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Fitness clubs want you to join; and want you to stay

On the last day of 2012, New Year’s Eve gets most of the attention. But come Tuesday morning, when the champagne is gone and a crisp new calendar is hanging on the wall, many people will find themselves with renewed motivation to get back in shape, eat a healthier diet or take up kickboxing.

A squash game at Meadow Mill Athletic Club on Clipper Mill Road in Baltimore. From left, club members Jim Tillman, Paul Littmann and Jeff Rogers, with club president Nancy Cushman.

For fitness club owners and personal trainers, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Each January, their membership swells, they beef up their exercise classes and their gyms morph into bustling hubs of activity.

“The new year is a time that everybody sort of re-evaluates the year past and the year ahead,” said Sharon Nevins, vice president of marketing for the Maryland Athletic Club. “They ask, ‘What did I achieve and what didn’t I do?’ It’s a chance for starting anew, and health is often at the top of people’s list.”

Nevins said the MAC typically doubles its membership in January, adding about 700 members in that month alone to its three locations. The story is similar elsewhere, including at Meadow Mill Athletic Club in Baltimore, where owner Nancy Cushman said the first three months usually bring in about 30 percent more new members than other months.

But the peak is short-lived. Despite having best intentions, many who sign up as part of a New Year’s resolution don’t stick with their goals, several gym directors said.

Nevins said the industry has traditionally seen about a 50 percent dropoff in membership renewals by March, although that decline has recently been less pronounced, she added.

“A lot of people join and, unfortunately, just don’t use it,” Cushman said. “Maybe they’ll use it for a couple weeks in January and then that’s it. The majority will last to March — maybe April — and then they stop. With exercise, you have to get people doing it regularly enough so that they miss it, and that’s really hard to accomplish in 30 days.”

The idea of a New Year’s resolution is appealing, but people choose not to renew their memberships for a variety of reasons, said Carlo C. DiClemente, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who studies the psychology of exercise and other health-related behaviors.

Many quit because their exercise programs don’t deliver quick, visible results, he said, or because they overexert themselves.

Cushman said she thinks the biggest factor, though, is the weather. When sunny skies and warm temperatures compete for exercise time, indoor equipment often loses out, she said.

Several people said the real challenge is keeping new members — and their membership fees — coming back all year long. To combat the decline and compete with other gyms, fitness clubs play up their strengths and focus on their target members.

Sara Milstein, chief marketing officer at the Y of Central Maryland, said she thinks the Y’s all-encompassing approach sets the center apart from other gyms and defines the target audience as people looking for a broader spectrum of services than just exercise.

That tactic means the Y doesn’t see as great a spike in January memberships — only about a 10 to 12 percent increase, Milstein said — as other clubs that market to the New Year’s crowd. Conversely, she said, the Y doesn’t experience drastic membership reductions a few months later.

“An exercise machine is an exercise machine is an exercise machine,” Milstein said. “You can get that anywhere. I think that our members stick with us largely because here, exercise isn’t an end in and of itself. We work really hard to engage our members and participants so that it’s really about a relationship.”

Everyone agrees the challenge is getting people to commit to their new exercise or wellness habits for the long haul.

Staff at the MAC said they tackle that problem by emphasizing goal-setting.

That strategy has a lot of potential, according to UMBC’s DiClemente.

“What’s got to happen is where the incentive is not, ‘Oh, [membership] is discounted,’” DiClemente said. “The incentive has to be, ‘Oh, I’m feeling better and looking better, and this is really good for me.’ So building a program that gives people early success, as well as some early rewards, is really the best way to do it.”

DiClemente, who is also the director of the HABITS Lab at UMBC, which researches health and addictive behaviors, said starting slow can help retain members, because then they don’t overexert themselves or get scared off by intense initial sessions. Several gym owners said they’ve noticed that issue and are working to address it.

“Obviously, we’re in the business of new memberships, but we’ve found in the last couple of years that the way to get people to come in and be part of your organization is to start smaller, like with an introduction program,” Nevins said. “A lot of people are intimidated or think they need to get fit before they join a health club.”

To ease those fears, the MAC offers a 60-day program for beginners or “the percentage of the population that does not see themselves as card-carrying members of a health club,” Nevins said.

Other fitness clubs also offer introductory classes for beginners. But once people learn to enjoy exercise, they need variety, Cushman said.

At Meadow Mill, squash — a racket sport — is a popular and defining offering, Cushman said.

“Some people are just not into exercise,” Cushman said. “That’s why you have to have a variety of exercise classes so hopefully you can hit upon a couple things someone would enjoy. … And that’s where squash comes in. We offer free access to the courts and free lessons to members to learn the game, because we know that once they start playing, they’ll really enjoy it.”