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How the Fitness Industry Could Suck Less and Help Newbies More

fitness center

How much laughing is going on at your gym? Credit: deanetr

My bud Leah over at Mamavation recently posed an interesting question out into the web-o-sphere: What is wrong with the health/fitness industry and what can be changed? And, naturally, I had an opinion on the matter. (Me? No way!)

As a certified member of the fitness community and a former employee of health clubs, I’m not one to say that there’s something wrong with all health and fitness clubs, but I will admit that a lot of them are whack. Here on FBG we make light of “clunkheads” and such, but gyms can be intimidating and usually only appeal to the small percentage of the population who are already fit. Which is ironic because the people who actually need them are the ones who are most turned off by them. And who can blame them? Big machines? Loud, grunting men? Sweat? Personal trainers screaming at overweight people on TV? Yeah, no one wants to sign up for that.

While there are some fitness facilities out there that are doing things to make fitness more fun and less miserable, there aren’t a lot. Here are five things I think the fitness industry as a whole could do to make itself just a little more approachable. (And then the hardcore clubs can target the uber-fit and the others could work with the majority of the population.)

5 Ways the Fitness Industry Could Suck Less and Help Newbies More

1. Fewer big boxes. Obviously massive gyms with rows and rows of fitness equipment and amenities aren’t getting the job done. Those places are big and hard to navigate for newbies. I’d like to see more smaller fitness centers that are locally owned and foster a sense of community and culture. You know, Cheers-style, where everyone knows your name. I know some of the big-box corporate gyms offer cheap memberships, but sometimes you get what you pay for. And sometimes, when you have more money invested, you’re more apt to respect—and use—a service.

2. Instate a dress code. I get the right to freedom to dress like you want and all that, but no new member wants to walk in a place where booty is on display or pecs are popping out of dude’s tank tops. Can’t we all agree—and actually enjoy—a respectful dress code that covers everyone’s naughty bits and makes working out less of a muscle show and more of a friendly workout zone? I think so.

3. Offer educational classes. Some clubs offer a one-time instruction on the equipment but that’s about it. Fitness facilities of all kinds would do their members a huge favor by requiring all new members to take a series of classes on how to use the equipment, how to eat right and how to set and reach goals. Not only would members meet each other in class and become buds (creating that culture I talked about in No. 1), but they’d learn how to feel comfortable in the gym and understand that getting healthy is about what you do outside of the health club, too!

4. Have certified, trained and caring—not abusive—staff. I love Jillian and Bob and all, but most exercise newbies—when not on The Biggest Loser—are not going to seek out tough love. Yes, some people may need it, but you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So let’s start with the honey, and leave the vinegar (AKA tough love) to the qualified people who are in my next suggestion…

5. Offer regular sessions with nutritionists and counselors. If you really want to change lives, it’s pointless to offer only access to fitness equipment. A healthy person isn’t just made in the gym, and it’s my belief that the fitness industry is too stuck in doing just “fitness.” Along with membership, newbies should be encouraged (or required…) to make appointments with registered dietitians and counselors or psychologists (who are ideally on staff or work nearby the health club). Just like they do with a personal trainer. Creating lasting lifestyle change is hard and meetings with those who specialize in behavior change and healthy eating are key.

At the end of the day, it does take a person to make the decision to change for the healthier. But, there are certainly things the fitness industry can do to help. It all goes with the FBG philosophy. All good things in moderation. Love yourself. Move your body in ways that feel good. Eat food that supports your healthy lifestyle. Choose to feel good and take care of yourself. And certainly don’t let that number on the scale determine your worth.

What would you add to this list? What would you like changed? Do you know of a trainer or of a fitness facility who is doing these things? Please. Tell! —Jenn

FTC disclosure: We often receive products from companies to review. All thoughts and opinions are always entirely our own. Unless otherwise stated, we have received no compensation for our review and the content is purely editorial. Affiliate links may be included. If you purchase something through one of those links we may receive a small commission. Thanks for your support!

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20 Comments
  1. The one thing I would LOVE to see is personal training with the classes. The classes to me are SO MUCH more intimidating than the machines or cardio. I even asked for this but was told to just go to the class and you’ll learn….Uh..no thanks…

    There are several classes that I would participate in, if someone would just take the time to show the basic moves first…

  2. skeptigirl says:

    That sounds really expensive to implement. Most people cannot afford to pay for services like that. USA is a country where majority of the overweight population is so poor when they get into traffic accidents they really have to think if just dying would be the preferable option and less of a burden on their families. Are you making suggestions to reach just the population who can afford to get skinny or the segment of the population who really needs it?

  3. Marilyn says:

    Excellent post.

    Some ideas I’d add: stop selling nutritional products with megadoses of fat soluble vitamins. In line with your idea to hire actually qualified nutrition counselors, stop having personal trainers give nutrition advice. By and large, nutrition is beyond the scope of practice for personal trainers.

    If gyms want to make more money, add physical therapy and massage therapy for additional cost. Allow members to care for their entire bodies. Besides, who is really going to fix your imbalances–that guy with a certificate from NASM earned in a few months of home study or a PT with a Masters degree?

    This is a little out there: but also add some light mental health counseling. What’s holding you back in your fitness and health? Talk therapy can be an aid to overcoming your obstacles.

    Why not make a gym a true wellness center that encompasses mental and physical health. Mind + Body.

  4. Marilyn says:

    PS: Fitlife in Philadelphia has an attached physical therapy practice. No mental health, nutrition, etc.

  5. I think the psychology behind weight gain should be explored more and taken more seriously. Just calling 66% of the population lazy isn’t gonna cut it anymore. The obesity epidemic is bigger than just pointing fingers at certain individuals and passing them over for jobs, etc. (I’m not biased or anything.) But Jenn here I am someone who lost over 100 lbs. without a gym helping me. What Jules said was also true, I couldn’t get into things because they were so intimidating. I’d LOVE to see more beginner classes things that were just targeted to newbies. 🙂

  6. Alyssa says:

    I’m lucky in that I work at a community center that caters to all shapes, sizes, abilities, and ages. It’s a far cry from other places I have worked at: high-end “fitness centers” (they don’t call themselves “gyms”)in which everyone is trim, toned, and most likely, wealthy. The clientele consists of folks who have time on their hands and money to burn, and anyone who appears less than perfect is ridiculed.
    Pretty sad.
    My advice to a fitness newbie is to look at community centers and the Y. They’ll be made to feel welcome and will be much less intimidated.

  7. I just opened up a studio Florida – I was sick of seeing people walk around the gym with no idea what they were doing and looking lost and unmotivated. I decided that I would have a place that promoted positive team work and education through group exercise. I have cutting edge classes, nutrition seminars and above all things I treat the clients with kindness and encourage them to speak to themselves that way too. Self love is key to happiness in the long run!

  8. Jules says:

    This is more of a member etiquette thing than any kind of policy maker, but I would love it if people who knew what they were doing (the regulars) would go to the back of the class. That way, when you’re the new guy and you’re trying to figure out the moves, you can always see the instructor, the instructor can see you and when you have to turn or step to the back, there will be people who know what they’re doing to follow.

  9. CC says:

    for Jules — you need to come by my CrossFit ‘box’ — it’s the thing I love most about CrossFit — you take foundation or ‘on ramp’ classes for 12 sessions, so you learn the moves, the names & how do the exercises (box jumps, over head squats, wall ball, etc.) correctly so you don’t hurt yourself & get the most out of the move. The class size is small (8 – 15 people) and there is a trainer there supporting all of us to improve our form & moves. I wish more gyms were like CrossFit — I’d be in much better shape if I’d found them before now!

  10. Jill says:

    I would love to use my smaller neighborhood gym or one of the small studios that have classes that sound amazing, but those places don’t have childcare. We have a family membership at the Y, but their classes are uninspiring so I do most of my workouts at home. We mostly use the Y for kids activities.

  11. Tina says:

    Crossfit is amazing, we have a local one here in Calgary. I also agree, the Y workouts just don’t do it for me. I always just end up taking the kids there and watching lol

  12. Heather says:

    Oh My Goodness…Yes!
    I am a cert. Wellcoach and the idea that fitness doesn’t need to embrace WELLNESS is absurd!
    I have been a long advocate of having a wellcoach ON STAFF- to make a wellness vision and SMART goals so people could actually fulfill their goals and keep coming back.
    Fitness clubs are a sink that never fills- they lose more people a year than gain…they need to embrace people and meet people WHERE THEY ARE-!
    (I am a trainer and I don’t care for the atmosphere of gyms anyway.)
    Phfeeww- I really think that gyms are missing the boat.
    It’s all about supporting BEHAVIOR!
    Ask me more anytime…

  13. Stefanie says:

    I completely 100% agree with you, Jenn! I’m a Certified Yoga Instructor and this post is not only fun but so very accurate. It comes down to excellent, well-rounded customer service; that simple yet seemingly elusive concept to the fitness industry. People need to be comfortable in their environment and be treated like they’re the reason the facility is open; not just to make that almighty dollar. Many thanks!! Let’s hope they listen!

  14. Ellen McCarthy says:

    Offer a ‘dating’ service to help people find a workout buddy. It’s hard for people to find someone with compatible abilities and goals. Having a buddy to work out with is the best way I know to get folks to stick with a program. You can’t skip a workout if you know your friend is there waiting for you and the encouragement you give each other is priceless. I love my workout bestie but we only lucked into finding each other!

  15. Cat says:

    At my YMCA they put an ‘Ambassador’ system in place – a regular member is available in most of the fitness classes to help new members/attendees learn the moves or they perform the low-impact option while the teacher does the high-impact… the Ambassadors I’ve met always arrive at class early, can usually spot a newbie and introduce themselves and explain their role. From what I’ve seen it’s been successful. Now if only we had that in the cardio and weight rooms 🙂

  16. Deb Roby says:

    YES! I know a place that is doing it right: BodyTribe Fitness in Sacramento! A small box gym that encourages play through movement -with an emphasis on strength! Everyone is treated like family. There are even resident pets!

  17. UpDown-n-Sideways says:

    Fitness centers do seem fairly elusive to new possibly out of shape or overweight customers. Personally, I am currently overweight and I hate going to gyms. After midnight I go to the small gym at my apartment complex and workout. I close all the blinds and hope that no one joins me.
    This is a sad truth. I tried a few gyms recently before I began going after midnight. The most expensive center was the one I wanted to go to. They offered almost everything you suggested Jenn: massage, nutritionists, a spa, personal machine instruction. But the gym itself was enormous and multi-level. I found that to be attractive because there were so many people that no one would really notice me. (I very badly do not want to be noticed.) I enjoyed it even though the zumba class I went to had an instructor who was visibly pregnant but honestly she was the best instructor I have ever encountered. I nearly threw up at the end of the class and could hardly keep up but it was so fun I didn’t care. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sign up because the membership was over $100 monthly.
    The second gym was a small local gym that seemed perfect as far as cost and size. They offered chiropractic care. But the fitness instructors were all fat and old. As a result, the classes were boring because I wasn’t getting a good workout. So their good intentions fell flat with me.
    I think the solution is more that the staff should be equipped for one-on-one sessions with clients. I found that one of the gyms was sucking me in before I realized it because they were tailoring the entire sales pitch toward me personally. What aspect of the gym will I use? Where am I not comfortable the most? What is my diet like? The sales pitch that was used to get me to join the gym was more like a personal consultation.
    I would like to know that if I go back I could follow up with that person and learn where I have improved and where I need work.

  18. The hours and type of job I have requires me to belong to a 24 hour fitness gym. I usually workout after work at 2 in the morning. The problem with that is I do not get advice from the trainers because the latest they stay is 8p.m..

  19. KayleeS says:

    I don’t think the fitness industry sucks and fails to help newbies. Anyone who wants to will find a way to make it work for them – it’s up to the individual to do this for themselves without blaming their failures on services the gym doesn’t offer. If a person needs nutritional or psychological intervention, there are resources for that, but I don’t believe the average gym needs to offer these services (membership prices would go through the roof!).
    My fitness philosophy is ‘keep it simple and just do it’. It’s not rocket science. A gym is not a requirement to become more fit. Most of my competitive athletic career was spent running outdoors. As an exercise science major I briefly worked in personal training and hated it…mainly living in workout clothes and being at the gym all day suck. I don’t like being part of the conversation about weight loss and fitness because these are not things I’ve ever struggled with. I like a gym that will leave me alone and let me do my own thing without trying to sell me personal training and become my bff.

  20. joe says:

    Jenn, This is a lot of what we live by! We have an 1800sf gym in Brandon Florida. We are dedicated to our clients and members giving them the attention they do not get at the larger chains at prices that are half the cost as them. We make great PT affordable to the masses. thanks for your great article.

    joe alvarez
    Your Fitness Center