Helping new exercisers feel at-ease in your club

Getting members - especially those new to exercise - to feel more comfortable about the fitness assessment process can create a challenge. After all, how many deconditioned members do you know who really want to hear exactly how out of shape they are?

"There's a fear of failing," explains Vaughn Marxhausen, director of personal training at the Houstonian Club in Houston.

For many, that fear is difficult to overcome. The onus is on your club's staff to help ease the apprehension.

"What's going to break the barriers is the level of professionalism the trainer brings to the initial confrontation," believes Bob Esquerre, medical exercise specialist and owner of the New York-based Esquerre Fitness Group.

How well the assessor establishes rapport with the new member at the inaugural meeting influences how receptive the deconditioned individual will be to the assessment concept. Those first five to 15 minutes can make or break a membership.

The Comfort Level
"The first thing is to make people feel comfortable; if they're not comfortable, they'll feel antagonized," Esquerre explains. "The purpose is to give the individual a positive fitness experience. If it's negative, he or she will never come back."

Colleen Mayo likes to head new members off at the pass. The fitness director at the Rochester, N.Y., MidTown Athletic Club, she doesn't wait for them to say they're apprehensive about the assessment. She kind of says it for them: "I tell them, 'Most people won't even come into this room. However, you're putting a big investment into the club, and if you don't take baseline measurements now, three months from now you'll be kicking yourself. There's nothing that motivates a person more than seeing actual progress on paper, so you need a baseline.' "

A critical component of the initial conversation is what's known as the Participation Activity Readiness Questionnaire, or PAR-Q. The PAR-Q usually includes about eight to 12 questions designed to identify potential red flags with the member. If there are any medical reasons that would prevent the individual from exercising, those would be addressed during the PAR-Q conversation. "During the discussion," notes Esquerre, "things start to come out that further the conversation and break down additional barriers. You have to basically make them understand that it's OK to feel awkward and to have a little muscle sluggishness. But they should know that it'll go away if they stay with the program."

At the Houstonian, Marxhausen likes to make a gradual transition into the "testing" phase of the initial assessment. "We want the trainers to get acquainted with the member within the first week before we begin testing them," he says.

Each member is given three free sessions with a personal trainer at the start of a membership, one of which is set aside for the fitness evaluation. At that time, the trainers go through a health questionnaire with the new members and discuss various medical issues. "We generally ask, 'What goals do you want to accomplish? ' and 'What, if any, limitations do you have?' " Marxhausen explains. "It's just to get a whole understanding of the client and know what they're feeling and what they want to accomplish."

Fitness assessments not only give trainers a better understanding of members; they also give members a feeling confidence. An evaluation is a good way to build credibility for the education you're trying to bring to the memberships.

"It shows that your advertising is more than just a cattle call for memberships," notes Troy DeMond, owner of Fitness on the Move Lifestyle Center in Fort Myers, Fla., and author of @@IThe Perfect Start Assessment@@SR, geared toward trainers and educators. "Sometimes it enables us to liaison with their physicians and align ourselves with other professionals in the industry to cross market our services."

Take It Easy
As is the case with many new activities, some may be ready to jump headfirst into exercise at the beginning of their membership. In those situations, they're bound to be disappointed if you don't explain the process to them thoroughly. If your club starts new members off with a fitness evaluation, make sure they know they won't be hitting the ground running during the initial evaluation.

"The trainer has to be up front with the member, as far as what will happen in that session because sometimes they're ready to start exercising," suggests Marxhausen. "When the trainer says, 'Fill out this paperwork, and let's measure your body fat,' many will respond, 'I thought we were going to work out.' They see it almost as a let-down or a big negative."

While negativity is something you certainly don't want, sensitivity is a must. Keep in mind that all assessment components may not be appropriate for all individuals at the outset. Which ones you perform will vary from person to person. For instance, if a new member is noticeably obese, it's not a good idea to take the person's percent body fat, unless he or she requests it. "You know there's a problem there; you'll worry about it later," Esquerre advises. "I'm not going to take girth measurements. If they're wide, they're wide. I'm not going to abuse them and make them feel humiliated. The purpose is to get them active."

What often works is simply asking members what their weight is instead of actually measuring it. "Their answer will be their perception," he notes. "Of course, they'll probably err on the conservative side, but that's OK."

Esquerre probably wouldn't put an obese individual on a VO2 bike initially. It's more likely the person would be put on a treadmill with very low intensity. "And you should definitely take blood pressure," Esquerre suggests. "That's basic."

DeMond agrees that you can postpone many assessment items until an individual is more comfortable with them. In addition to body fat and weight measurements, flexibility can be tested later. "What we try to do is get a resting blood pressure on them and give them some kind of minimal submaximal cardio test," he reveals. "The items that would upset them can always wait."

Additionally, DeMond cautions that you should take great care when explaining your objectives to the new member. DeMond's trainers tell individuals that the initial tests are a baseline with a set of objective goals within a fitness program. "We tell them that we know there are some subjective things they want to accomplish, but we want measurable data that will show regular improvements in a few months," he explains.

Time to Follow-Up
When the time comes for the reassessment, members are, for the most part, quite excited about seeing their results. It's a real motivation booster when they show measurable results of substantial progress. "We as fitness professionals know that the greatest changes will occur in he first three to four months of regular exercise," DeMond observes. So, what better time for a reassessment than three or four months after the kickoff?

And, as most fitness professionals can attest, there's no comparison to the moment when a member actually sees improvement. According to Mid-Town's Mayo, "That's when they're hooked."

Members are usually aware of the unmeasurable effects of exercise, such as feeling better overall, but they're doubly motivated when they see in writing that their cardiovascular fitness has improved. "It confirms for them that they have had the positive experience they set out to have," Mayo offers.

But what if some people don't achieve the results they wanted? Or, what happens if, heaven forbid, their fitness level deteriorated? Don't fret, for it's not a setback. In fact, it's an opportunity. "It gives us a chance to ask, 'What are you doing incorrectly, and what areas do we need to look at more closely to correct it?' " Mayo adds. "I see it as a positive thing. If it's getting worse or not changing, we'll say, 'Let's change what you're doing a little bit.' "

Of course, one retest is never enough. Re-evaluation should be a regular part of a fitness program. "You should definitely have a periodic re-evaluation," DeMond advises. "Not only does it provide positive reinforcement for the exerciser, but it also adds a profit center to the club."

Fitness on the Move charges $40 per re-evaluation, with about 75 percent of the membership getting reassessed. Nonmembers also can come in for a $40 assessment. That often has led to individuals purchasing memberships at the club, DeMond is happy to report. "And when members know you perform more assessments than other clubs, they may feel a little more security in being there," he believes.

Fitness on the Move sends out cards to members at the three-month mark to remind them to get a reassessment. And the club gives personal trainers half of the assessment revenue, providing a strong incentive for following up. "It also helps them by allowing them to pick up personal training leads," DeMond notes. "It's a captive-type audience for them."

After the first reassessment, don't be too hasty. Members may see a big difference between the initial assessment and the first retest, but the results become less dramatic over time. While the first retest should be administered a few months into the exercise routine, the next one should occur about nine months after that. In the meantime, explain to them that plateaus don't mean improvements have ceased. Give them tips on how to keep their gains coming, using fitness assessments as proof of their success.

"[Members] want direction," says DeMond. "They want to be educated on what to do, how to do it. Assessment is just one way to get them into the loop and feel confident, while you bring further business to the facility."


Assessing Assessments

What's the deal with this fitness assessment thing? Here are some of the components of an evaluation.

* PAR-Q: This stands for Participation Activity Readiness Questionnaire. It usually includes between eight and 12 questions on health and medical history.

* Blood Pressure: A basic component in an assessment. Most new members will have little problem with the test because they've gained a familiarity with the process from years of doctor visits.

* Resting Heart Rate: Heart rate monitors can be used to determine resting heart rate. It can also be done through the old-fashion watch-and-pulse method.

* VO2 Test: Another cardiovascular test, this one measures an individual's oxygen capacity. Usually, a heart rate monitor is attached to the exerciser's chest while he or she pedals on a bike.

* Body Fat: In the past, the caliper was the only method of measuring an individual's percent body fat. While it's still used, new technology enables the test to be performed in a matter of seconds.

* Girth Measurement: This can be accomplished with a simple tape measure.

* Weight: Any professional-type scale is ideal.

* Flexibility: Usually, an individual sits on a specially marked mat, stretching his or her legs forward. The member performs a basic toe touch. The mat shows how flexible the individual is by indicating how far he or she has reached.

* Strength: The member performs a simple strength exercise, such as a bicep curl. This component gives a baseline of the exerciser's strength, which will be tested later.

* Physiological Age: This is a numerical measure telling exercisers with whichchronological age their fitness level most closely corresponds. The number of push-ups people can do or stairs they can climb in a given period of time are examples of tests performed to help measure physiological age. New software exists to help exercisers calculate the age based on their personal data.

- J.C.