The Blog of Dr Paul Bedford
Do gym competitions or challenges improve member retention or adherence?
The thing to consider is what's motivating people to exercise. There’s often a presumption that health and fitness people are competitive, but I'm not sure that's true for everyone that goes to the gym.
Internal and External Motivation
Some people are internally motivated to train, they'll turn up every day and put a lot of effort into it. Others are more externally motivated, where they're training for other reasons than training itself. The research around internal and external motivation suggests internally motivated members are more likely to stick to exercise.
Association vs Disassociation
But does that also mean they're more likely to be competitive? A couple of other things need to be taken into consideration. The concept of association and disassociation. Some people like to disassociate when exercising. This means they use external sources to distract them from the discomfort of exercise. We commonly see this in people using treadmills with the TV on or listening to music on their iPod or iPhone. It’s unlikely the people who use exercise in this way would look to compete or get involved in challenges.
Then we have those who associate. They are more focused on themselves and how they feel while working out. Using a treadmill again as a comparison, someone who's more associated will be looking at their distances, times, maybe their split times and their heart rate. They'll be looking for the machine to give feedback on their work out in order to make more decisions about how they're going train, both now and in the future. People who are more associated are more likely to join in competitions.
I don't think it's true to say just because someone is competitive outside of the exercise and fitness environment they're going to be competitive in the exercise and fitness environment too. I competed in cycling time trials, cycling road races and in martial arts, but never had any enthusiasm to participate in gym competitions, partly because I didn't think they tested what I was actually good at.
Mind the Gap
Looking at the different sexes, men are more likely to compete on a comparison basis. They look to see what other men, or even other women, are doing and compare themselves. There's research around this compare and contrast topic, where one man running on the treadmill will look at the speed of another man or woman next to them and increase their speed to either match or surpass them.
Author and lecturer, Kathleen DeBoer wrote an excellent book on gender and competition, describing how men and women treat competitions differently. Men are much more likely to go for the outright win and want to be the number one. Whereas on the whole, women are more likely to enjoy the participation of competition, as opposed to the outright winning.
For women, if it was a fair game, a good competition and they feel they did well, that’s more important than just winning. Whereas for men it's much more about where did I place, how fast did I run and who did I beat? We have to take this into consideration when looking at gym challenges.
Ranking it up
The types of competitions you often see in health clubs are what I call ranked competitions. This might be a challenge to see who can do the most chin ups or the most press ups or who can row 2,000 metres. You get a ranking. In the gym a board says your name and your time, and can compare that to others.
This is a motivator for some in that they'll be looking to see where they fit, where they ranked against other members and enjoy being part of that process. But you'll also find members who don't enjoy that process. When I’m teaching I'll use an anecdote where I talk about my mum coming into the gym, learning how to use the concept2 rower and then participating in a 2,000m challenge. She rows the 2,000 metres in about 12 minutes, puts her time up on the board, only to come in the following week to see someone has rowed the same distance in just 6:12. That can completely demoralise people taking part for the first time, so we have to balance out these ranked competitions. If I was still running facilities I would include ranked competitions from time to time, but I wouldn't make them all ranked.
I can do that
The other type of challenge you can include is achievement or participation, where everyone in the gym has the opportunity to take part. Let's say the April challenge is to cover 42.2km by treadmill, bike or rower - the same distance as the London marathon. You're not saying who's the fastest or who's doing it in the least amount of workouts. You're simply saying, throughout April, how many people can do that and get recognition for their achievement. It’s not too dissimilar to the way companies like Orange Theory Fitness, 1Rebel and Boom, more boutique-style gyms, use accomplishment as a target. Your name goes on the wall and you get recognition for your achievement in terms of participation, as opposed to being ranked against other people’s fitness levels.
When I worked with Elixia in Norway and Finland between 30 to 40% of their members would get involved in participation competitions. It creates huge camaraderie around ‘have you done your workout?’ ‘Where are you in achieving the goal?’
We don’t see that level of participation with ranked competitions, except maybe in the competitive-type weight lifting clubs or cross-fit facilities. Cross-fit has done a really good job of building their community around both achievement and participation style competitions. For instance, you can see how much of the workout of the day (WOD) you have completed. That's about you, against you. It’s internal measurement rather than externally measuring you against the person next to you. But they also include the ranking element within their business model and so generally speaking the type of member that joins a cross-fit facility is the type that will take part in competitions.
Cashing in on external events
Whereas a large number of people going to the gym, even if they're competitive outside of the gym, perhaps doing triathlons or running and cycling activities, even things like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Colour Run, train to be competitive elsewhere, and may not be looking to be competitive in the gym environment. So look at external motivators.
These events have seen a massive growth in popularity over the last few years. Open your club as a place of your training for them. Even within one event, you've got both ranked and achievement motivators. Think about how many people participate to win in those events versus how many participate to complete them.
On this theme, setting a Personal Best achievement challenge is another way of including competitions within your club without excluding anyone. When I was doing time-trials in cycling the idea was to set your personal best for that distance.
Another way to get members involved in challenges is to hold in-club competitions where you get small bands of people involved in groups of four. You might use the three power lifting lifts, deadlift, squat and bench press and see how much weight four people can lift in a given period of time or over a set number of exercises. Then you could compete not just as individuals, but as a group. You might also compete against other clubs.
Equally you could get involved in local charity fun runs and activities. This way a lot of members not participating will still go along to support the members involved. If there's a 5k fun run, 10 people might run as a group or even as individuals with their club branded t-shirts on. But other members will come down to support them, which helps build a really good sense of community within the business. So you don't always need to be competing to be involved in the competitive side of what's going on.
Walking the line
It’s important to look at the advantages and disadvantages of running challenges within your club. The advantages are it’s a test, enabling members to see where they fit or how much they’ve improved, either by setting a personal best or their ranking against others. That's where you get the competitive side.
The disadvantage is that you could lose and be publicly humiliated with a really poor time. We know when people are uncomfortable in an environment self-protection theory kicks in, which means they'll avoid that environment. If you don't set the challenge up carefully, you could actually lose members.
So make sure you have a mix of achievement, participation and ranked competitions and don’t run them too frequently. Alternate them every couple of months, spreading them out across the year. Also, mix it up in terms of individual and team.
When I ran clubs we ran competitions four or five times a year. Some times ranked and other times achievement based. We made sure people had time to prepare, setting out programmes to give people an opportunity to train towards type of competition we would be doing. This also gave us the chance to upgrade members’ programmes and interact with them at the same time.
Think about what it is you're trying to achieve. Is the goal to see who's the fittest in the club or is it to try and build a community and loyalty within your facility and increase visit frequency? Because we certainly know community, loyalty and visit frequency positively impact retention.