The Real Reasons People With Weight Issues Don’t Join Gyms 1

Why don't more overweight people go to the gym to lose weight?

The Real Reasons Overweight People Don’t Join Gyms

According to the numbers from the Center of Disease Control, two thirds of Americans are overweight and even more fall into the category of being obese. We know conclusively that being over one’s ideal weight increases the risk of everything from heart disease to Type II diabetes, not to mention the potential mental anguish from a negative body image. We also know that exercise can be a major force in helping people get into better shape and to improving their health, so why don’t more people join gyms and start exercising? It sounds like a simple solution yet only a third of people who are overweight meet the National Institute of Health’s exercise recommendations. Given these facts one has to assume that there are other issues stopping more people from joining gyms that we are not bringing into focus.

Often I hear people who already have made exercise a part of their lives talk about how easy it is for America to reverse the obesity epidemic. In a very shallow and unsympathetic manner they will proclaim that people are just lazy and too set on sitting in front of a television with a remote control and a bag of chips to do anything about their weight problem. If you have a poor body image, all you need to do is to get off of your behind and hit the gym- that simple. I hear such ignorance so often that is sickens me and from people in the industry that should really know better. I don’t think that you need to have a degree in behavioral sciences to understand that simple black and white approaches to real human problems ignore the basic truth that our actions are based on emotions, not on logic. We are not machines and thus for there to be a real solution to a problem, it must come from an understanding of the emotions that those problems can bring about. Any other approach simply will not work and while the gym industry is indeed a multi-billion dollar enterprise, the overwhelming majority of Americans that really need their services do not have a membership. Let’s take a real hard look at why that is.

Fallacy: People Who Are Overweight Don’t Know That Exercise Is Important

Even if you live in a small cave, I am pretty sure that you, like the rest of the world are aware that exercise is not only important but that it can help you lose weight and live longer. It’s no secret and pouring more money solely into increased health and fitness education is not the answer. People who are overweight or obese actually are stronger believers in the importance of exercise than their regular weight counterparts. According to a survey of over 1,500 men and women done by researchers at the Washington Medical Center soon to be published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, people that have weight issues are well aware that exercise is a key factor in improving their body image and their overall health. With the constant cues from the media and their physicians this should not come as a surprise to anyone although recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of conventional exercise programs for weight loss, (and with good reason- See my post: Is Exercise Effective) it is still medically accepted that exercise does reduce the health risks associated with being overweight and improves self esteem.

Truth: People Who Are Overweight Don’t Join Gyms Because They Are Self Conscious


Stop and think for a minute, if you were overweight, obese, or simply didn’t feel that great about your body, how would you feel about going into a hip sports club advertised on television and flyers as being filled with fit and trim beautiful men and women? If you felt some degree of trepidation then you would begin to understand what so many really feel. The study found that most overweight men and women dislike the idea of sweating and exerting themselves in front of younger and more svelte gym-goers, and this was their primary reason for not joining a health club. This feeling of self consciousness is obviously even more prevalent in women than with men. Women are far more likely to feel pressured to wear trendy and sexy clothes while in the gym and to feel embarrassed about training in front of members of the opposite sex. They also are far less likely to try to use a complicated piece of machinery for fear of looking ridiculous if they use it incorrectly. These fears are very real and can do quite a lot to stop someone from making positive steps towards improving their health.

Truth: Lack of Motivation Isn’t Why Most People Don’t Exercise

So in the end laziness and lack of motivation really are not as much a part of the equation as some would think. Many people don’t join health clubs because they hate the idea of going into an environment where they would feel out of place, and understandably so. In the study only about 18 percent were members of a health club. That means that a full 82 percent were not going to a gym because of their negative feelings towards their perception of what a health club environment would be, and I can say with authority that you don’t necessarily have to be overweight or obese to be intimidated by going to a gym. Of all the clients that I have trained over the course of almost two decades, most of them who had never worked out in a gym before expressed some trepidation about going there for the first time. This negative feeling towards health clubs held true whether they saw themselves as being overweight or underweight and is one that I think most people can relate to feeling at some point, but what are some solutions?

One Solution: Independent Hardcore Gyms Over Health Club Chains

When started training some twenty-one years ago I was a scrawny teenager. At almost six feet and weighing 125lbs soaking wet, to say that I was self conscious about my appearance would be a serious understatement. At the time the idea of joining a gym filled me with a genuine sense of terror. I was so certain that I would be ridiculed that I started lifting weights in earnest at home in order to get into decent enough shape to be able to go to the gym!
It took two months before I mustered the courage to join a hardcore gym not too far away from where I lived and it was one of the best decisions of my life. Everyone there was so focused on their training that no one even noticed that I was there. There was also a real sense of community and the regulars took it upon themselves to take me under their wings and teach me the ropes. The rest you could say is history and I owe my successful career as a natural bodybuilder and personal trainer to the support I got in the gym during those early years.

Many tell similar stories at neighborhood independent gyms across the country. You would think that in such hardcore places would be the last place where someone who was overweight would not fit in, but nothing could be further from the truth. In a spandex free environment where everyone is focused on achieving their goals you don’t feel like you have to be part of a scene the way you would at some of the commercial health club chains. To this day I have never had a membership at a commercial health club chain and I have always based my personal training service out of more hardcore independent gyms. With the high intensity training that I do an environment where everyone else is serious as well is extremely important and my clients have always done exceptionally well in these settings and felt more comfortable regardless of how they look. Commercial gyms have a lot that needs to change if they wish to reach out to the majority of the population, and from a business world perspective it would also make them more profitable (although to be honest people waste millions of dollars every year on gym memberships that they never really use, but that’s material for another article.)

Other Solutions: Less Judgement More Action

Society as a whole has to stop equating people’s character with their weight or activity levels- it isn’t always as simple as joining a gym and people in the industry also have to be more understanding just how difficult it can be to join a gym. Hiring a personal trainer can be a great way to be introduced to the gym environment without feeling like you are going in all by yourself. True the prospect of working with someone that looks just like the people that you might find intimidating at the gym can be a daunting one, but there are a lot of trainers out there like myself who do understand the issues, and as a rule hiring an out of shape trainer is seldom ever a good idea.

Some in the industry think that by lowering the bar it will help more people feel comfortable about working with a trainer, but all it does in the end is make it less likely for the client to be successful. If you are drowning you wouldn’t turn to someone that was having difficulty in the water as well for help, you would look to a strong swimmer and the same applies to personal training. Every trainer is different, though and you may have to shop around to find one that is both understanding and knowledgeable.

Another great idea is starting with a partner or a group of people you know that are already working out. In any case starting an exercise program can be as exhilarating as it is frightening, so the next time you see someone starting out in your gym, take the headphones off for a second and make them feel welcome, it does make a difference.

Get a copy of Kevin’s free weight loss ebook here!

Kevin Richardson- celebrity Personal Trainer New York City is the creator of Naturally Intense™ High Intensity Training, a lifetime natural bodybuilder, head of Naturally Intense™ Personal Trainers NYC and one of the most sought after NYC personal trainer.

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