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MFA News: News/Press Releases

Maximizing Retention through Group Fitness

Wednesday, August 22, 2012   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Stephanie Marquart
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Sharon Stiteler, Group Fitness/Aquatic Coordinator MS
Augusta Health Lifetime Fitness Center, Fishersville Va. 22939

Membership retention is a main concern for all Medical Fitness centers whether the center claims private, profit, non-profit or commercial status. According to Dhurup and Surujlal (2010), targeting, acquiring and retaining the right members are at the core of many successful service organizations. Augusta Health Lifetime Fitness Center is no different. Retaining members is of utmost important to the success of the 2011 Medical Fitness Facility of the Year. Recognizing the need to take care of your members is the first step in combating high attrition.

Members with unmet needs are not likely to stay at a fitness center where they are not relationally (feel a part of) involved (Dhurup and Surujlal, 2010). According to Gormley (2011), the cost of gaining a new member in your fitness club is seven times more expensive than retaining an old one. Gormley lists ways that you can help retain members. Sixth on the list is to "Get Members Active in the Club, ASAP” either by getting them in a fitness program which is free with their membership or one-on-one personal training right away (Gormley).

Tom Kulp (2011), president of Mid-Atlantic Club Management Association, an association that focuses on fitness club retention efforts states that retention is reliant on programs and people that want to make members excited to come into your facility day after day. Kulp states that clubs tend to cater to the "fit” members, leaving the "unfit” member feeling awkward and not wanting to join our facilities. The key to retention efforts is to integrate new members into programs and services that suit the members’ needs. (Kulp)

This article will focus on recent research on retention through group exercise classes and the role of membership and the group exercise instructor in the new member integration process.

Group fitness classes already exist as part of the basic membership in most facilities. Augusta Health Lifetime offers a large variety of base line classes to the membership without an additional cost. Personal training and specialty programs such as TRX or Martial Arts can also benefit retention, but many members are not willing or able to shoulder the additional financial commitment. Group fitness classes included as part of the basic membership offer the perfect place to begin the journey of life long exercise and tap into relational involvement to meet members’ needs.

Group cohesion, "A dynamic process which is reflected in the tendency of a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its instrumental and objectives and/or for the satisfaction of member affective needs” (Christensen et al.,2006 p. 678), social support, "evidence toward a strong association” (Christensen et al., 2006) and positive leadership were found to be the main reasons that members adhere to a group at Augusta Health Lifetime Fitness Center (Stiteler, 2012). If clubs recognize the need to get their members plugged in to a support system early in the membership, retention efforts become much easier. Research on the social nature of an exercise class has found it to be important for adherence behavior (Loughead, Coleman, & Carron, (2001). Loughead, Colman, and Carron state that a participant in a highly task cohesive class setting has a moderate to large effect on adherence and that strong social support is well documented to aid in the adherence. This implies that the stronger the task and social bond by the individual exercisers the more likelihood of adherence (Loughead et al.).

Research as early as 1996, states the 50% of exercisers drop out within 6 months (Annesi, 1996). Members involved in group exercise classes have a tendency to visit the club more often and attending fitness classes have been shown to increase adherence and retention. Members that are relationally involved have a tendency to adhere to classes and retain their membership for a longer period of time.

Group fitness classes are not always introduced to new members effectively. Membership representatives tour potential members and show the group fitness studios, pools, cycling studio and other group areas of the medical fitness center, but fail to engage the new member into the group fitness arena. Membership representatives are likely the first contact a potential member has with the facility. Untrained or non-participating membership representatives are less likely to steer potential members into group fitness classes without personal knowledge or experience with these classes. Training the membership team to evaluate the members’ needs and placing them into a class where they can meet other members with similar goals is a critical first step in helping the member feel at home at the facility. Membership Service Representatives can follow a few simple steps to set the stage for success when encountering potential members.

A) Get to know the members past exercise history as well as likes and dislikes about exercise

B) Ask questions about medical history that pertain to exercise

C) Introduce members to staff that will be involved in the direct care of the members

D) Find out some fun personal likes and dislikes about the members

E) Look for mutual interests to break the ice

F) Call the person by name throughout the process

G) Do not let the member leave without a plan, either an orientation, class schedule specific to their likes, or a personal training session

H) Follow up with the member for at least 90 days

The next step to member success lies in the hands of the group exercise instructor. The instructor has the crucial job of getting to know and introducing the new members to other members. Instructors can also help members find success in the group setting, or send the member to a group where they can find success. Other ways instructors contribute to group adherence is by remembering members’ names, communicating with them and genuinely caring for members who attend their classes. If instructors do not take the initiative the member will never feel part of your team and will eventually drop out. Instructors can make members feel welcome in the following ways:

A) Make eye contact and smile at every member in your class at some point during the hour

B) If you see a new member, ask their name and use it several times during the class to remember it and also to offer encouragement throughout the class

C) Be available for questions after class

D) If you feel a member did not connect with a class, make an effort to talk to them after class and ask them about their day, offer to help them if they were struggling with a specific exercise or introduce them to other members

E) Correct poor form, but be careful how you do it, try a general approach first

If your class is not the right fitness fit for that member, personally help them find the class for them. If the instructor does not genuinely care for their clients it shows and will impact their classes even if they are good fitness performers or offer good classes.

Members attend group exercise classes for many reasons. Some members do not feel the need to be in a group and are motivated to work on their own. Many members will never set foot inside a group fitness studio. Never close the door on those members or write them off. Circumstances may change. Denise Gargi, a member of Augusta Health Lifetime has never been a group fitness class participant. She is a competitive body builder and has always exercised alone or with her coach. She is highly motivated and prefers to exercise alone. Denise was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2012. As Denise was going through the chemo stage of her treatment she joined the cycling class at Augusta Health Lifetime. Denise says, "I am not a group fitness class person, but at this time in my life, I need the social support of the group to get me through. I can push as hard as I need to or back off when I need to and I know that everyone in that room is pulling for me. It is what I need at this time in my life”.

If I can leave instructors with one piece of advice after 27 years as a group fitness instructor- it is this. It is our responsibility to make every individual feel welcomed in our classes. It may not mean that everyone will like your style, music or the lay out of your classes, but feeling welcomed should never be why a member does not want to come to our classes. Group Fitness Instructors have the unique opportunity to help individuals in a group setting every single day. We have a unique opportunity to not only help people meet their fitness goals but to also make them feel more confident, strong and cared for. We owe it to our facility to do our best to retain the members that we have for the good of the center and the overall health of the member. How does your facility measure up when it comes to maximizing retention through group fitness classes?


  • Annesi, J. (1996). Enhancing exercise motivation. Los Angeles: Leisure Publications, Inc.
  • Christensen U., Schmidt, L., Budtz-Jørgensen, E. & Avlund, K., (2006). Group Cohesion and social support in exercise classes: Results from a danish intervention study. Health Education & Behavior, 33(5), 677-689.
  • Dhurup, M. & Surujlal, J. (2010). A descriptive and factor analytical study of salient retention.  African Journal for Physical, Health Education, Recreation and Dance, 16(2), 184-203.
  • Gormley, B., (2011). Plug the leaks. Fitness Business Canada, January/February 2011, 26-30.
  • Kulp, T. (2011). Focus retention on the right things and a broader audience. Club Industry, June 2011. Penton Media Inc., 18
  • Loughead, T.M., Coleman, M.M., & Carron, A.V., (2001). Investigating the mediational relationship of leadership, class cohesion and adherence in an exercise setting. Small group research: Sage Publications 32:558
  • Stiteler S., (2012). An Exploratory Study of Group Exercise Participants: Factors Contributing to Retention in a Medical Non-Profit Fitness Setting. James Madison University Master Thesis

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