Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How to stick to exercise. Is making it fun enough?

I was covering a class the other day, one of the exercises I gave was press-ups. I demonstrated full range press ups and even gave three quarter press ups as an alternative. One lady however, was doing box press ups, half range of movement.

And at first I thought, how can you still be doing poor box press ups after years of coming to classes? In the same class were people who couldn't hold a plank, were doing half range squats or avoiding lunges because of knee issues, complaining of back pain doing press ups or bent over rows or planks. I had to give one lady bird dogs, as that was all she could manage, and another lady alternatives to press ups because of tendonitis, as she couldn't support herself on her hands.

And then I thought, why have you all come to a general exercise class? You all need to get referred out and get all your poor movement patterns and injuries sorted out. Why don't you book in for a tailored one to one program in the gym, rather than going to a general class, why don't you go to an osteopath or physical therapist?

But then I thought, hang on these people have actually made the effort to come to a class. In some cases they have been coming for years, they may not seem to be getting any stronger or changing shape but they are still coming. They have formed the exercise habit. They are in the minority.

Of all the people who join gyms, up to 20% never attend. That's right, they join and then never come back, not even for their gym orientation. Don't forget, that only 12% of the population join a gym, or health club, and of those 2 out of 10 never come back. And after 48 months about 90% of people have left. It's actually a surprise that there is anyone in our gyms and clubs!

So does it matter that these women weren't doing the best exercise program, or that some of their technique was poor, or in my opinion they needed to work on their mobility and strength? After all, they were showing up and doing something on a regular basis. To them smart goals, and the latest exercise science were irrelevant. I guess, they continued to attend because they enjoyed it.

What is fun?

There is a big push to make exercise fun now in the industry. As members who are having fun stay longer. I will examine this later, and explore if it is really true. Plus, there is the crucial question of what is fun.

I read a blog this week, where the author berated this idea. You can read it here . (Note: I don't know this person or their background). On many points, you could say I agree, the industry is full of chancers and pretty much un-regulated on the internet. However, I am that guy who has all the level 4 qualifications and deals with the special populations everyday. BUT, I don't see it as much of a problem that people are following programs off the internet or ones they bought via online advertising.

Because, if people are doing this, it is because we failed as an industry to offer the product that people wanted. And we can moan about that, but we are to blame as well.

Does it matter if people are actually doing something. They are adults. It is highly unlikely that the middle aged woman with high blood pressure is going to buy a 12 week bikini body program off of someone on Instagram, it's just not the market. No more than the obese guy with diabetes is going to join a Crossfit gym, statistically, he isn't joining any gym, and when he does, he probably wont go back.

Yes, the workout put together by some unqualified person on the internet may not be the best or logical, but I've seen classes designed by so called master trainers that made no sense and were completely illogical. As these people hadn't really full grasped the fundamentals either. (Of course, by default, I have to believe what I design and write is better and makes sense).

I spoke to someone recently, who had bought a 12 week program via a trainer on Instagram. The reasons were clear 1) A 12 week program cost the same as a one to one training session 2) She had a session with the trainer, but felt the trainer hadn't really listened to her needs and had written a program that was more about what the trainer liked. 3) The sense of community, people sharing photos and progress online.

So the three things are:
1) Price
2) Listen, product to fit the clients needs
3) Community and support.

This person had no big goals, wasn't looking to step on stage or run a marathon. But she like training, she liked the process, she enjoyed working out, it was fun. And it was challenging and structured.

But what is fun for one person may not be fun for another. As an industry, we have decided that fun needs to be infantile. We have decided, that the mythical client who is put off by the gym and classes is a middle aged woman who likes Zumba. It could be, but it may not be.

Some peoples idea of fun is Zumba, for some, dancing in public is a nightmare (most men). Some people enjoy lifting weights, or doing a crossfit WOD, or running a 100 miles (okay maybe not fun, but satisfying and we will come to that later). There is no universal fun activity. Everyone is different. And there's the rub, you can't be all things to all people.

This is a route to creating a mediocre product for mediocre people.

Mindfulness and Satisfying.

There is something that makes people stick with exercise, and it is satisfaction. The more satisfying exercise is, the more people enjoy it. This is subtlety different from just being fun. But, how can you make exercise more satisfying and more enjoyable? Make it mindful. This article here , in the NY Times, gives a run down of the most recent research. Being more mindful with the exercise, makes you more satisfied with it. But, the habit of exercise has to come before mindfulness.

Mindfulness, means being in the present moment, fully experiencing the activity at hand, and accepting how you feel, moment to moment. (See the work of John Kabat Zinn for more information on mindfulness).

We have built our facilities to be anti mindful.

A True Story.

The other day a lady came to the gym, and due to a technical fault none of the TVs on the treadmills were working. At which point, she said she was going home as she couldn't work out with the television. Despite, the fact that she had already made the trip to the gym, and other equipment still had TV's working, she was going to leave and not workout. She was looking for distraction, the antithesis of mindfulness. For her, exercise without watching Eastenders was intolerable. Of course, she could have watched Danny Dyers haikus and would have got some mindfulness at the same time. (see video below, if you don't live in the UK, you have no idea who Danny Dyer is or what Eastenders is!).

Of course, I will point out that she was still coming to the gym, more than most.

I've known someone cancel their gym membership because they could never watch BBC 24 hour news on the equipment, yep, that was how mindful they were.

We have sold our facilities and products on the premise of distraction. We are saying to the public, we know you wont enjoy this, so why not watch TV or play sudoku. Rather than saying exercise can be enjoyable, satisfying and mindful. BUT, we have to realise that everyones definition of fun and enjoyable differs. There are some commonalities, but people are all individuals and different. What we do know is that certain types of activity promote flow.


The concept of flow was developed by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (professor of psychology and management) with a name that's impossible to pronounce. Whole books have been written on flow, but in short it is:

"In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity" see here

The type of activity where hours seem like minutes. The activity has to be high skill and high challenge to induce flow. In leisure time, the highest flow activities tend to be games, sports and hobbies. Something like watching TV is low skill and low challenge so doesn't really produce flow, but could be a mixture of relaxation, boredom and apathy depending on what you are watching. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

In the context of gyms and fitness, we could consider things like Olympic weightlifting, gymnastic type moves, rock climbing high challenge and high activities likely to produce flow.

Cruising on a cross trainer watching Pointless on the attached TV is low skill and low challenge and more likely to produce boredom and apathy, the opposite of flow and satisfaction and more likely to result in the person never coming back.

And classes...

There is the idea that people come to classes because they want to get told what to do, there is no coaching, there is instructing. You get told what to do and you don't have to think. BUT maybe there is some flow going on here. Yes, something like Yoga has always been considered mindful. However, could the person in Zumba or body attack also be in flow? They are learning new moves and routine, they are being challenged,  their heart rate is up, add in some music and a social atmosphere (socialising can be a flow activity for certain types of personality) and boom you've got a whole room full of people in a flow state; an hour has passed in what seem like minutes, all their worries forgotten and they have booked in for next week.

Yes, these people may not be competing in a complex crossfit WOD, but for them the activity was satisfying and challenging enough.

In conclusion.
  • The members and clients you should focus on are the ones in your facility.
  • 20% of people who join aren't coming back, you could spend all your time chasing them down or focus on the people already in the building.
  • Pareto's law, 80% of your income comes from 20% of your customers. Focus on them. Tailor products to them.
  • Find out what your customers enjoy, what is satisfying and what produces flow for them.
  • This has to also match your values. Be authentic. If for you flow is kettlebells and olympic weightlifting, then you are more likely to be able to sell this. However, don't dismiss the fact that for some people its an LBT class.
  • Machines with TV screens are pretty much anti flow, anti mindful and are not what you want to sell yourself on.
  • I've said it before, there are no special populations anymore, the general population is the special population. Nearly everyone entering your facility will have an injury, ache, niggle or medical problem. Decide how you are going to deal with this. Bear this in mind if you are selling yourself on high intensity fitness. Know your proposition.
  • There is no universal idea if what is fun, find your niche and build it.
  • To beat the people selling programs on Instagram or facebook, you have to provide a better a product. Listen to your customers. Why aren't you selling yourself this way too?
Fun doesn't have to be infantile and it doesn't mean easy either. Sometimes, we have to take things seriously, but sometimes we can have fun, makes something satisfying and educate people at the same time as making them feel better about themselves.

"Matters of great concern should be treated lightly." Master lttei commented, "Matters of small concern should be treated seriously." - Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure.

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) Finding Flow. The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books

The Retention People. 10,000 study

EDX online MOOC course, University of Berkeley. The Science of Happiness.

Danny Dyer words of wisdom.