We hear a lot of excuses about why people don’t exercise. “I don’t have the time.” “There’s not a gym close to me” etc. And sadly, most questionaries for the CDC, NIH and other government surveys use these misleading answers on their forms, so most of the survey data on how much we exercise as a country is a very poor resource for learning about why people don’t exercise. I say these are misleading because most of the answer options on these surveys place the locus of control away from the responder, allowing them to choose the answer that helps them save the most face and provides the least depth. Luckily, social science has stepped up to the plate with a lot of great qualitative studies on the perceived barriers to exercise. Allender, Cowburn, & Foster (2005) is a review of over 1200 of those qualitative studies between 1994 and 2004. And according to their review, the common barriers to exercise for adults that come up are:
- Negative school experiences.
- Anxiety in unfamiliar surrounds.
- Lack of social network.
- Identity conflict (don't identify as fit people).
- Lack of role models.
In looking at those responses, you might notice a pattern. They're all social. The researchers noted, "the enjoyment and social networks offered by sport and physical activity are clearly important motivators for many different groups of people aged between 18 and 50 years." And people have been trying to tell us this for years. This video wouldn't have nearly 2 million views if people didn't find it funny and at least a little but true.
As practitioners, I think we have a lot to learn about the "whys" for people, but we're in a unique position to learn them and to address them. We talk to people all the time about health and fitness and hear all kinds of reasons that people are struggling to make exercise a habit. But we also have some unique blind spots.
The main problem, as I see it, is that we spend a lot of time in our gyms and in our spaces waiting for people to come to us. We're happy to help anyone who shows up (and pays us). But that's only 16% of the US population. And 67% of those people who do show up, don't come back to the gym regularly. If we, as a profession want to help the most people and we want more people to come to us, we need to be meeting people where they're at and addressing these fears. We might be when people get to our front door, but how can we start addressing these fears for the 84% who we aren’t seeing?
The second problem is that we do not talk nearly enough about these psychosocial factors that are preventing people from becoming our customers. Do you think that Apple has meetings about how to improve the social perception of their products in their target markets? Do you think that the car companies hold sessions at conferences about how to address social fears in their car commercials? You're damn right they do.
So who can you talk to about making your gym more approachable? How to reach out to your local community and tell people what an awesome environment you've created? How to reach your 277 million potential US clients where their at right now?