If you were to stop anyone on the street and ask them whether they think exercise is good for their health, they would undoubtedly answer with an emphatic “yes.” If you then asked them if they exercise, four out of five adults would answer “no.” What accounts for this contradiction?

Individuals who struggle to be active often cite lack of time, lack of resources and/or financial constraints as barriers to exercise. Although these are indeed obstacles, they are barriers that can be managed to an extent by the individual. All anybody really needs to exercise is 30 minutes and a pair of comfortable walking shoes. But even with 30 minutes to spare and a pair of cross trainers, how many people could meet their goals without any help?

Most people need guidance and support to meaningfully address their health and fitness needs. Health clubs are the perfect solution. We have the trainers, the facilities and the social support. So why do Americans stay away from health clubs in droves?

In 1998, an IHRSA study summarized five fears that keep potential members from coming through a club’s front doors:

1. Physique anxiety. Chances are, you have heard someone say, “I need to lose five pounds before I go to the gym.” When trying to picture themselves in a gym environment, many prospective members imagine that they will be surrounded by and compared to spandex-clad men and women with perfect bodies. Images of hyper-muscular bodybuilders and ultra-thin models commonly found in fitness magazines, supplement ads and health club marketing propaganda create an unrealistic picture of the average gym-going population.

2. Fear of looking stupid. Sixty-nine percent of Americans over the age of 16, or 164.5 million people, have never belonged to a health club. They don’t know what to expect, what to wear or how to use any of the equipment. While we as fitness professionals look at the fitness floor and see leg presses, cable crossover columns and Smith machines, the new member sees rows of strange metallic contraptions that they don’t know how to operate.

3. Fear of isolation. One of the biggest benefits of being a health club member is the network of social support, but new members may worry that everyone already knows each other and that they will be outsiders. It’s like being the new kid in school.

4. Fear of looking like a klutz. Attempting unfamiliar exercises in the middle of a busy gym floor requires a lot of self-confidence. If you have ever slipped and fallen as you walked down the street, you were probably embarrassed to end up sprawled across the sidewalk. You likely stole a quick glance around to see if anyone was looking. It is the same discomfort members feel when they drop a weight stack, or the physioball comes out from under them as they learn the ropes.

5. Fear of high-pressure sales tactics. In the 1980s and 1990s, clubs had a lot of churnover. Many people remember the aggressive, cash-focused sales tactics adopted by companies that came and went. In other clubs, lifetime or long-term contracts were common, not to mention difficult for members to cancel when necessary. Unfortunately, the industry has been judged by the actions of these less reputable operators, and the stereotype persists.

Once clubs have identified factors that can negatively influence a prospective member’s decision to join, they can take steps to allay those fears. Next month in part two of this article, we’ll examine ways for club owners to optimize their club’s physical environment and adopt sales and service strategies to mitigate consumer fears.

Phil Wendel opened his first health club, ACAC, in 1984 in Charlottesville, VA. Convinced that gyms should not be just for the young and fit, Wendel set out to operate a health club where everyone would feel comfortable coming to exercise. In Charlottesville’s community of approximately 100,000 people, ACAC has attracted more than 16,000 members of all ages and stages of life. Today, there are four ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers in Charlottesville, one in Richmond, VA, and one in West Chester, PA. Wendel also served as a board member for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association from 2005 to 2009.

Christine Thalwitz is director of communications and research at ACAC Fitness & Wellness Centers. She is an active presenter, continuing education provider and writer for industry publications. Though not particularly athletic as a child, Thalwitz discovered her own path to fitness and for more than 20 years has enjoyed helping others do the same.