Design Memorable Exercise Experiences That Last - The Fitness Business Podcast Blog

The blog was originally written for the Fitness Business Podcast. If you would like to read it in its original location click on the link at the bottom of this page.


While most people today know me more for work on retention, attrition and member loyalty, the first half of my career was as a fitness instructor, a personal trainer and a trainer of trainers. Much of this time was focused on anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and exercise program design. I thought I was pretty good at exercise program design but I could never understand why customers and clients wouldn’t stick to these programs that I had crafted for them, and that’s why I began to study psychology.

Two masters degrees, numerous short courses, workshops and a PhD later I am still just a focused on improving exercise adherence and retention.

Much of what I have been reading in the past two years has been in the area of experience design. My rational is if members have a better experience they stay members and we see improved retention. I read a lot on the topic of behavioral psychology, much of it has no direct relationship to fitness and exercise, but within the journal article I read I am looking for clues and ways to translate that research into practical actions health clubs can take.

Three times a week I train with my friend Keith Smith. A 40 minutes weights workout followed by at least that amount of time talking and drinking coffee. We began a discussion one morning on what’s ‘The Perfect Workout?’ How long should the warm up period be, order of exercises, sets, reps and resistance combinations and do we stretch between exercises or at the end.

One of the questions I am now constantly asking myself is “What is the perfect workout?” More precisely what is the perfect workout experience?

There is no single answer to this question but it did make me think about how much time do we spend designing the content of a workout or a GX class and how much thought do we give to designing the overall experience.

In my reading I have been focusing on creating the memory of an experience. What are the factors that make one thing memorable and another forgettable.

Why is it I can remember one Thursday night in the 1980’s at a King Kurt gig, at the original Fridge in Brixton but not what I did five weeks ago on a Thursday?


I get that some of you reading this will be going WHAT is Paul going on about, just give them the workout, yeah but what if we had a better understanding of the differences between experience and memory and the things we can do to design experiences that leave a lasting positive impression, short and long term that encourages the members to come back for more.

You can read a lot about pain management and its impact on thinking in this area if you want to but lets get straight to the work by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman identified the peak-end rule: people’s memories of an experience are based on a rough average of the most intense moment (the peak) and the final moment (the end). 

Likewise, the length of an experience has no impact on people’s memory of it, a concept called duration neglect. What we have learned from studies like Kahneman’s is that the way we remember experiences is not related to the sum of goodness or badness that we experienced. Instead, memory relies on a few key moments and mostly ignores the rest. Experience is a stream, whereas memory is a collection of snapshots.

If you want to make your workout memorable it doesn’t matter how short or long a workout is, but it must have these few key moments, peaks and especially something at the end.

During a workout our brains make an imprint of the key moments, gradually discard the noise of moment-to-moment exercise experience, and heavily weight the peak and end moments.

Kahneman also describes us as having two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. Those selves take in the world in different and sometimes conflicting ways.

On one hand, our experiencing self asks the question, “How do I feel right now?” (think legs day or a Tabata interval) and experiences the world from moment to moment, including feelings like pleasure, frustration, discomfort and pain.

Then I might even ask the question, “How did I feel overall or now that’s its over?”

This why I don’t think the idea that all workouts should be fun holds up. I can experience extreme discomfort during a workout and still enjoy it, but it’s not fun.

This is when the brain interprets experiences after they occur, neglects their duration and focuses on key moments like the peak and end.

Ultimately, your remembering self, is the boss, because it determines what we learn from our experiences. It constructs the story that we tell ourselves about our experiences that determines our future. In other words, was this workout memorable or not, and whether they’re going to do that workout again. The experiencing self was just a passive onlooker to those decisions.

If the memory of an exercise experience can differ so much from the exercise experience itself, and the remembering self is the ultimate decider, should we throw out the whole focus on user experience design? Should we be thinking of ourselves as exercise experience designers or should we be exercise memory designers?

My answer is yes. We should be both.

In the exercise environments we work within, we absolutely need to focus on removing moment-to-moment frustrations, because we should be designing for a workout experience that people can and will complete.

But we also need to consider how that exercise experience translates into positive memories that will make people choose to do this workout again and again and to tell other people about it.

Begin with the end in mind

Think about how your workouts are ending and the ways that may make them feel incomplete for the participant.

We can think about the ending as the most recent time that a user completed a workout. If you’re doing it right, people will have lots of endings, because they’ll keep coming back. As that happens, past endings become just another moment in the overall user experience.

Considered old fashioned as a style of group exercise class, Ad-on aerobics routines, that built up combinations of smaller routines throughout the class but finished with everyone doing a single final routine, in much the same way that choreography builds up a routine in a dance class, this creates a peak end experience.

Which could just as easily be a final single repetition with maximal weight on a descending set.

Kahneman’s research identifies that an experience should have a good start and even better ending. In my experience, endings are more likely to be overlooked. Think about all those classes where people leave during the stretch or cool down phase. Where the instructor says thank you for coming and then quickly turns their back on the class to disconnect their I-pod in order to get to the next class.

Once you have the end, focus on the beginning as these are also crucially important in shaping the exercisers perceptions of your workout. How will you build intensity and complexity. How will you describe what is to come.

Once you have planned your end and you are beginning, you now need to plan for those moments in between.

When people recall their exercise experiences, they factor in key moments, but they tend to ignore the length of the experience.

This means that in some situations, you may have more freedom to control the pace of the user experience than you think you do. When it’s appropriate, look for opportunities to purposefully slow things down to create a better experience.

Instead of focusing on moving exercisers through a workout as fast and intensely as possible, we can add ‘meta moments’. These are tiny moments of reflection that prompt us to think consciously about what we’re experiencing. These can be easily prompted by us during rest periods or transitions, using reflections on effort, achievement and skill development so far. 

Create peaks as well as troughs.

The peak moments within a workout are awesome moments that are memorable. And it turns out that memorable moments have one major quality in common: They tend to carry emotional weight. Human memory is biased towards emotional events. Emotional design is all about going beyond utility and usability to create moments that stand out and get remembered.

If we can incorporate elements of emotional design we help make experiences stick, think that sense of achievement when you learn that bit choreography or establish a new personal best.

Where can we get examples of god experience design, Disney, pretty much every single Disney movie follows the same story format. Disney has made a fortune with this formula for decades.

What is so successful about the format is that it has a high peak during the film and a high ending or, as they’re more commonly known in show business, a climax and a happy ending. Think about how we can finish a workout with a happy ending.

In the work that I do with operators we apply these concepts to design the customer journey and then add to it experience design. While we often do this at the process level of the business, recently we have been looking at this at the individual visit, and at the granular workout level.


The exercise experience and the memory of exercise experience are related but systematically different. Each of us has two selves, the exercise experiencing self and the exercise remembering self, but be aware the remembering self does the learning, judging and deciding, particularly when deciding to repeat the experience.

Your memory is a collection of snapshots that gives extra weight to the most intense moment and the final moment of an experience.

Designing for exercise experience is important, but we should strive to identify those moments that are going to stick in the memory of the exerciser.

In order to do this, we should first pay attention to end of the workout making sure we’re not letting our members down in the final moments of their experience.

Then we should slow down when we can, showing our members that we’re taking the time to take care for them. After that we should go beyond just including exercise or choreography that just fills the time, creating elements of emotional design to create peak moments. Finally, we should be sensitive to the content and experiences paying special attention to the moments that matter most, like the peak and the end.

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