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The Good Soul IHRSA Series - Part 4: The Future Fitness Consumers (The motivational factor)

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Why do people exercise at a gym, health club or fitness studio? And are the motivating factors – whatever they are – likely to change thanks to the pandemic?

These are the questions we’re exploring in this, our fourth article on what the future fitness consumers will look like.

In the first three articles, we’ve covered:

• What fitness looks like ATM, 18 months into the pandemic (To read Part 1, click HERE)

• How clubs are still people’s favorite place to exercise (To read Part 2, click HERE)

• Why digital is not the enemy of facilities (To read Part 3, click HERE)

These articles mark our roll into IHRSA in Dallas (13-15 October), and IHRSA Smart Summit in Munich (17-19 November), where we look forward to fist bumping you IRL. We’re hosting short, sharp mobile meetings to share the epic shifts in talent acquisition and look forward to raising a glass with you at the bar.

Motivation - an inside or outside job?

Thanks to social media, it’s safe to say there is a burpee, an air jack and kettle bell swing being performed every second of every day on every continent. Scrolling is enough to HIIT us with whiplash each week, trying to keep up with #MotivationMonday #ToneupTuesday #FlexFriday and #SupersetSaturday.

And that’s just the businesses. Then there are all the solopreneurs and born-again athletes who went from being picked last for the sports team to finding their meaning of life deep in the red zone or asana - and are now ready to share that, and their one-month challenge, with the world. All mats lead to enlightenment, it seems.

But what of motivation?

The power of the #hashtag

All this activity is inspiring, but is it much ado about nothing? Does this approach actually work? Does yelling at us louder and more often have a positive effect or does it wash over us like previous ad generations, where we cognizantly and collectively becomie more obese while continuing to sit down and supersize our meals.

So do these #ActuallyWork? And will they work in a world transformed by a pandemic?

In the absence of good, stiff empirical hashtag, data let’s go with The Next Fitness Consumer report, which shares substantiating insights when it comes to the reasons why people choose to exercise. For starters, there are two forms of motivation fueling consumer motivation to do anything. These are motivations which arise from “outside” (extrinsic) or “inside” (intrinsic) an individual.

Extrinsic – keep your eye on the prize

Extrinsic motivation describes a person engaging in tasks or behavior because they hope to either gain a reward or avoid punishment from an external source. In short, we are motivated by pleasure and pain.

For example, a student preparing meticulously for an exam may do so for a good grade. The same student may then take on an internship they detest, but go through with it because it looks great on the resume. Ultimately they may end up in a job they hate but being well paid for it. This has been a journey of extrinsic motivation and while some boxes were checked on the way through, like money and status - fulfilment and happiness were not.

In fitness terms extrinsic motivators include your doctor prescribing exercise to you, your partner shoving you out the door, or mirror, mirror on the wall – having its way with you.

Intrinsic – I’m loving it

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is all about personal fulfillment and comes from inside. People who do something because they love it, or hope to improve themselves in some way, are doing it for an intrinsic reason. The reward, therefore, comes from within and is self-generated.

We intrinsically chase our passions – things that give us a sense of joy from deep inside like stumbling into the Friday night karaoke-bar to belt out our beloved songs. Going for the feelgood factor at our local charity or satisfying our curiosity by quietly learning a language at home.

So what? And how does this relate to the fitness industry and health clubs? Well, as The Next Fitness Consumer report states, clubs and facility operators – as well as apps and other digital providers – fundamentally need to understand both types of motivation in order to satisfy the future fitness consumers who walks through the door post-pandemic.


The report surveyed physically active US consumers to gauge what their motivations are for joining and staying as club members. In all, it identified 12 intrinsic behaviors and 31 extrinsic ones.

Let’s take a look at the main intrinsic motivators fueling respondents:

  • Long term health benefits of exercise

  • The benefits of working out are important to me

  • I have specific fitness goals

  • It teaches me self-discipline

  • I enjoy it

Nothing overly surprising here. Do the work and the work works on you. It’s clear that stepping onto the fitness flywheel delivers a continuous cycle of health and happiness. Turning up (consistently), as they say, is half the battle.

This is not to say that club operators should dismiss the intrinsic factors. Quite the contrary. The pandemic and all its side effects of inactivity, fridge visits, loneliness and captivity have spawned a desire to get back into the world with a vengeance and armed with a new set of priorities.

There have been a couple of forces at play.

  1. The good old education card – people with underlying health issues have an increased chance of becoming sick and dying. Actually, this has always been the case, ask anyone who works in accident and emergency. But it just wasn’t on the news every night for 18 months. We have been re-schooled!

  2. Reverse psychology. If you want someone to do something. Tell them they can’t.

The newly woke “health member” has emerged. Life just became a little more precious. The relationship between moving the body and calming the mind – inextricably linked. The desire to be with others in a quest to do better – paramount.

Gyms and studios are welcoming a broader demographic as together they reach into the 80% previously oblivious to our services.

Every coin has a flipside of course and the less positive – but also much less common – intrinsic factors include:

  • Feeling pressure from other people to workout

  • Feeling pushed to workout

  • Feeling that other people won’t be pleased if I quit working out

  • Because my friends work out

The fact that these are motivations, but not very prevalent, is interesting. It suggest that future fitness consumers are much more about the carrot than the stick. They don’t enjoy being told they should do more. Or that they won’t “fit the crowd” if they don’t hit the gym.

PTs - To yell or not to yell? This is the question. Those demanding “5 more” across the board may want to mix it up for those clients who want to bathe in the benefits of their sessions.

Groupies get benefits

And group fitness classes have a huge advantage, highlighted by a Les Mills study, which touts enjoyment as a huge repeat motivator. People who work out together work out more often because there is inherently more variety (less boredom), more camaraderie (between each other), higher endorphin hit (work harder alongside others) and better performance (because we come more regularly).

Youth just wanna have fun

The Next Consumer report also states that the intrinsic motivations don’t judge and are largely the same, regardless of age or sex. There were two important exceptions, however.

Turns out that 18 to 24-year-olds want to work out “because it’s fun.” This is a unique motivation to their age group only and offers optics to clubs and studios to tap into. Offering young people gym experiences that focus on enjoyment – rather than the results achieved – could be much more successful than a #HashtagAboutAbs.

Older members are more likely to engage in activities that are focused on particular results – preferably ones they can measure and compare.

This finding emphasises what clever club operators already know. Your club offer might be exactly the same to all of your members – but having different messaging to target different age groups is important. Younger people recognise the fun side of working out. Older members do it to stay healthy.

Venus and Mars

There are a couple of gender nuances when it comes to extrinsic motivations.

The report states: “Slightly higher on the list for women are two factors: exercise helps to cope with daily pressures and there’s a sense of pleasure given with discovering new levels of personal growth through exercise. With men, however, the idea of working out as a ‘chosen way of life’ ranks higher.”

Capeesh? Well, if you want more female members, highlight the release that a workout offers. For men, build up your club as an integral part of who they are.

External affairs

So what does the report tell us about extrinsic motivations when it comes to exercising? Well, among the most popular ones are:

  • I see improvement with my physical appearance

  • It makes me feel good

  • I feel a sense of accomplishment

  • It improves my mental acuity

  • It builds my self confidence

  • It helps me cope with daily pressures

  • Training hard will improve performance in other areas of life

What does this tell us? For one, that the future fitness consumers’ extrinsic motivations will remain rooted in the feeling that fitness gives you something. A better version of you – both physically and mentally.

These external prizes are important for operators to understand, because clubs can take ownership of some of them. Campaigns that promote the positive results still work – as long as they are specific and members who want them can see or measure the improvements.

Stay tuned for the fifth and final part of our series on the future fitness consumers, when we explore how (and why) people are still likely to use big box gyms as we emerge from the pandemic.

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