The new year evokes an image of a clean slate, a time to discard unpleasant memories and bad habits, reassess where you are and map out new strategies for improving life. Among the most popular New Year's resolutions are those dealing with improving fitness, losing weight and eating healthier. The trick is to maintain the resolve as the year turns the corner into spring and beyond.
The optimism of a new start is a boon for local fitness centers, which use the opportunity to get new customers plugged in to a fitness routine and feeling the benefits of it before the city's myriad social distractions, such as the many celebrations of Carnival, throw them off course.
"Our clientele doubles, almost triples, after the New Year," says Jenny Moses, a personal fitness trainer at the Jewish Community Center's (JCC) Goldring Fitness Center. "You have to look at things from every angle; you need to motivate them and keep them motivated." She's found that signing them up for a package of 20 or more workouts ensures they will come to the gym regularly while they are getting accustomed to a workout regimen.
"Once they're locked in financially, they are going to come," she says. After a while, most trainers say their clients look forward to regular ventures to the fitness center.
It should be easier to keep those resolutions this year, because Carnival, which usually bathes the city in King Cakes and constant parties in February, doesn't come until March, allowing trainers more time to solidify clients' resolve. At Downtown Fitness Center, new clients work with a personal trainer for free for the first six weeks to make sure they have established the correct routine for them.
"If they don't have some supervision to help them achieve their goal, they give up and quit," says Cliff Bergeron, a partner in Downtown Fitness, which has six locations. "We find that if we invest in the beginning, the chances of their success and that they'll stay with us is much greater.
"We're not always successful; we still have people who fall off the wagon. People will have good intentions at the first of the year. They get into it and then Mardi Gras hits and they get interrupted in their program. Since it's in March this year, they'll have a good six to eight weeks getting steam in their program before Mardi Gras. We hope we'll have a bigger retention."
Key to the success of any fitness program, however, is fighting off boredom and keeping people motivated to take time out of their schedules to make a trip to the gym. Laurie Maykut, manager at Women's Athletic Club on Metairie Road, says her club offers a diversity of workout options, from bikes to weights to classes, but she also attributes much of the center's success to its atmosphere.
"We're really very laid back," she says. "I think people like coming here because of the friendliness of our staff. We hold (the clients) accountable; when we haven't seen them in a while and they come in we ask them, 'Where have you been?' You have a solid partner in here watching over you."
Women's Athletic Club offers a diverse class schedule that includes yoga, Pilates, core training, cardiovascular workouts and more. "With the variety of stuff we have here, everyone can find something fun in it for them," Maykut says. "We try to get them to try something new, some alternatives. If they aren't going to have fun, they're not going to do it."
The JCC's Moses also recommends switching things around to combat the doldrums, even if it means she gives her clients to another personal trainer.
"If I had a client I've had with me for a year, then I would suggest to them that they see a new trainer for a while," she says. "Mix it up. Keep it interesting with someone else's routine and personality. You have to make the program as much fun and as enjoyable as you can. If it's a grunt and so much hard work, it's hard to keep a client coming in."
She also says the no-pain-no-gain rule of thumb isn't credible. "It's not about being rail thin," Moses says. "It's about feeling good. Here I see the same faces all the time. It's more than a gym; it's a social thing. It's like any support system: people with the same goal and same lifestyle coming together. It makes it easier.
"It takes thought and creativity," Moses says of keeping people coming. "We have everything here: basketball, aerobics, belly dancing, ballet, swimming and the gym. You just have to find what they like."
Fitness trainers also must be careful to keep customers' expectations close to reality, both in the time they must invest and the results they will see.
"We try to get them to commit to something realistic, so if they miss a day they won't get discouraged," Bergeron says. "People come in and haven't realized that over the past year they've gained 10 to 15 pounds. They can't expect that to come off in six weeks, but they'll see something. It's a process, just like gaining the weight was a process."
In addition to losing weight and toning up, customers also can experience benefits they didn't expect. "One of the other benefits that is critical to exercise is the health benefit -- reducing the reliance on insulin for diabetics, reducing high-blood pressure medication needs, the list goes on and on. People just feel better."
Part of the problem, he says, is overcoming perceptions that fitness centers are meeting places for the already buff and that anyone with flab instead of rippling muscles will be out of place.
"One of the things we're trying to do is to go after the non-exerciser," he says. "People are intimidated about coming into the gym. They have this image in their minds of these fit people that they see in our ads. People think "I can't get to that,' so they don't come in. What we're trying to do is get away from that stereotype and have them realize that the majority of people who belong to a gym are not perfect. The majority are overweight, haven't worked out in a long time. We're trying to erase the intimidation factor."
The Women's Athletic Club also caters to "regular people" just trying to sweat their way into good shape in an atmosphere that lends some camaraderie. "It's more like a girlfriend club," Maykut says. "We don't care what they look like when they come in. Sometimes they're just looking for a friend's ear while they work out."
With so much information about fitness and health benefits floating around in the media, on the Internet and in discussions among friends, fitness centers say they still must scramble to attract new clients and keep present customers on board.
"There's always stuff coming through the pipeline about why you should be exercising," Bergeron says. "But most people will buy that one piece of equipment and it then becomes a great clothes hanger. They need supervision.
"For people over 50, the (fitness) market is growing leaps and bounds. These are the people who are going to put a great strain on the health system if they don't get in shape. We want to reduce the things going on that cause those health problems. Getting them to walk through that door is the biggest challenge."