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By Lilly Prince

It’s a well-known fact that people join fitness centres because they offer opportunities for social interaction in a variety of forms. To name just a few: to develop new friendships and a sense of community, to spend time with others with similar goals, to employ peer pressure to achieve those goals, and to make use of trainers and instructors to maintain motivation.

With so many different ways to interact within a club, it can be a challenge for operators to determine which offerings or programs best satisfy their members’ need for social interaction, and to ascertain if that interaction actually keeps them happy and renewing their memberships. But what if you had the chance to ask 10,000 people what works for them? What would you learn about your own club?

Fortunately, a new report has done just that, and sheds some light on these issues. One of its principal findings: group exercise is key to good member retention.
According to a study in the latest issue of the IHRSA Member Retention Report, based on an extensive study of club members in the UK, members who choose group exercise are likely to remain members longer than ones who generally work out by themselves on the gym floor.

This study, the TRP 10,000, is the largest and most comprehensive survey of member behaviour ever carried out in the health and fitness club industry, and was conducted by IHRSA in partnership with The Retention People (TRP), a UK-based consulting firm. The respondents completed a baseline questionnaire on their exercise habits and membership behaviour between July and September 2013, and were tracked until the end of January of this year.

This ongoing study will touch upon numerous aspects of member behaviour, with results being published quarterly. IHRSA also plans to conduct similar research in North America in concert with TRP.

“It’s no surprise that members who make meaningful connections with other people in their club – whether it’s with another member, a trainer, or a group exercise instructor – are more likely to stick around,” explains Jay Ablondi,“The TRP 10,000 is an incredible accomplishment,” observes Joe Moore, IHRSA’s president and CEO. 

IHRSA’s executive vice president of global products. “However, it hasn’t always been clear that group exercise classes, alone, have a direct impact on membership. This report is especially valuable because, for the first time, it explores the behaviour of two important groups – group exercise class participants and more isolated members who tend to work out on their own.”“Thanks to this study, the industry has increased its collective understanding of consumer behaviour. The findings will have a major impact on club operations for years to come.”


The study first looked at all the activities that members participate in when they visit their club. Working out on the gym floor is clearly the most common pursuit, followed, respectively, by taking part in an exercise class, swimming, group cycling classes, and personal training. Of course, many members often do
more than one thing. Most frequently, the survey respondents combine working out on the gym floor with taking a class or swimming.

The study also reveals important information about activity choices with respect to age, gender, length of membership, frequency of visits, and club history. According to the results, women are more likely than men to attend exercise classes, while men are more likely to prefer gym-only workouts. Another interesting finding is that class attendance increases with age. When the researchers then studied the retention rates of both groups, they found that retention was higher for
group exercisers than for gym-only members; the latter were 56 per cent more likely to cancel their membership than the group exercise enthusiasts.

The researchers also realised that it was important to test whether differences in cancellation rates could be directly attributed to class participation or whether other factors were involved. This led to one of the report’s most important revelations.

After standardisation – the process of eliminating those other factors – the report found that group exercisers were still 26 per cent less likely to cancel than gym-only members. Obviously, there’s something unique about group activities that leads to better retention, which can’t be fully explained by gender, age, length of membership, club history, or visit frequency. 

“You could argue that social contact is responsible for keeping members engaged,” points out the report’s author, Melvyn Hillsdon, an associate professor of exercise and health behaviour at the University of Exeter, in Exeter, Devon, England.

The numbers back up that assertion. The TRP 10,000 survey also asked members about their reasons for going to the club, and has identified the strongest motivators in both groups. “The biggest difference between the gym-only and group exercise members is social motivation,” notes Hillsdon.

He reports that, while 58 per cent of group exercise members said that social motivation was a primary reason for attending a club, only 48 per cent of gym-only members said the same.


If retention is higher among group exercisers, then clubs may want to focus on promoting more social interaction with regard to exercise. “The report makes
a strong case for offering compelling group exercise programs,” says Claire Holmes, the general manager at TRP. “It also suggests that club operators should think
about offering programs that attract individual members, or groups of members, who normally aren’t interested in group activities.”

Hillsdon says there are reasons for their reluctance; some people, for instance, delay joining a class due to embarrassment or a lack of confidence. “Many people tend to start off small in the club – for instance, just using the treadmill and a few of the weight machines,” he says. “They tell themselves, ‘I’ll get good, and then I’ll do a class.’”

Therefore, it’s important to inspire confidence right from the start, he says – possibly by offering an introductory class, or by employing some sort of ‘buddy system’ to allay a member’s fears. Holmes echoes that suggestion, pointing out that, in addition to improving retention, group exercise plays a positive role in increasing the frequency of visits and extending the length of membership. Clubs, she says, should definitely introduce new members to group exercise from the very start.

IHRSA members can download a free PDF of the latest issue of the IHRSA Member Retention Report at
Non-members can purchase the report for $29.95 at
– Lilly Prince,

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