It's time to change the way we market fitness

Health and fitness experts are a dense population. What used to be a VHS workout with Jane Fonda is now a massive inventory of weight-loss challenges, at-home exercise videos, and week-long programs to “jump-start your summer body,” and they’re splattered all over social media.

However, while the wellness industry is thriving, weight loss alone has become a pretty charged marketing message that can rub people the wrong way. Slogans like “lose 10 pounds in 10 days” and “six days to a six-pack,” aside from being unrealistic, can make your brand seem out of touch with what it means to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.

That’s why a growing number of brands are building their names around the opposite idea — that being healthy isn’t about how you stack up against the washboard abs that tend to be on traditional gym ads. More importantly, it’s about how exercise and nutrition make you feel. Blink Fitness, one gym chain aiming to be more inclusive, uses that marketing slogan almost verbatim, and its promo video features people with a variety of body types to bring that message to life.

Healthy is the New Skinny is a wellness brand founded by Katie Wilcox that hosts workshops and retreats promoting more self-care. Bodyweight Gurus is another example. Founded by mixed martial artist Ricky Warren, it’s a group of trainers in the U.K. focused on personal growth and discovering potential through movement. These are just a sliver of the brands and influencers trying to tap into an audience that’s craving something more holistic.

The best gyms want their members to improve movement quality so they can accomplish more of what makes them happy. It’s less about physical appearance.

A growing number of brands are building their names around the idea that being healthy isn’t about how you stack up against the washboard abs that tend to be on traditional gym ads.

Among that audience is Seattle resident Colleen Stinchcombe. Last summer, she thru-hiked over 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest and Oregon Coast trails. When she returned home after four months of backpacking, she joined a gym, not because she wanted to look a certain way but because she wanted to stay active and learn new ways to move her body.

Go easy on the weight loss challenges. Instead, try offering a boutique class for a limited time to attract and engage new members.

Yet, she was faced with posters that insisted she could “actually lose weight over the holidays” if she joined this gym’s 60-day challenge. “I ended my membership by Christmas,” she says. While it might seem like an innocent message, pry back the layers and that message assumes two things: that members’ efforts haven’t been substantial up to this point and that they’re there to lose weight in the first place.

There’s more to fitness than weight loss, and the marketing strategies health clubs use should represent that. “It’s about recognizing that people are showing up and participating,” says Catherine Kolbeck, marketing consultant at EXOS. “It’s not about getting them to join to lose weight.”

So, what’s another strategy? “We’re seeing success with running boutique types of classes over a period of time,” says Kolbeck. Instead of a weight-loss challenge, try advertising a six-week dance cardio series or another type of class you don’t normally offer. It still gives new members a chance to try your facility and engages current members without making assumptions about their goals.

“If weight loss is a member’s end goal, great. If not, then they can still show up and start walking on the treadmill and talking to the person next to them,” says Kolbeck. “They can come take a class that’s about stretching and has nothing to do with how many burpees they can do in two minutes. There are other ways to help them be healthy.”

A staff that supports holistic health is just as important as any slogan on a poster. They're the ones representing your brand during every class, session, and consultation.

There’s more to fitness than weight loss, and the marketing strategies health clubs use should represent that.

Creating more empathy around weight loss.

For those members who are on a weight-loss journey, it’s important to be mindful of how your marketing efforts might unintentionally make them feel like outsiders as they’re working toward their goals.

“I’m an obese woman trying to get in shape and lose weight,” says Denise Geelhart, a gym-goer in Illinois. “All the images I see are of people who are already in great shape.” Usually thought to motivate members, Geelhart says it has the opposite effect. “Those images make me feel like the gym is for those people, not me,” she says.

And she’s not the only one. “That’s the biggest challenge I face right now in fitness center marketing,” says Kolbeck. “People feel like they don’t have the right body to go to the gym or they don’t know how to use the equipment in order to get there.”

Using more inclusive and realistic images in your marketing efforts can change this. “In some cases, we’re seeing better results with images of people who are outside just spending time with their family,” says Kolbeck. “It’s about helping your members see exercise as something that helps them live their lives the way they want to as opposed to something that helps them look a specific way.”

Another approach can be to focus on testimonials. Kolbeck recalls a recent, successful campaign where a facility ran a series of Instagram ads featuring comments from members about their experiences. “It was people from all walks of life,” she says. That’s one way to help future members relate and feel less like they have to look or dress a certain way before they can lead an active lifestyle.

Above all, strive to create a positive community where members feel welcome and comfortable no matter where they are on their fitness journey.

Your staff members are your brand ambassadors.

Creative social media ads may get people in the door, but if your trainers and coaches aren’t aligned with your message, your members may be less likely to stick around. “Hiring people who have a mindset of holistic wellness is critical to business,” says Kolbeck.

Gina Carrano, a gym-goer in Philadelphia, recalls applying to win a free personal training session, which can be a great way to attract new members or engage current members further. However, the experience went south fast.

“I told [the trainer] I was interested in a couple of [sessions] because I wanted abs,” she explains. “I lifted up the bottom of my tank to show him. He asked if I had kids. I said no. He said, ‘well then you really have no excuse.’”

That’s a good example of how to drive members away. Certifications are great, but in an industry with a reputation for being critical and superficial at times, you also have to consider how trainers treat members. They’re the ones leading challenges, teaching classes, and representing your brand.

Stinchcombe also recalls an experience where a group exercise instructor asked class participants if they had sinned over the weekend and needed to burn off the resulting calories. Again, it might seem like an innocent comment to some. But when you consider that disordered eating affects about 30 million people in the U.S., it’s a comment that can reinforce a dangerous mentality for many adults, both men and women. Disordered eating aside, an instructor’s job isn’t to punish meal choices by way of cardio. Rather than triggering a feeling of shame, their goal should be to help people focus on being the best version of themselves right now and make them feel good about showing up.

“The most important part is the community,” says Kolbeck. “It’s about the experience members have and about meeting them on their journey so they continue on their journey.” And that journey could be anything from healing an injury to reducing low back pain or wanting to move their bodies more efficiently. No matter their goal, if they feel like your facility is a positive, inclusive, and helpful environment where their efforts count, they’re more likely to be successful.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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