The “deconditioned market.” Talk to any club operator about this population and you may get two reactions — simultaneously. First, club operators recognize the potential that this market offers, almost as if it's a tease to the bottom line of membership revenue. At the same time, many club operators are frustrated at this ever-elusive market because there has been no across-the-board success strategy as to how to reach these people.

In fact, it wasn't until three years ago, when I started the HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS weight loss & lifestyle program that I began to make significant insights and inroads into attracting this population into a commercial fitness facility. That doesn't mean we don't still struggle to find better ways to improve response rates; there will always be room for greater market penetration. Our membership base of around 900 at our weight loss centers has less than 3 percent of members who have ever joined a traditional health club. This finding shocked me. In discussing this with other club operators the logical question they ask is, “What are you doing to attract these people?” This article will share those insights and offer strategies to grow your membership base with deconditioned members.

To begin with, let's define “deconditioned.” As a verb, decondition means “to cause to lose physical fitness.” Therefore, if we use the word as a noun (which really isn't grammatically correct) and say “deconditioned,” we're talking about a person or group of people who are out of shape. Given that definition, it is no wonder that health clubs have been trying for decades to attract this population. Consider these statistics:

  • The American population is around 288 million. Of those 288 million, about 190 million are between the ages of 16 and 65.

  • According to the Center for Disease Control's latest statistics, 64.5 percent of Americans are overweight, with almost 33 percent being clinically obese. This is up more than 30 percent since 1980.

  • Childhood and teenage obesity has almost tripled in the last decade.

  • Obesity is the second leading cause of deaths in America, only second to tobacco use.

    The first two sets of statistics imply that there are about 123 million out of shape Americans in the prime age category for a health club membership. This doesn't take into consideration that there is a percentage of the population that is out of shape but not overweight. Anyway you look at it there is a large percentage of the population that is deconditioned. What is humbling, however, are the statistics from the other end of the spectrum. Even with the high numbers of deconditioned people in the United States.

  • The International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) reports that just a little more than 12 percent of the American population (33.8 million) are members of a health club.

  • The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) has recently reported that 20 percent of the American population (51 million) engages in some form of regular physical fitness activity.

  • The bottom line is that health clubs have not done a good job of bringing the deconditioned population into a fitness facility. The approach health clubs use isn't working. Something has to change if, as an industry, we are to see significant growth and market penetration.

    HOW THE DECONDITIONED MIND SET IS DIFFERENT

    What makes the lack of penetration into the deconditioned market even more frustrating is the fact that previous research done through IHRSA by Dr. Christine Brooks at the University of Michigan identified the major reasons why American consumers don't step foot inside a health club. Such concerns as intimidation, fear of not fitting in and fear of not being able to physically do what is asked of them were among the primary reasons people cited for not exploring a health club opportunity — even when they had an interest in becoming more fit. Yet, even knowing the barriers, clubs have had little success at attracting the deconditioned. What I have learned is that in addition to the barriers to entry cited by Dr. Brooks, the fact is that the deconditioned person has a different mind set than the average health club member. These differences include:

  • The average deconditioned person does not revel in the thought of exercise. This may not seem much different than the average health club member who struggles to get to the gym — but there is a difference in degrees. One dislikes the thought but joined. The other won't even come explore the membership opportunity.

  • The average deconditioned person is not interested in fitness — he or she is more interested in health. Such things as reducing knee and back discomfort, lowering blood pressure or cholesterol, decreasing risk of osteoporosis and getting off medications are of primary concern. Being fit may be what they “need” to relieve those conditions, but it is the health concerns they “want,” and wants are what drives the motivation to act on buying.

  • The average deconditioned person doesn't understand the basics of a fitness program, never mind understand or even appreciate the latest gadgetry exercise equipment has to offer. For them, simple is better because simple is doable.

  • Finally, and perhaps most important, the average deconditioned person wants information and education because with it comes greater certainty about starting an exercise program and making the right choice about what to do and where to join.

  • Although these things may not seem like big insights, the implications they carry to how health cub operators attract and service the deconditioned market are significant.

    CHANGING STRATEGIES TO MEET THE MIND SET

    When I got into the weight loss industry three years ago, I knew little about the deconditioned mind set. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that a weight loss center attracts deconditioned individuals I probably still wouldn't know much more. However, because 97 percent of people walking through the doors of HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS were typical “deconditioned” people, the health club sales presentation and service models had to be adopted to meet the needs of the clientele.

    Four basic elements must be present when selling to and servicing the deconditioned market. They are education, orientation, structure, and motivation and accountability. Let's take a closer look at each, identifying key insights and strategies.

    EDUCATION

    As was mentioned earlier, deconditioned individuals know little about fitness and usually have questions about all areas of the fitness process. This includes such basics as understanding the elements of a complete exercise program to learning how to work out, to what to expect and what types of changes they should look forward to in a given period of time.

    In order to facilitate the educational process, at HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS, we do a number of things. First, at the initial consultation, customers are taken through a detailed body composition analysis and full explanation of lean body mass, fat body mass and hydration level. Several minutes are taken to ensure they understand the impact lean body mass has on long-term health and weight loss efforts.

    Next, the tour and product presentation is laid out in a flip chart format so the clients understand how the program works, what the time frame is for their goals and what they will be doing during each stage of the process. This ensures there are no unanswered questions about the program.

    Once the deconditioned individuals become members, there are a series of audiotapes and CDs to reinforce what they have learned and further educate them on the most common questions before they even think of them. Two added bonuses to these audio programs are consistency and credibility. Members see them as a wonderful value-added piece and the club doesn't have to worry about different employees giving conflicting information.

    By incorporating a high level of education before and after the sale, the centers enjoy a better closing rate with less experienced salespeople and more educated consumers who understand and believe in their decision to incorporate healthy lifestyle habits into their daily routine.

    CLUB APPLICATION

    Be sure that your marketing efforts provide educational information — even if this means you have to mail additional materials or send prospects to your Web site. Remember, these people want information to influence them and assure them.

    Use “advertorial” type advertisements. These written pieces look more like a column in the newspaper than a display advertisement. Write on topics that interest the deconditioned and make it a regular feature (once a week or every other week) so that the public begins to read it with regularity.

    Be certain to incorporate lots of testimonial advertising and photos in your marketing pieces. Provide the reader with details of how featured individuals lowered their blood pressure, relieved back pain or eliminated a prescription drug as a result of exercise participation. In addition, inserting information about helpful club integration programs and overall comfort in the facility is powerful.

    Once the sales process has concluded, members find themselves in the uncomfortable position of using a place and a bunch of equipment that is foreign to them. Because of their level of intimidation toward health clubs in general, the orientation process is of major importance to deconditioned members. At HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS, we schedule circuit orientation classes at least four times per week in various time slots and members must attend. During these orientations members are given a brief educational presentation on the type of equipment, features, benefits and basic usage. Then, instruction on each station is done, followed by actual participation by all in attendance. This type of structure accomplishes two things simultaneously — it ensures proper usage and builds camaraderie and relationships between members and staff.

    At a larger health club, in addition to proper equipment orientations, a general club orientation could be developed that runs once or twice a month. This orientation would cover an overview of the club, a question and answer period, and include staff introductions. Some clubs I have worked with in the past opened this event up to missed guests, giving them a chance to learn more about the club and get their questions asked. So, not only will it provide for a more comprehensive orientation to the club but can also second as a selling tool.

    STRUCTURE

    For many health clubs, the equipment orientation process is the last bit of structure new members receive unless they seek out additional services or attention. At HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS we realized that ongoing structure is what deconditioned members need in order to stick with a program. Therefore, our members are required to visit the facility three times per week and they check in with a lifestyle consultant. Once a week, clients gets their blood pressure checked and once a month they get an updated body composition test and get re-measured.

    The structure of the program is clear for members and, therefore, they feel more comfortable because expectations are understood and achievable for them. Such structure allows new members to begin a habit of regular participation. Combined with adequate education and a detailed orientation process, new members are on their way to success. However, being on your way to success and succeeding are two different things, and that is where the final element comes into play.

    MOTIVATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY

    The education, orientation and structure help deconditioned members to succeed, but it's the on-going motivation and accountability that ensures success. The challenge in the fitness industry is that in order to keep members motivated, you need to be in contact with them. This becomes a major problem when the members don't show up. Establishing accountability is a prerequisite.

    At HEALTHY INSPIRATIONS we use Twin Oaks member management software to track attendance, but what we do with that information makes the difference.

    First, we have it set up that by Wednesday of any given week we identify who has not been to the facility. With that report we begin calling those members. If they continue to miss workouts for more than a week, after three phone calls and one message a post card is sent. This type of system, including e-mails continues until the member either gets back on track or tells us they won't be continuing. The result is greater compliance and members who know we care.

    I am not suggesting that a health club with more than a thousand members at any given time can make personal phone calls to every member who hasn't been into the club in a week. The next question, therefore, becomes, how can such contact be accomplished to fit into the existing model?

    One possibility is by using the Internet and club management software. You can interface the club usage software into an e-mail system that would automatically send out messages to members who have been absent from the club. Another possibility would be to invest in an auto-dialer phone system that worked on the same premise where member tracking identifies who receives a courtesy call.

    However it is accomplished, keeping members accountable and motivated is a must. As an industry we know that the one thing that directly affects retention is usage. Although many factors influence usage, creating a system where members are contacted more often about sticking with their program is the first step to keeping them.

    By creating an approach that incorporates education, orientation, structure, and accountability and motivation, your club will be able to provide the type of programs and solutions deconditioned consumers are looking for.

    THE BALL IS ROLLING

    Regardless of the challenges, now is the time to put effort into attracting more deconditioned members into your club. Just consider these facts.

  • In 1996 the U.S. Surgeon General released the first report on the health benefits of regular physical activity and the health dangers of sedentary living.

  • In 2001, the Surgeon General released a “National Action Plan” on preventing obesity and overweight in America.

  • Congress recently passed the IMPACT bill and the PEP bill, showing the concern the country has about the overweight and obesity problems our nation is facing.

  • Recently, President Bush rolled out a “Healthier US Initiative” program to motivate Americans to live healthier lifestyles.

  • Every week more studies are released showing that physical activity helps to fight many chronic illnesses, like Type II diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, many forms of cancer, high blood pressure, cholesterol, stroke, osteoporosis and depression.

  • Whether you have to put together a group of club employees to tackle the issue of attracting deconditioned members or form a coalition amongst peers in your community, compile what you know about deconditioned individuals and find new and better ways to reach them in your marketplace while adapting your media images to make them comfortable about visiting. Doing so will lead to greater success in your business and personal fulfillment in your life.