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Health Club Management

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Health Club Management

Health Club Management


Talking point: Gymtimidation

In the quest to raise penetration levels, gyms need to appeal to those who would never consider taking out a membership, and this means addressing the issue of gymtimidation. Is this something consumers need to overcome themselves, or can health and fitness operators provide the solution? Kath Hudson reports

By Kath Hudson | Published in Health Club Management 2018 issue 10
Too Fat to Run supports women to exercise / Photo: toofattorun.co.uk
Too Fat to Run supports women to exercise / Photo: toofattorun.co.uk

For those working in the industry who have always been athletic and love exercise, the whole concept of gymtimidation might seem alien. However, most other people are nervous about going beyond the doors of a building – especially one they very often can’t see into.

It’s easy for people to assume everyone else working out is buff and fit, and that they'll look and feel out of place. Worse still is the fear of being watched and judged.

A survey by Cosmopolitan Body highlighted the common anxieties: a feeling of not being fit enough; concerns about not knowing what to do and being too shy to ask; assumptions that the gym will be dominated by regulars who will judge them.

Women are especially worried about being watched by men and even the changing rooms can be a barrier, as only three per cent of women say they're happy walking naked in front of others. Research from Sport England echoes these findings.

Virgin Active is starting to tackle the problem with its Getting to Grips classes, which are aimed at beginners and give a friendly introduction to a range of activities, from stretching to functional training. This gives newbies confidence, as well as the chance to form a community with people who feel the same.

What else could operators be doing to reassure those who feel as though the gym is not for them and to demonstrate that they can be friendly places? We ask the experts.

Lisa O’Keefe,

Director of insight,

Sport England

Lisa O’Keefe
Lisa O’Keefe

Our research shows women can often have negative associations with the gym.

Fear of judgement is a significant and unifying barrier: women are worried about being judged on their appearance, on their ability, and for spending time exercising instead of prioritising other things, for example, their children or studying.

Our This Girl Can survey in May 2018 asked women aged between 14 and 60 about sport and exercise and found that 43 per cent worry about not being fit enough, 29 per cent worry about showing their body and 27 per cent worry about not being good enough.

The women we spoke to identified several improvements which could be made to the gym environment to make them feel more comfortable. Low-level lighting and fewer full-length mirrors – or none at all – would make them feel less exposed.

Staff should be welcoming and friendly: some find it helpful if staff discreetly offer to demonstrate to them how to use the equipment.

The behaviour of other gym users also plays a big role in determining if a participant will return. Many women find gyms a male-dominated environment and find it discouraging to see a lot of men taking up benches or leaving dumbbells lying around.

Gyms can prevent this by establishing gym etiquette for users and offering female-only areas and training sessions.

Fear of judgement doesn’t disappear when women exercise more, but the good news is that many we talk to tell us they find ways to manage their fears. This Girl Can is seeking to reassure women they're not alone in feeling this way and that they can find their own ways to overcome their concerns.

"Fear of judgement doesn't disappear when women exercise more, but the good news is that many we talk to tell us they find ways to manage their fears"

Julie Creffield,


Too Fat to Run

Julie Creffield
Julie Creffield

Gymtimidation is a massive problem, particularly for the kind of women I work with.

It takes a lot of courage to start attending a new fitness group or facility and our experience shows that safe, non-judgemental spaces for plus-size women are very hard to find.

Not all overweight women are new to sport, and not everyone going to the gym wants to lose weight or get a six-pack. I know women worry they'll be judged by other gym users, or patronised by staff.

Often my customers report the personal trainers don’t know how to talk to them about any kind of non weight-related wins, but building strength, confidence, endurance and flexibility are sometimes goals which women find more of a motivator than simple changes on the scales.

Also women often report that unless they're really motivated and have a great programme created for them, its easy just to go through the motions of turning up at the gym, but not really achieving anything.

Operators could make a few changes which would immediately make gyms feel less intimidating. Take away unnecessary mirrors for a start, and do more body positivity training for staff – especially young male instructors who couldn’t possibly be expected to understand the trials and tribulations of an overweight middle-aged woman.

I would also like to see more opportunities for members to have regular conversations with staff and fellow gym users about goals. I was a member of a gym for two years and can’t remember being approached by anyone after my initial induction.

"My customers report that personal trainers don't know how to talk to them about any kind of non-weight related wins, but building strength, confidence and endurace can be more of a motivator"

Too Fat to Run supports women to exercise / Photo: toofattorun.co.uk
Too Fat to Run supports women to exercise / Photo: toofattorun.co.uk

Dave Wright,



Dave Wright
Dave Wright

In general, exercise is an intimidating subject: many people decide it's not for them, because they believe everyone who goes to the gym is in great shape.

This is a hard one to market against, because if you say a lot of people who go to the gym aren't in shape, then people think 'what’s the point?'

The way home products are marketed is frequently also unhelpful, because the focus is on gyms being intimidating.

The team at the club are fundamental to overcoming gymtimidation and we could learn a lot from the hospitality industry and how they treat their clients, in order to make everyone feel comfortable.

There are a lot of highly-educated fitness professionals in the industry who know a lot about the anatomy of the body, but have no idea when it comes to people skills and how to read body language.

Getting the layout of the club right is imperative when it comes to making people feel comfortable. Notice the direction your equipment is facing compared with the flow of traffic and you'll soon realise if you need to re-position any kit to offer people more privacy.

Getting members connected with as many people as possible with similar goals is also helpful. Organising social events, such as guided walks in the community, sends out the message that gyms cater for ‘normal’ people, while testimonials from people of all shapes and sizes are important in building trust.

The industry has a reputation for taking a one size fits all approach, not taking into consideration the fitness levels of participants and focussing too much on power, speed and strength, which can be demotivating. We believe rewarding effort is vital and a great leveller.

"The industry has a reputation for taking a one size fits all approach and not taking into consideration the fitness levels of participants"

Gym floor layouts can make or break the experience / Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Gym floor layouts can make or break the experience / Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Mark Talley,

Group fitness development manager,

Everyone Active

Mark Talley
Mark Talley

Local authority operators generally have less of an issue with gymtimidation than private operators, because many people have grown up being familiar with their their local leisure centre and are likely to have visited at some point, even if they haven’t been a member of the gym.

That said, it is something to which we are paying attention.

Gymtimidation is partly caused by the preconceptions people have, as well as the uncertainty in terms of what to expect, so we try to remove these barriers.

To this end, we've launched our member journey online, so people can do all the nerve-making stuff at home, including personal goal setting, downloading their training programme and even completing their induction, via on-demand training videos.

There are also videos about what to expect on their first visit, such as remembering to bring £1 for the locker and how to swipe their membership card on entry. All this gives them confidence and means they won’t be marked out as a newbie, feel overwhelmed, or have to ask for help if they don't want to.

As operators we must never forget how intimidating it feels to be in a new environment and we need to make sure the messaging and imagery we use for marketing is inclusive.

Building closer ties with the local community and extending beyond the four walls of the gym is another way of being seen as more friendly and attracting and resassuring new members.

"We've launched our member journey online, so people can do all the 'nerve-making' stuff at home, including goal-setting and completing their induction"

Everyone Active now has an online member journey / Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
Everyone Active now has an online member journey / Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
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