By: Rachel Bachman. Wall Street Journal
People with the noble New Year’s resolution to work out or work out more should mark their calendars: That resolve starts to waver in the third week in January, data shows. The pattern shows how difficult it is to make a new habit stick. Attendance is a delicate part of a gym’s business. Gyms need new members but face regulars who complain about crowds, waits and the poor etiquette of January newcomers.
Check-ins on Facebook to facilities with “gym” or “fitness” in the name drop 10% in February, according to two years of Facebook data. The decline starts as early as the third week in January, Facebook researchers say. This dip comes after a more than 50% surge from December as people chase vows to lose weight or get fit.
It takes about 66 days to form a habit, according to a 2009 study by researchers at University College London. Setting a specific goal is more effective than vague vows to work out more. A new habit should be realistic enough to be reachable but challenging enough to be worthwhile, experts say.
One strategy for sticking to a workout resolution is to create plans specifying when, where and how you will take action, says Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at New York University who studies how goals and plans affect behavior. An example, he says, is thinking, “After I have my cup of coffee every Saturday morning, I will put on my shoes and go running.” Usage at Denver’s Pura Vida Fitness and Spa surges as much as 80% in January, general manager Keith Moore says. “What we find is that it’s no longer you who controls the behavior,” Dr. Gollwitzer says. “The situation triggers the action.”
People who falter on their resolutions in January don’t necessarily wait a year to start over. Last year, gym check-ins on Facebook in March surpassed even those for January: more than 4 million check-ins, compared with 3.9 million. The check-ins leveled off in the summer and bottomed out in November at 3.3 million. To tally check-ins, Facebook examined data from its 186 million active monthly users in the U.S. One theory about the increase in March check-ins is the motivation to get in shape for spring break vacations.
A check-in occurs when Facebook users tap the Check In button on their page—typically via smartphone—or “pin” their location on a Facebook post. A friend can also check someone in by tagging him or her in a post. Check-ins are noted on the user’s Facebook page. They run on the honor system, and the annual totals include repeat visits by the same user. Check-ins in this analysis excluded people who exercised at home, outside or at a facility without the words “gym” or “fitness” in the name.
Social scientists say what gets people to stick to new habits can be counterintuitive. While a body of research holds that telling a friend your resolution can help you stick with a new habit, broadcasting your intention to work out could backfire. Dr. Gollwitzer concluded in four separate studies of students that the public airing of identity-related intentions—like a New Year’s resolution to get in shape—actually can hinder progress. One of the four groups that Dr. Gollwitzer and his co-authors studied was law students. Those who told others about their intentions—like reading law periodicals regularly—said they felt closer to becoming a lawyer than those whose intentions stayed private. The act of making their intentions public gave them a premature sense of completion, the researchers concluded. “If you have that identity—you want to be fit—indicating to others that you’re going to move forward by doing all kinds of things might actually lead to inaction,” Dr. Gollwitzer says. “You have convinced yourself that you are on your way.”
People who start gym memberships in January often have been putting off exercise, says Deb Praver, a group-fitness instructor at the Crunch Gym in Burbank, Calif. She teaches a cardio-and-strength class. Ms. Praver, who also works as a stand-up comedian, makes self-deprecating jokes to disarm new arrivals who might feel intimidated. “I’ll come in and be like, ‘I just had a really big dinner last night and my tights are screaming,’ ” she says. She introduces herself to new members and at the end of class invites them to come back. People who hide in the back of the class, or are reluctant to give their names or chat afterward, are unlikely to return, she says. Leading for-profit health clubs lose nearly 30% of their members each year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. The annual attrition rate for lower-cost clubs is closer to 50%, experts say.
Life Time Fitness is a health club and spa chain based in Chanhassen, Minn. Jeff Zwiefel, chief operating officer, says that local club officials call a new member five times in the first month of membership—the first time after just three days—and again after three months. They make sure that members are satisfied with their club experience, and ask if there is anything they can do to help with fitness goals. The club officials make the calls whether new members come into the gym or not. Mr. Zwiefel says the company’s retention rate is better than the industry average.
A study by Stanford University found that people who received regular phone calls about physical activity were exercising significantly more six months later than people who received no calls.
Orangetheory Fitness, which has nearly 200 locations in the U.S., is centered on trainer-led group workouts that target each member’s optimal heart rate. The club strongly encourages new members to schedule their first month of workouts ahead of time. “If they’re not on a schedule, they tend to fall off the routine,” CEO Dave Long says.
A common rookie mistake is to become dazzled by muscle-bound veterans, says Sahil Mulla, a fitness consultant in Toronto who teaches powerlifting. “I call this the spectator mode,” Mr. Mulla says. As a result, the entranced newcomers don’t make much progress on their own workouts. Sometimes the January crowds themselves can discourage people. In January 2011, Tim Bauer of Fullerton, Calif., weighed about 390 pounds and was still new to working out. He was bewildered to find his health club mobbed in the first few weeks of the year. The low-impact cardio machines he had been using were often occupied. So Mr. Bauer developed a plan. If his usual equipment, a rowing machine, was taken, he had a backup in mind: an elliptical machine. If that was full, he went to Plan C: the treadmill.
Having a list of priorities prevented “decision fatigue” and short-circuited excuses to skip workouts, he says. Mr. Bauer, director of client relations for a construction firm, kept up his workout regimen and lost 228 pounds in about 1½ years. He also plotted his workouts ahead of time on a Google calendar and gave a fit friend access to it. “He knew from 5 to 6 a.m., I was scheduled to do back and biceps,” Mr. Bauer says. “He would call me and say, ‘How was the workout?’ ”