Franchise Gyms Want Their Members To Fail. Here’s How To Fight Back.

Burn calories, not a hole in your pocket.

November 21, 2017
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The “Grand Opening” sign lures you inside, and the fit, effervescent membership specialist appears eager to speak with you about joining this gym. She touts the group classes inclusive of the fee, and she recommends the gym’s state-of-the-art cardio equipment.

“You can watch television while you work out,” she says, and she gestures behind her to the rows of treadmills with small screens attached.

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It all sounds enticing: You could burn calories while you watch HGTV? This is multitasking at its finest—a triumphant life win-win. Spending the money for the gym membership will feel worth it because you’re investing in your health, AND you can finally quit cable. This makes the gym cost a wash, really.

You happily sign the dotted line and start coming to the gym a few times a week after work, but soon you notice that customer service falls flat. Broken machines never get fixed, and the ones that do work are always in use. On top of that, the bathroom never has any paper towels to dry your hands. Your once-enthused, gym-loving spirit dies out, and you stop going. Sound familiar?

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You are not alone. According to Statistic Brain, an organization providing statistics to business markets, 67 percent of people with gym memberships never use them, and the average individual amount of gym membership money each month that goes to waste due to underutilization is $39.

Franchise gyms actually want it this way—they want to keep you out of the gym. In fact, this remains a heavy part of their well-established business model: Gyms set up locations near cities with their target demographic, they accept everyone who enters through the door, and they push hard sales. Most require a membership fee—certain gyms ask for a 12-month contract and others accept month-to-month contracts—but usually at a premium price.

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Once you join, they rarely speak to you again, expect you to reach gym boredom and stop going, and seldom bother keeping equipment up to date. They desire your money, but do not desire you to walk through the front door.

“Emptiness equals success,” reads the description an episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. In the episode, reporters found a gym with a 300-person capacity and a 6,000-person-long list of members. Half of those members never showed up.

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You should not let this traditional franchise gym model turn you off. Although gym owners might actively work against you, you can combat such maneuvers by following the helpful advice of experts.

Get yourself to the gym.

Rather than paying for a gym you do not attend, you can push yourself to go.

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Wyatt Fisher, PsyD, a licensed psychologist from Boulder, Colorado, offers the following tips, most of which deal with accountability:

  • Get a trainer. It can feel intimidating to not know how to work out, but hiring a trainer can be motivating. In addition, a personal trainer makes you liable; as someone expects you to show up at a specific time. Plus, you’re spending extra money you do not want to waste, on top of the gym membership fee.
  • Find a workout buddy. Developing a workout routine with a friend can hold both of you responsible and provide nice encouragement as well.
  • Join a workout class. If you sign up for a class, you might feel more likely to go, especially if you develop relationships with other people attending.

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You can also look for organizations that work toward lessening gym stagnation. For example, TaskTwins helps people change habits by harnessing the power of accountability partners.

The company pairs two accountability partners that share the same goal, e.g., losing weight, and sends e-mails with valuable information on how to optimize their workout experience. They also provide motivation along the way by sending pictures and videos.

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How to Change Your Habits

Gyms expect you to fall back into your old habits of never going. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Association, only 44 percent of members use the gym at least 100 times a year—people tend to lose interest over time. To fall into that 44 percent, you need to change old habits, or you risk throwing your gym fee away.

Psychologist and sports/exercise enthusiast Eamonn Leaver says all habits form around a basic neurological loop: cue —> routine —> reward.

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“Some cue triggers a set of behaviors (a routine), which leads to some reward,” he says. “When this loop is completed enough times, eventually the routine is done without thinking whenever the cue is encountered (whether the reward is present or not), and thus a habit is formed. Forming or changing any habit is about conscious awareness of, and purposeful action around, these three elements.”

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He recommends following these steps to reverse habits:

  1. Define your routine. This could sound like “put on my gym clothes and travel to the gym.” This is a specific routine to form a habit around, and it will actually make it easier to complete the most important behavior in all of this: working out.
  2. Choose a reward. Rewards come in two varieties: Intrinsic, which come from within you and provide a sense of personal satisfaction, and extrinsic, which do not, but still have value to you—for those, though, you might need to experiment with them to see what is right for the habit you are trying to form. The thinking behind rewards is that if a behavior produces a sense of accomplishment or some other form of satisfaction, then it will feel relatively easy to turn it into a habit.
  3. Choose the cue. As it happens, time of day and preceding action tend to provide the most appropriate cues around which to base fitness-related habits. This is why most habitual exercisers (not just gym-goers) tend to exercise at a specific time of day or immediately after some specific action (e.g., eating breakfast, getting home from work, etc.). You need to ensure consistent behavior; cues do not work without consistency.

Set goals.

A main reason people stop going to the gym is due to lack of results. Gym owners expect this; they anticipate people feeling frustrated and giving up on their fitness goals. It is important to know that you can control those goals.

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David Ezell, LPC, a clinical psychologist and director of counseling and wellness group Darien Wellness in Darien, Connecticut, provides valuable tips to achieving what you want in a gym:

  • Set small and reasonable exercise goals. Most people join the gym and hit said gym hard with weights, aerobics, and then some more weights. They return the second day and hit it hard again. A few days more of that, though, and the aches and pains from inexperience start to affect their performance, and they “take a day off” (or even worse, they sustain an injury and the doctor makes that decision for them). Flash forward a few months later, and it is all a distant memory.
  • Go to the gym two days a week, first thing in the morning, and walk on the treadmill for 10 minutes. If you cannot, examine what thoughts are getting in your way. By applying this incremental approach, you normalize gym-going gradually, making it an enduring habit.

Over time, as one success leads to another, you can expand and identify what is a reasonable next step in gaining mastery over your exercise plan.

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Jason Eckerman, PsyD, a licensed psychologist for ImpactPsych, also recommends:

  • Making a plan. You need to put yourself in a position to succeed from the beginning and build a plan that will last.
  • Knowing the details. You need to be more specific than saying “I want to work out more.” Make a plan for how many days you will work out and what you will do each day, and establish your long-term goals.
  • Anticipating the obstacles. Plan for the most common problems, like waking up late, and figure out what you will do when they happen.
  • Link it to what you already do. We have behaviors we do every day, like watching television, drinking a glass of water, or brushing our teeth. Start your habit by linking exercise to the things you already do.
  • Know that tomorrow’s not magically different. The most common thing we go to when we do not feel like going to the gym is “I’ll do it tomorrow.” In saying that, you expect to be a stronger and more motivated person tomorrow than today. How will that happen if you don’t go to the gym?

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Know that not all gyms are the same.

Not all gyms follow a pushy sales model. If you feel uneasy about listening to an aggressive salesperson, certain franchise gyms like 24 Hour Fitness allow you to join online.

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Often, local boutique gyms focus more on the welcoming, inclusive feel. They believe that sells the gym—not a fancy sales spiel.

You do not need to fall into the predatory schemes of gyms.

By following the expert tips, you can avoid another wallet-draining gym membership—you simply need a healthy dose of motivation to transform your old habits. Set small but attainable fitness goals, remember the tips above…and keep walking through your gym’s front door.

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