Research in Review: Does a caring fitness staff play a role in member motivation and retention?

Kyle Stull
Kyle Stull
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Simple friendly staff interactions might just be the motivation members need to keep exercising and coming back to your fitness center.

Journal Article:

Brown, T.C., Volberding, J., Baghurst, T., & Sellers, J. (2017). Comparing current fitness center members’ perceptions of the motivational climate with non-members. Global Health Promotion, 24(1), 5-13.

Purpose of the Study:

The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions and motivations behind non-gym user’s reasons of not going. To do this, researchers formulated two questions:

  1. What was the perceived motivational climate of the campus fitness staff:
    1. Task-involving climate—emphasis on self-improvement, cooperation, and individual effort
    2. Ego-involving climate—social comparisons occur, peers compete for attention, and individuals feel embarrassed when they make a mistake
    3. Caring climate—a setting where individuals feel safe, supported, and valued
  2. Was there a difference in perception for users versus non-users of the facility?

Study Participants:

657 faculty and staff of a large university were invited (via email) to participate in an online survey. The survey was specific to the use of the campus fitness facility. This was chosen because it was in a convenient location and free to the staff. One potential flaw, admittedly by the authors, is that participants may have been members of other fitness facilities.

Procedure or Methods:

The survey included three separate versions to ensure that the questions matched the patterns of usage (i.e. never used, former users, or current users). Subjects that had never used were asked to base their perceptions on what they had heard about the on-campus fitness facility.

There were two scales used to fully capture study subjects perceptions: Caring Climate Scale (CCS) and Specific Behaviors of Staff (SBS) questionnaire. The CCS contained 13 questions and assessed the extent to which individuals perceived they would feel welcomed and be treated with kindness and respect at the fitness facility. The questions were ranked on a sliding scale from 0 (did not have an impact) to 10 (had a significant impact) on importance.

The SBS questionnaire contained 17 questions and was used to determine what actual behaviors staff engaged to create a task-involving and caring climate. The questions were ranked on a sliding from 0 (entirely ego-involving—defined above) to 10 (entirely task-involving—defined above).


Difference between types of users:

  • All participants (current users, former users, and never users) preferred a setting that was more caring
  • All participants (current users, former users, and never users) preferred to exercise in settings that were more task involving than neutral or ego involving
  • Current users were more likely to perceive a caring climate where staff engaged in task-involving and caring behaviors compared to those who no longer (or never) used the facility

Perceptions of the climate:

  • Positive perceptions:
    • Most commonly reported by current users (47%)
    • The comments from subjects centered on feelings of being welcomed and invited as well as specific behaviors that staff engaged to help members focus on their fitness goals
    • Current users voiced an appreciation for staff interaction. They enjoyed staff that greeted them, said hello, knew their names, smiled, and helped out when necessary
  • Negative perceptions:
    • Most commonly reported by former users (24%) and never users (21%). Some current users (10%) also reported negative perceptions
    • Some users distinguished between feeling harassed and feeling welcomed by staff who engaged in positive interaction
      • One current user stated “I’m not going to the gym to make friends; it’s my meditative time—it would bother me if people were all chatty, chatty while I’m trying to work out. All I want is basic friendliness as the front desk”.
    • Many never users comments reflected experiences that occurred during their first visit to the facility
      • One commented “I have walked in before and went to the front desk and asked questions regarding the facility, but they were short and not really interested in me”.
      • Another commented “I perceive it as a youth oriented facility, run by youthful people at which older or overweight people will not fit in”.
    • Positive and negative perceptions simultaneously:
      • A few participants made comments that were both positive and negative
        • One stated “The instructors of the fit classes were always friendly and helpful, but most of the rest of the employees seemed to be just putting in their time”.


The authors of this study suggest that it can assist fitness and recreation center managers in determining best ways to train staff in order to increase usage of the facilities, address retention of members, and maximize potential for positive exercise experiences.

Take away for NASM-CPTs:

Increasing member retention is an important aspect of running a successful health club. This study suggests that the responsibility of member retention falls on everyone’s shoulders. Members want to exercise in an environment where they feel supported, motivated, and welcomed. This begins with the front desk staff. Employees should do their best to always smile, say hello, and use the members name when appropriate. Providing assistance to members that need it is acceptable, but it should not be in an attempt to “sell” them on personal training or anything else—at least not initially. Spending time with the member, answering questions and offering genuine support, will help to build a potential foundation for personal trainers.

An additional factor that should be noted is that potential members, whether they join the health club or not, will form their opinions off of the first visit. Therefore, it’s important to always be kind and courteous. Chances are that the person you pass in the entrance is forming an opinion of the entire company based on whether or not you choose to interact with them.

The Author

Kyle Stull

Kyle Stull

Kyle Stull, DHSc, MS, LMT, NASM-CPT, CES, PES, NASM Master Instructor, is a faculty instructor for NASM. Kyle is also an Adjunct Professor for Concordia University Chicago.


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