Last Updated: December 5, 2020

Imagine two different TV ads for local gyms. In the first, a body builder is seen lifting huge weights while women steal glances at his muscular physique. He is aware of their gaze and smiles to himself as he begins another set. In the second, a woman is doing sit-ups as sweat pours down her forehead. She pauses, about to give up, and then takes a deep breath and continues to exercise. On the surface these ads seem pretty similar. They show athletic people working on their bodies in the gym. But the message they communicate to viewers is vastly different.

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How people feel about their bodies and their health has a deep affect on their psychological well being. Both of these hypothetical ads tap into different parts of the psyche. The ad with the body builder communicates to men that an athletic body will make them more attractive to women and increase their chances to find a sexual partner. The second ad has nothing to do with sex. The image of the exercising woman communicates to viewers that they can be strong and determined even in the face of adversity. It suggests that exercise is a way to gain power and agency. The goal of both ads is to get people to join a gym, but they use different psychological messages to make that pitch.

The Psychology of Marketing Exercise Gyms

Brand and CommercialExplanation of AdvertisementDemographicsPsychological Response Elicited
24 Hour Fitness “You”A wide variety of average looking people are shown lifting weights, running on treadmills, and playing sports while various motivational phrases flash on the screen.Men and women age 40-75Anxiety of being unfit – By focusing on average people attaining modest goals, 24 Hour Fitness positions themselves as an accessible gym for people who are out of shape or inexperienced in a gym environment.
Curves “30 Seconds”Women of various ages, body types, and fitness levels are shown bonding while exercisingWomen 30-75Body image anxiety relief – Curves taps into the anxiety many women feel about showing their bodies off in public and being judged by men and more athletic women. Their women only gym is portrayed as a safe and supportive place.
Gold’s Gym “Women Love It”This humorous ad shows women describing their favorite parts of an overweight male bodyMen 40-60Sex Appeal – Gold’s Gym’s tongue in cheek approach makes it clear that women are not attracted to unfit men. The ad plays on men’s desire for sex to encourage them to hit the gym and improve their bodies.

Why do we exercise?

Self-image and self worth are closely linked. People who think they look attractive often have higher levels of self-esteem. Being fit creates a sense of confidence, while being overweight can produce significant anxiety. Gym owners understand this and tailor their advertising to remind viewers of it.

Growth of Gyms in America

The health and fitness industry has been one of the fastest growing industries over the last two decades. In 1995, there were approximately 12,500 gyms in the United States. By 2006 that number had grown to almost 30,000.

Source: International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association

Gym marketing typically focuses on two powerful instincts. The first is the desire to be fit, and, by extension, sexually attractive. This is why a large number of gym ads focus on the uncovered flesh of extremely athletic men and women. Men are shown as large and muscular while women are shown as lithe and lean. The message is that with dedication at the gym, you too can be as attractive as the people you see on screen.

The second instinct is the desire to be healthy. Many people begin an exercise program after a health scare, or because they feel sluggish and sedentary. Gym ads often highlight their professionally trained staff, state of the art equipment, and scientific exercise plans as proof that they can provide the health benefits people seek. These ads also acknowledge that most people don’t look forward to going to the gym. They try to portray their gyms as fun, social places where average people are accomplishing fitness goals they never thought they were capable of.

No one wants to be considered lazy, ugly, or incapable. By showing viewers all the potential benefits of getting fit, gym marketers spur people to get off of their couches and into the weight room.

Women Only Gyms

A recent study published on the IDEA Health and Fitness Association website assessed the value of women-only fitness clubs and found not only that “social physique anxiety” was higher in women who exercised in a mixed-sex facility but also that more women than men were likely to shorten their workouts in this environment.” Gym marketers can attract women by reassuring them that they won’t be judged for having less than ideal bodies.

Source: Gavin, Jim, Madeleine McBrearty, and Daniel Seguin. “The Psychology of Exercise.” . IDEA Fitness Journal, n.d. Web.

Reasons for getting a gym membership

Ostensibly, people get gym memberships because they want a place to work out. But the specific reason they want to be in a gym might be more nuanced and unexpected. In their paper Shaping Presentation of Self in Everyday Life: Gym Bunnies and Musclemen, marketing professor Marie-Celine Chery and her co-authors explore the psychological factors affecting gym attendance. They identify the factors motivating a first-time gym member as:

Common Gym Marketing Tactics

  • Offer a free trial to prospective new members
  • Implement a referral program
  • Use a loyalty program that rewards the most dedicated patrons
  • Accentuate what makes the gym unique and different
  • Employ a top notch training staff
  • Use trainers for events and special classes, not just personal training
  • Start a fitness blog
  • Have a comprehensive and useful website
  • Get involved with the community
  • Create incentives for people to return to the gym
  • Affiliation
  • Novelty Seeking
  • Weight Control
  • Achievement
  • Self Control
  • Self Confidence
  • Stress Relief

Gym marketers rely on information like this to make a more intimate connection with potential customers. They know that not everyone goes to the gym to become a massive body builder. The runner who does an extra mile on the treadmill is a model of self-control and achievement. The woman who escapes her hectic home life by taking a weekly spin class is a perfect example of the stress relief that comes from exercise. Images like these show up in gym ads because they speak to the complicated relationship many of us have with our health and our bodies. Exercise taps into core areas of our psychology and is not purely motivated by vanity. Gym marketers must resist the urge to fill their ads with beautiful, toned people.

The authors go on to examine the conflicting psychological impulses of people who attend the gym frequently and enjoyably, and those who treat it like a necessary evil. They reveal that frequent gym goers often do it for the sense of achievement, physical capability, and camaraderie they get from being in the gym. Infrequent gym users are often hung up on the discrepancy between their own bodies and the “ideal” that is presented in the media. This suggests that gym marketing may be able to make a greater impact by avoiding a focus on the battle of the bulge. Presenting the gym as a fun, active place not dominated by body consciousness can make a stronger impact with the average person.

The importance of psychology in marketing

Marketers use psychological insights to create ads that are more relevant to their customers. They go beyond statements about value and quality to engage with people’s deepest hopes, dreams, and fears. To learn more about how marketers use psychology to sell other types of products, click here.

Related Careers

Gym marketing communicates powerful messages to consumers about the value of health and fitness. In order to understand what images and messages will have the greatest effect, marketers rely on the psychological insights produced by professionals like these:

  • Media Research Analyst: Using data gathered from focus groups, media research analysts produce insights into the mind of the average consumer. They identify the advertising strategies that will be most effective based on a careful study of the way people think, feel, and shop. Learn more about media research analysts.
  • Brand Manager: The brand manager is responsible for creating and maintaining the image of a brand. They use a careful combination of pictures and text to communicate to consumers what a brand represents. Brand managers have to understand the psychology of their target audiences and the style of advertising that will most resonate with them. Learn more about brand managers here.