It's a January phenomenon as predictable as cold weather: Fitness centers are flooded with new members, as people seek to make good on their New Year's resolutions to get in shape.
But long before spring, the postholiday guilt is gone, and so are most of those once-enthusiastic exercisers.
"This is a cycle that happens each year in this industry," said Teryl Worster, a personal trainer and owner of the Body Sanctuary in downtown Gainesville. "We call them the ‘resolutioners' because we see the same people every year."
Worster said new recruits seem to be giving up sooner than they did a decade ago.
"Most people used to drop out within eight to 12 weeks," she said. "Now, many fall off the wagon after only six weeks. They get discouraged easily because they're looking for a quick fix."
The challenge for everyone who works in the health industry is figuring out why people don't stick to their diet and exercise goals, and what can be done to help them adopt changes that will last a lifetime.
"People often have unrealistic expectations," said Tracy Nix, a registered dietitian with the bariatrics program at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. "They try to make drastic changes at the beginning of January. But incorporating smaller changes into your lifestyle is much more sustainable."
There also has to be an acknowledgment that the changes will be permanent. Nix said some people are only trying to get fit in preparation for a specific event.
"You'll have better motivation if you have a long-term goal for improved health, rather than just trying to fit into a bathing suit by spring," she said.
Health concerns are a key motivator
Just as many smokers try to quit a half-dozen times before they succeed, some people fail at fitness because they aren't psychologically ready. Then one day, something seems to click.
"They just seem to reach a magic moment in their life where they decide to get serious about it," said Debbie Wilburn, a consumer science agent with the Hall County Extension Service. "For some people, hitting a big milestone like turning 40 or 50 is a big motivator.
"But often, it's from their doctor telling them what's going to happen to them if they don't make changes. I think physicians can have a huge influence on their patients. But with many doctors, it's a touchy subject to bring up a patient's weight."
Annette Pampalon, manager of the Athena Health Club, a women-only fitness center in Gainesville, said about 90 percent of her members "have either been to the doctor or they've just realized that they're aging and they need to start taking care of their health."
Though Athena's attendance does increase in January and February, Pampalon said most members are not looking for a quick fix. "We cater to more mature women, who tend to be focused on health rather than weight loss, so we have a good retention rate," she said.
Vanessa Zimmerman, health and wellness director at the J.A. Walters Family Branch YMCA in Hall County, said some people seem to have an inner drive to exercise and don't need outside help.
"But most people need some type of external motivation," she said. "That's why we're starting a wellness coaching program here. When people feel like they're accountable to another person, whether it's to a workout partner or an exercise coach, they're less likely to give up."
Zimmerman said she also tries to de-emphasize the importance of weight loss. "People tend to get disillusioned when they don't see that number on the scale dropping," she said. "But we point out how their strength or flexibility is improving, or how their lean muscle mass is increasing. Those are the things that really matter."
Exercise should be fun, convenient
Experts agree that in order for people to stick with a diet or exercise program, it can't be unpleasant and it can't conflict with everything else that's going on in their lives.
"You have to find the exercise option that's most convenient for you," said Wilburn. "You want to get to the point where exercise is such a habit that you don't feel right if you don't do it. And if it's fun, you're more likely to keep doing it. If it feels like punishment, you're going to quit."
Fitness centers are inherently at a disadvantage because they have to persuade people not only to exercise, but to get into their cars and drive somewhere in order to do it. "This can just create more stress, because for most people these days, time really is of the essence," said Worster.
That's especially true for parents of young children. "If you know that going to the gym after work is going to take time away from your family, you're probably not going to do it," said Nix.
Pampalon said that's why the Athena club offers a month-to-month membership option, so women can try it out and see if it fits into their schedule. "And when we give tours (to prospective members), we always ask, ‘Is this a convenient location for you?' If it's not, you won't keep coming."
Another big obstacle to exercise is the sheer tedium of it. "It seems usually around March, people who were all gung-ho in January aren't working out anymore," said David Zimmerman, aquatics director at the YMCA. "I think they get bored, and they start finding excuses not to do it. You have to keep them excited and interested by varying the routine."
For example, Zimmerman said, in his master swimmers program, he never offers the same workout twice. And other YMCA classes, such as water aerobics and senior water fitness, keep people much more engaged than just swimming laps around the pool.
"On Jan. 19, we're starting a new game called underwater hockey," said Zimmerman. "It's a great workout, but you're having so much fun you don't know you're exercising - until you get out of the pool and realize how tired you are."
Wilburn said if a gym membership is not feasible, there are still ways to exercise. "Walking is affordable, and it's doable for just about everyone," she said. "And even if you are going to a gym, it's not going to solve all your problems. You need to be active at home, because your kids need to be involved too. Shoot basketballs or throw a Frisbee with them."
Food intake, activity should be documented
Nix recommends that all her clients wear a pedometer, a small device that counts the number of steps taken each day. "Pedometers are a great tool," she said. "People who use them tend to be much more active, because they're monitoring themselves."
In fact, Nix said, the more self-monitoring people do, the more successful they are likely to be. "Food journaling is one of the biggest predictors of success for long-term weight loss," she said.
A food journal is particularly helpful when one is just starting a fitness program. Nix said when people write down every single thing they eat throughout the day, they're often shocked at how much they actually consume.
Worster said keeping a food record can help prevent "mindless eating," such as when someone sits down in front of the TV and devours an entire bag of chips. "You need to be conscious of what's going into your mouth," she said. "The biggest problem we have today is portion control. If you do nothing else but watch your portions, you will lose weight."
Worster said the reason most people fail to meet their resolutions is that they set a goal, but they have no structured plan for getting there. "Successful people surround themselves with a support system, and they seek professional help so they can learn to plan and strategize," she said. "It doesn't have to be from a personal trainer. You can get a book at the library or use a Web site."
One site Nix recommends is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's mypyramid.gov, which allows people to create a customized diet plan, track their progress, and calculate their calorie intake. Wilburn said a common mistake is to make a vague resolution, such as, "Lose 20 pounds."
"You need to have a specific plan that's broken down into small, achievable goals," she said. "For example, you might set a goal of losing a pound a week, and you might plan to do that by cutting down on afternoon snacking and by eating more fruits and vegetables."
But the gradual approach is a tough sell in a society that thrives on instant gratification. "If you're looking for quick results, you're going to end up yo-yo dieting," said Wilburn."You didn't put on 40 pounds in one year, and it may take you more than a year to get it off."
Worster said ideally, the fitness industry should focus on how people think, not on how their bodies are shaped. "What we try to do is coach people through a new thought process, so they learn how to restructure their lives," she said. "They shouldn't have to be making the same resolutions year after year."