Sometimes the gym doesn't fix it

Tue, Jan 6, 2009, 00:00

Don't pay a gym membership just to keep the place affordable for the actual regulars, writes Emmet Malone

LIKE PETS, fitness programmes really aren't supposed to be just for the holiday season, yet this is the time of year when thousands of Irish people will invariably spend large sums of money on joining gyms only to achieve, in many cases, nothing more than keep the places affordable for the actual regulars.

According to a wide-ranging recent study by the International Health, Racquet and Sports club Association (IHRSA), about one in 10 Irish people is a member of a health club or gym but when the organisation took a sample from five of Europe's bigger countries it found that some 42 per cent of members rarely, if ever, set foot in the club they've joined.

Brendan Hackett, a former club owner and chief executive of the Athletics Association of Ireland (AAI), whose current company, Motions Health and Fitness, trains instructors and runs a number of staff gyms for major international companies, is adamant that, in the right circumstances, the clubs have a huge amount to offer, but puts the drop-out rate of those who flock to buy memberships each January at about the 60 per cent mark. He attributes this figure to a mix of poorly informed choices by customers and equally poor support from those who are supposed to be providing advice and encouragement.

"The industry," he says, "has changed and not necessarily in a good way. Twenty years ago there were a lot of small options, but now you tend to find bigger companies opening huge facilities so that they can deal with large numbers of people.

"The fact is that, at its core, it's a people business not an equipment business. The problem is that the most basic thing people need is help and support because their knowledge is limited and their motivation precarious but that help's not always there."

Another common difficulty, he suggests, particularly for even slightly older users is an inability to make a connection with the staff who work at many gyms.

"People in their 20s are looking for a six-pack or really toned body, but through their 30s, 40s and 50s the emphasis gradually shifts from keeping or taking weight off, to just trying to stay healthy, but sometimes you find a health club has hired its staff straight out of a course and, with the best will in the world, those people often lack the life experience to relate to the customers they're dealing with.

"That's why when you're thinking of joining somewhere it's really important to see beyond the rows of machines. Look at the floor, at the level of supervision and the age profile of the people providing it. You should see people and they should be people you would feel able to engage with comfortably about what your goals are and how they can help you achieve them."

It's important, too, not to get drawn in by facilities you're not going to use, he suggests. Swimming pools routinely feature prominently in literature and are used as a way of persuading would-be members to hand over their money, but they are generally among the least-used facilities at a club.

The advice, says Hackett, is to carefully weigh up what you're going to use before you pay for it. Swimming is a great form of exercise so top-end clubs with pools, saunas and the like may end up providing good value if you become a regular or spend time there with your family, while clubs with a lot of high- spec equipment but little support are just fine for people who really know what they're doing before they walk in the door. Most of us, though, need something somewhere in between if our memberships aren't going to turn out to be one-month wonders.

"Well, there's really no point going to a health club unless you're pretty sure about what you want to achieve," says Rossa McDermott of Fitness Concepts, a company that has worked with many of the Republic's gyms, including Peak Fitness which opened a few months ago in Bray.

"In Germany there is a chain called McFit now and membership is something like €16 per month but you pay for everything on top of that - towels, coaching and the like - it's a sort of Ryanair approach, but it works well for a lot of people [the company almost doubled its membership to 550,000 in the two years to December 2007]. But for most people who want to lose weight or improve fitness, particularly those trying to do it after Christmas, help is required and certainly any of the better gyms should take an active interest in helping you to achieve what you set out to do.

"In the past," he concedes, "there may have been a belief in some quarters that the best members were the ones who kept up the direct debits but never actually came to the club."

Really, though, the better clubs would always have taken much more of an interest and in the current environment there's bound to be a shift towards retention even among the owners who didn't care much before because people aren't going to be joining on a whim in the sort of numbers they used to.

"Still," he cautions, "if you're not going to be a user and you're just doing it to tick a box then price should certainly be the main factor. Certainly, if it's not what you want to do then it's going to be pretty difficult to get any results.

"But if you really want to get fit or lose weight then the choice should be between going to a gym that is willing and able to help you achieve those goals or doing some other form of exercise which might well just consist of walking briskly, maybe with friends, and getting your heart rate to the right level for a bit every couple of days."

The latter approach is the one favoured by people such as Mary Jennings, who provides tailored coaching and advice to groups and individuals both in person and over the internet.

Her company, Revive Fitness, has attracted steadily increasing numbers since she established it a couple of years ago to provide a wide range of advice and support to those aiming to become healthier. She has just launched a new website, forgetthegym.ie.

"What I typically try to do is start people off walking and progress it to jogging, from one lamppost to the next at the outset and then upwards from there. There's a great sense of achievement for people who feel that they're improving which," she insists, "is often not the case with the gym.

"Last year we had people who had never really run before completing races from 5k right up to marathons. Of course, a marathon isn't going to be for everyone.

"You have to work out what the right target is for each individual but when somebody does achieve something like that, it's not just the person's fitness and health that is improved, often their sense of self- worth is increased immensely. Basically, these people are doing things that they never thought they'd be capable of."

Women provide the majority of Jennings's market and they are the half of the population that the AAI has targeted with its Fit4Life project, an attempt to get recreational runners into clubs that previously might have focused only on competitive athletes.

"The objective is to bring women together to train in a social environment," says Sinead Galvin, the association's marketing manager.

"The clubs provide coaching, encouragement and advice on healthy lifestyles. There's far more of a connection made than in gyms where people can end up feeling very isolated."

The number of the clubs set to participate in the scheme during this its second year has more than doubled to 52 and the organisation's director of development, Jacqui Freyne, believes that all parties involved have been quick to appreciate the benefits.

"It's been terribly well received," she says. "It did take a while for clubs to really take the recreational runner into the fold, but a great many of them now realise that by expanding their membership in this way and also by bringing more kids in, they also breathe new life into their organisations.

"For those joining, it's been very successful because it's a low-cost, low-effort sort of way of getting into it.

"There's a €15 registration fee with some clubs charging a one-off fee of up to a fiver for lights or other minor expenses. After that you just need a pair of runners."

Freyne is hoping that a tie-in with the women's mini-marathon will result in up to 5,000 women preparing for the event through the association's programme.

For many of them, it'll be five months longer than their resolutions lasted this time last year.

Five to strive for in 2009

• March 22nd: Connemarathon. There's a marathon and ultra marathon on the same day, but our recommendation is the half marathon. It's a tough enough course to run but the rugged beauty of the setting more than compensates for those who make the effort, as the annual sell-out status proves. www.connemarathon.com

• April 5th: The Great Irish Run (Phoenix Park, 10k). A good target for those pulling on their running shoes as part of a new year's resolution. Even if you're starting from scratch, the distance should prove attainable and it could provide the foundation for something more substantial over the summer. www.greatrun.org

• June 1st: Flora Women's mini marathon: Reckoned to be the biggest women's road race in the world, this has become something of a phenomenon over the years. There's a terrific atmosphere and an awful lot of money raised for charity and if there's a downside it's that the huge number make actually running it a little difficult. www.womensminimarathon.ie