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4 Steps to Build a Positive Fitness Culture


Once a week, I’ll visit my favorite coffee shop here in Ann Arbor, MI. A little place known as Zingerman’s, maybe you’ve heard of them? The amount of love that goes into sourcing the coffee beans, to roasting and finally packaging is a thing of beauty.  As I walk in to grab my cup of joe, I’m greeted by name in a very genuine “non-templated” manner.  I see the same set of baristas behind the counter, who seem to never have bad days.  Before I even have a chance to order, they’re asking if I’d like a red-eye with a side of steamed oat milk again.  We chat for a few minutes about the latest coffee trends as I wait.  In the event I haven’t met a barista, they always go out of their way to introduce themselves to me.  I witness how they interact with each other and other customers in the same appreciative manner as they do with me.  When people ask me about Zingerman’s, the second thing I tell them is how good their coffee is.

As a fitness business owner, I can’t help but notice great cultures when I see them.  While Zingerman’s serves the restaurant industry, many of their cultural pillars are translatable to all service businesses. Positive cultures are those that empower their people, set standards, are purpose driven and appreciate their community.

For all of my fellow fitness facility owners and operators, we’re in the service business more than we’re in the fitness business.  This is more of a reason to invest in building up a positive culture.  If you’re passionate about incorporating the feeling I described above in your fitness business, read below on the 4 best practices evolving fitness leaders have in common.

Fitness Culture Tip 1: Prioritize Your Team So They Can Take Care Of Your Members.

Reading this headline alone may sound somewhat counter intuitive but let me explain.  Serving our community to achieve better health and fitness outcomes is our number one goal.  The best way to ensure that happens is through pouring into the growth and development of the fitness professionals serving them.  The most successful fitness organizations have incredible teams inside of them.

Where fitness owner/operators fall short is by neglecting their team of fitness professionals and continue to focus their direct energy on the urgent priority of financial performance.  It’s important to set aside dedicated time to truly understand each team member as a person.  Find out their dreams, fears, personal story and most importantly, what makes them “tick”.
Much like most fitness leaders are driving by a higher purpose, we must imbue that into each of our team members in order to achieve success and meaning.  Pilot a few of these ice-breaker questions below to get started.

  1. “Tell me what the best version of yourself looks like?”
  2. “Why does achieving your best version matter to you?”
  3. “What’s standing in the way of you getting there?
  4. “How can I help you along the way?”

Fitness Culture Tip 2: Be Mindful of Communication…Verbal and Nonverbal.

“Language creates reality.  Words have power.  Speak always to create joy.” – Deepak Chopra.
Communication extends beyond just words.  Imagery, colors, appearance, and body language are all part of how we communicate with our fitness community.  Let’s begin with verbal language.

If you re-read this article from the top, notice some of the words intentionally used when describing the people involved in your fitness community.  “Team” vs. “Employees”, “Members” vs. “Clients”, “Organization” vs. “Gym”.  Words come with an attached energy that can deeply influence culture.  Using words that empower and unite, vs. label and transact will greatly improve connectivity among your fitness community.

Using intentional language isn’t easy at first.  You’ll most likely catch yourself reverting back to old habits.  Like any behavior change, this takes time and consistency build.  Start with changing one or two words in your vocabulary at a time.
An easy and powerful verbal communication hack is to increase how often you say someone’s name.  Whether it’s a member walking into your fitness facility or a meeting with a team member, saying another person’s name more often than not will have a positive outcome.  According to a 2006 study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development, the human brain involuntarily displays an excitatory response when hearing our own name.

Given the rate at which technological advancements support automation and efficiency, unfortunately leave us with sparse opportunities to reap the benefits of human connection.  Making “name-calling” a standard in your fitness community is a no cost, high reward practice towards a more positive fitness culture.

Nonverbal communication is arguably more important than the words that come out of our mouths as it’s responsible for over 90% communication.  To begin influencing this part of communication, we must first look at the “self”.  Ask yourself, “What are my nonverbals communicating to my fitness community?”.

Take stock of your default mode when it comes to body language.  Facial expressions, posture, gait speed and valuable rapport building technique known as mirroring (all play a crucial role with creating positive energy in your fitness community.  For more on body language, reference this article here.

Once the self is mastered, take a look around at the appearance of yourself, your fitness team and your fitness facility.  What message is being sent based upon the images posted in your fitness facility, the colors and photos in your marketing, the way your fitness team dresses, how clean and orderly your fitness facility is and the list can go on.

If we’re trying to evolve from traditional fitness, we want to move away from images of the young, fit, jacked people in our imagery.  The “fifty-shades-of-black” from the branding color palette should be changed to brighter and more inviting color.  Our team’s wardrobe should evolve from cut-off t-shirts and shorts to a more professional look.  The external appearance of your fitness community should align with our communication efforts.

Fitness Culture Tip #3: Emphasize Health Over Aesthetics.

“Weight loss” and “toning” have ruled when it comes to describing outcomes the fitness industry delivers.  While there isn’t anything wrong achieving a leaner body composition, if we’re only messaging this, we’re leaving more impactful fitness results on the table.

Needless to say, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the population has been more tuned in than ever when it comes to optimizing their health.  Not only is health a more relevant and valuable resource than aesthetics, it’s something fitness facilities can directly influence.  With healthcare costs steadily climbing in concert with lifestyle disease such as diabetes and heart disease, preventative measures are being taken more seriously by our public health officials, medical community, and lawmakers.  This is where fitness services can be of great value.  Documenting and reporting positive health outcomes can be the lynchpin to put our industry on the healthcare delivery map.

The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.  The physical health benefits that fitness facilities provide isn’t unfamiliar to most.  Aside from supporting body composition change, positive adaptations around blood pressure, triglycerides, A1C, and other cardiometabolic conditions are correlated with consistent exercise.

As much as fitness facilities can address the physical health issues in our population, they can arguably impact the mental and emotional health epidemic our country faces through their existing fitness programs (British Journal of Sports Medicine).  Exercise has been linked to reducing depression and anxiety has effectively as traditional anti-depressant medication.  Another powerful tool fitness community’s offer is access to meaningful social relationships.  The U.S. Surgeon General’s report cited research that suggests loneliness can increase heart disease and stroke by 30%.

Attaching your fitness facility to addressing these larger health epidemics opens avenues to further impact your community.  It also creates more meaning and relevance among your fitness community.

Fitness Culture ­­Tip #4: Celebrate Diversity In Your Fitness Community.

If we look back at the stereotype the fitness industry falls in at the beginning of this blog, you’ll remember that fitness speaks to a fit, athletic, and able population.  The unfortunate truth is that 80% of the population is unfit and, more significantly, unwell.  Building relevant social proof by highlighting the successes of the non-traditional fitness community members is instrumental to differentiate from the existing fitness-industry stereotype.  This also links back to the imagery and messaging strategy discussed a few paragraphs.

Capture the stories that encapsulate life-changing meaning.  A member of your fitness community who is able to walk up and down the stairs pain free vs. a member who went from 15% bodyfat to 8% is a more valuable and empowering story to share, to the population we’re not currently serving.  Someone feeling more energy due to getting off of their diabetes medication is another example that challenges the fitness industry stereotype.

Slowly but surely, the unfit and unwell community that needs us the most begins to feel like they can relate to fitness.  Not only does the external community begin feeling emotionally connected to your fitness facility but your internal fitness community does even more so.  Stories of humanity emotionally tie communities together, as humans are innately compassionate beings.  The more we can communicate and celebrate the individuals in our fitness community’s uniqueness, the more magnetic your fitness culture will be.

Better Fitness Culture = Better Fitness Business.

Aside from feeling good and the right way to do things (from a social and humanity standpoint), cultivating a positive fitness culture will positively impact the bottom line of your business.  Culture and meaningful work are big determinants regarding team member engagement.  Higher levels of engagement lead to less turnover, a monumental problem our industry faces.  Many statistics show that the cost of losing a team member could equate up to twice their annual salary.  An article from Deloitte distills down the real cost of hiring a new team member:

  • Recruitment costs: The direct costs of hiring, including advertising, interviewing, and screening.
  • Onboarding costs: Including training and management time.
  • Lost productivity: It may take a new team member one to two years to reach the productivity of an existing person, resulting in indirect costs to your organization.
  • Lost engagement and impact on team morale: Other team members who see high turnover tend to disengage and lose productivity, affecting team morale.
  • Customer service and errors: New team members may take longer to complete their work and are often less adept at solving problems.
  • Lost institutional knowledge: When highly-skilled or longtime team members leave, your organization loses some institutional knowledge, or the combined skill set and experience of your business.
  • Cultural impact: Whenever someone leaves, others take time to ask why if not communicated properly.

A meta-analysis performed by Gallup looked at how team member engagement correlated with business performance (productivity, profitability and customer rating).  They found that highly engaged teams resulted in the following:

  • 10% improved customer satisfaction rating.
  • 18% increase in sales.
  • 23% difference in overall profitability

Tying It All Together – A Positive Fitness Culture is Critical to Success

Everything stated above is intertwined in some way, shape or form.  Focusing on just one of the four practices will inherently influence the others.  If you are to take away anything from reading this blog, know that your fitness culture has the ability to impact communities on multiple levels.

First, your team will be better human beings, multiplying your efforts to serve your fitness community and achieve your goals.  Secondly, realize the influence across the multiple domains of health, physical health is only one-third of the impact.  Realize the importance your fitness facility has when it comes to impacting the mental and emotional health crisis in this country.

Lastly, living purposefully.  As a fitness industry professional, if part of your purpose isn’t connected with enriching the lives of others, this may be the wrong industry for you.  Living intentionally and purposefully is connected to the highest levels of joy and happiness.  In order to help those around find that for themselves, we must first exist in it ourselves.


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