The exercise class customer is always right
Gyms need group classes for total beginners. You, the customer, have to push for it.
Writer Amanda Mull recently published a piece for The Atlantic: “What the Fitness Industry Doesn’t Understand.” (Read about Hampton Liu’s excellent beginner exercise YouTube videos in the piece!) It doesn’t understand, Mull writes, that most people walking into gyms or classes for the very first time are walking into scenarios far beyond their abilities, which has the potential for injury both physical and psychological—if you feel utterly adrift, awkward, and incapable in a “beginner” class, you may never come to see exercise as an enjoyable, positive thing:
“What the fitness industry calls a “beginner” is usually someone relatively young and capable who wants to become more conventionally attractive, get swole, or learn a trendy workout such as high-intensity interval training or barre. If you’re a novice looking for a path toward these more intense routines, most of the conventional gyms, fitness studios, and exercise experts that offer them don’t have much for you—come back when you’ve developed on your own the endurance and core strength to avoid barfing, crying, or injuring yourself in the first 10 minutes. The situation is even worse if you have no designs on getting ripped and instead just want to build a baseline of capability, whether that’s for hoisting your toddler, shaking off the stiffness of a desk job, or living independently as you age.”
It’s true—a huge problem with group fitness is that it can assume a level of comfort and ability with exercise that many, many people do not have, and instructors are outnumbered 10, 20, or more to one. I’ve written before about how this lack of personal attention to all participants’ levels of ability is a huge drawback to group fitness classes. I know that because I teach one every week. Trying to teach to 15 people’s varying needs and abilities isn’t always effective, no matter how many times I say, “Listen to your body and go at your own pace!” A lot of people have no clue how to “listen to their body” or what their own pace might be—that’s a sort of bland fitness instructor jargon I wish I could unpack more, but I’ve got less than an hour.
Amanda’s piece also sparked my memory. As a new indoor cycling (“Spinning™”) instructor, a couple years ago I sent an email with a proposal to my gym’s manager: Could I lead and promote a special “brand-new spinners” class where I could take things much slower and go more thoroughly into bike setup, the meaning of verbal cues, and how to get the most out of a class safely and effectively? Could I provide some language and marketing around this class, so people understand it’s welcoming of those who’ve never touched an indoor cycling bike in their lives?
The gym said yes, the class was a hit, and I saw more members come to my regularly-scheduled classes. But: The gym was not going to pay me for more classes outside my regular schedule unless it was clear there was sufficient demand. It must be obvious that existing members will fill these classes, which then in turn will be deemed worthy of promotion in marketing materials to potential members. That’s where you come in. If you are excited about this sort of thing, you—the one giving the gym your dollars, the one the gym hopes to keep—have much greater power to make it happen than I do.
I experience firsthand the trepidation people have about being new to exercise—often when I’ve invited someone to drop into my cycling class as my guest, they’ve said they’ve never done it, it’s scary, it seems too intense, they don’t know how. The industry at large does little to assuage these fears. I and other instructors do offer basic bike setup, form checks, and safety advisories at the beginning of class, but we need more time to help new people and those with questions. (I’ve tweeted about going to class early if you fit this category. I wish more people would.) More importantly, we need to make classes more truly welcoming for those people who are understandably intimidated by handling foreign pieces of equipment and attempting to execute unfamiliar movements with them in the company of perfect strangers.
The best way be more welcoming, as I see it, is for gyms and studios to offer cycling/HIIT/whatever 101-level classes and promote them as a kind of “Couch to Spin Class” or “Lifting Weights for Beginners” format. Another gym I go to offers special sessions like this often; they’ve offered one-off classes or a series of classes, for members and non-members, on mobility and stretching, running, and pull-ups. Imagine an everyday big-box gym offering a series of newbie-friendly “Get Your First Pull-Up” workshops—I know people would be into it.
Beyond gyms’ own ability to market these attractive classes to prospective customers, this further serves their bottom lines: They create a more welcoming space that gets existing members more excited about different class options; then, those members talk about how great their gym is to their friends. Gym trade publications say it themselves: “One area which is consistently the most reliable, cost-effective and most credible way for a new prospect to hear about your club is through word of mouth.”
So: Write your gym an email about how you’d be interested in something like this. Tell the general manager. Talk to your gym friends about it; get a few people together to express interest. Write a nice review on Yelp or Facebook and say it would be even better if the gym did “intro to the format” classes. If you don’t belong to a gym, do a free walk-through tour and mention that “some other gym” (she lives in Canada, you wouldn’t know her) does this and it would be so great if this one did, too. Make a little noise. As always, the market meets the moment. Zumba, yoga, and cycling are offered at most gyms because they’re popular. We should at least try to make true beginner classes popular, too.
What kind of “101” class would you be interested in? Tell me in a comment, pretty please.