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The Business Side: Motivating Members to Become and Remain Physically Active

Couzelis, Paul M. Ph.D., FAWHP

doi: 10.1249/01.FIT.0000257718.68352.69

Motivating Members to Become and Remain Physically Active.

Paul M. Couzelis, Ph.D., FAWHP, is a founding partner and president of MediFit Corporate Services, Inc., which is a diversified management and consulting company with nationwide interests in worksite health promotion, physical fitness, health screening, and worksite physical therapy. Dr. Couzelis was the 1996 international president of the Association for Worksite Health Promotion (AWHP) and served as chairperson of its Professional Standards Task Force. He also served as the 2001 president of the National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity (NCPPA). Currently, he is an associate editor for ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal® and was part of the writing team that revised the ACSM Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines. He received his B.S. and M.S. from Springfield College and his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from Kent State University.

The front door of the fitness center opens and yet another out-of-shape, hesitant person, often with great trepidation, has decided to enter the strange and frightening world of what they may perceive to be sweaty, good-looking, young, spandex-clad, fit people. Soon, this person, perhaps hoping to exude confidence and enthusiasm, ends up in front of you, the personal trainer (or class instructor, etc.). The things that you do next can impact this person for the rest of his or her life.

The answer to the question of whether this person will be leading an active lifestyle next week, next month, or 20 years from now could easily rest in your hands. The things that you do, or do not do, over the next few moments, days, or weeks can be powerful and, from a business perspective, your ability to do these things well and repeatedly over time may be prime determinants of the long-term success of your career.



This article will not present behavioral theories and terminology, but, rather, will discuss in practical terms some of the things that you can do to facilitate long-term success among your clients who are new to physical activity. Often, teachers or coaches tell us that the greatest satisfaction they experience is when years later a former student tells them about the impact that they had on his or her life; there is no reason why an effective personal trainer or class instructor cannot exert the same kind of powerful impact. Understanding the client in front of you, their motivations, fears, ambitions, and goals, and being appropriately responsive to them, can be far more important than the program that you outline for them.

ACSM has T-shirts that read, "Exercise IS Medicine." Not only is it medicine, in terms of type, frequency, and intensity, but when properly administered, it has the power to permanently change lives by improving self-confidence, physical attractiveness, earning potential, energy, longevity, and health. What else can accomplish that? Certainly not Botox®, aspirin, Lipitor®, or angioplasty. So why is it that about half of clients who begin an activity do not see it through for the long term to permanently experience these benefits? There are many contributing factors, a significant one being motivation.

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Getting Started-Initial Motivation

Obesity, injuries, heart attacks, high blood pressure, appearance, lack of energy and fitness, Kilimanjaro, Boston Marathon, health fears, combating depression, budding relationships, recapturing youth-in today's world, the variety and number of reasons, rational and irrational, that can inspire someone to begin an exercise program is greater than ever before. As the average age of the population continues to climb and the overwhelming evidence of the value and power of physical activity to improve lives continues to mount, this list will undoubtedly expand. This expansion will bring new clients to trainers and fitness leaders for help.

If the client has completed an application that asks about personal goals, those goals can be a good starting point for a discussion about the reason the person came to the gym. However, merely reading and mentioning a listed goal before launching into sets and repetitions is far different than understanding why and how the goal was decided upon. The client's reasons for showing up, or not showing up, and how they feel about how they are doing should be part of your ongoing dialogue. Let us explore a few reasons why clients have selected their goals:

  1. Poor self-image. Some people see themselves as being, in some way, less acceptable than others. They may be quiet and shy and feel that being more fit will help to bring them out of their shell. Others may feel that the weight they have gained embarrasses them among their peers and that getting fit will help to resolve the problem. Physical activity and fitness can contribute to improving self-image. In the early going, individuals with a poor self-image will benefit from your recognition of their efforts and the small improvements in appearance, mood, and attitude that accrue over time. Let them know that you enjoy their company and look forward to seeing them at the gym. If the opportunity presents itself early in their time at the gym, you might want to take a moment to introduce them to others so they feel more socially connected to the environment. If they are making progress, recognize that progress with supportive comments as often as possible.
  2. Lack of energy. In one of the seeming inconsistencies that people often do not understand or believe, participating in exercise, rather than leaving them more tired, gives them more energy to enjoy life. If this is the primary reason for beginning a program, make sure that you do not wear them out in the early going. Plan workouts that will leave the newbie feeling energized, rather than tired after those early workouts. Discuss other energy-sapping issues such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress. Try to optimize your client's opportunities to experience added energy by giving them the tools to understand the things that they can do to improve the situation.
  3. Improved health. Because any one of a plethora of health problems can benefit from physical activity, this motivation can cover any number of short- and long-term injuries and chronic health conditions. The feelings a person has can range from fear and apprehension that this is their last chance to "get healthy" to excitement about getting back into shape after experiencing some temporary physical problem. The more thoroughly you understand the health issue, as well as how the person feels about it, the more this understanding will contribute to your ability to keep the person on track. Providing realistic recognition of progress along the way will contribute to short-term motivation.
  4. Attractiveness. Looking better can be a very powerful motivator; most of us want to look our best, for ourselves as well as for others. If your client wants to improve his or her appearance, then it is important to understand what looking better means for that person. Sometimes it is bigger muscles, sometimes a thinner body; make an effort to understand what the person wants to look like and, more importantly, why they desire to look better. You can assist in managing the person's expectations so that they are realistic regarding the changes that they can expect through exercise and fitness. You also can reinforce their progress through appropriate positive comments related to their goals.
  5. Meeting a physical goal. People sometimes arrive at the gym with a weight goal or the desire to run a 5-km race or climb a mountain. The more that you can "share" that goal by becoming enthusiastic about it and helping the person to feel supported and good about it, the better the chance that they will move forward toward achieving it. Keep it in mind, make reference to it, provide an occasional reality check, and be part of their team.
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Motivational Evolution

For most people, their motivations become more complex and intrinsic soon after beginning a program.

It is important that you, as their first mentor, seek to understand these initial motivations and goals, not only on the first day of their program or class but also on an ongoing basis-because they will strengthen, weaken, change, and evolve as clients strive to improve and their life changes.

Future articles will address the changes in motivation that occur over time and the impact that your actions can have on the client's likelihood of forming a lifelong habit, and, therefore, your likelihood of succeeding as a trainer and a business person.

© 2007 American College of Sports Medicine