machines."

Through Coach Approach, Annesi says he's cut the dropout rate by half. The program currently is offered at YMCAs in 14 U.S. cities and soon will be available in the United Kingdom.