Anyone who’s ever tried to get in shape can tell you that the hardest part of sticking to a consistent workout routine is staying motivated. And if you’re a gym owner, you rely on members finding that motivation so they keep coming through your doors.

Enter the fitness challenge, a special event you can host to increase enthusiasm and energy in your club while also attracting new members.

“Challenges can be very motivating for members, because they get those competitive juices flowing, whether they’re competing against themselves or others,” says Cindy Perryman, a senior marketing consultant at UpSwell who specializes in fitness marketing. “If you pair it with an offer for prospective members, such as free class passes or sessions with a personal trainer, it can help you convert leads into new members.”

How to Run a Fitness Challenge at Your Gym: Do’s and Don’ts 

Fitness challenges can help gym owners galvanize members, but they must be done strategically, says Lauren Korzan, an American College of Sports Medicine-certified exercise physiologist and group exercise instructor based in Atlanta.

“They can be motivating, especially for people just getting back into fitness,” she says. “But if you do too many of them, people get tired of them. They get challenge fatigue.”

That means you’ll want to be sure challenges are targeted and appealing to members, present and future. The challenge must provide a “why” for people, whether that’s a great prize, bragging rights, or simply the satisfaction of achieving a personal goal.

Cash or gift cards for finishing a challenge are always popular, but not always workable on a gym budget, says Korzan, and “who needs another T-shirt or water bottle?”

That’s when you need to find another incentive. Korzan has had success running an annual challenge in a federal agency in which employees get to team up and compete against other departments or divisions. The goal is to meet federal physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week), plus self-selected challenges in nutrition, sleep, stress, and other areas of health. There’s no monetary prize, just bragging rights, but it has become a fun part of office culture.

“When the teams form is when we see people get really competitive,” she says. At the end, the agency announces which team had the most points and gives kudos for the best team name or most creative fitness activity. “It’s really fun, and people are always asking me, ‘What’s the date for this year? When is it going to start?’” she says.

As a gym owner, you can grow that enthusiasm with challenges, too. Here are some ideas to get started.

Show Up, Get Rewarded 

If someone is thinking about joining your gym or they’ve recently joined, you’ll want them to get involved quickly so they become part of the community and stick around. You can offer a new member deal: Come to the gym three times a week for your first month and get your second month free — or two free personal training sessions, a $25 gift card to the cafe, or anything else your budget allows that helps people come in when working out isn’t yet a habit.

Meeting the goal will give the member a boost of confidence, and after a few weeks they will be comfortable with the setup, machines, and culture of the gym.

“You can’t just go out there with a challenge without an offer,” Perryman says. “And it’s important that it’s easy for someone to sign up, whether they’re scanning a QR code on a postcard or signing up digitally.”

Team Up to Crush the Competition

As Korzan has found in the corporate world, teamwork and camaraderie — and a little friendly competition — get people excited, especially those who may have belonged to a gym for a while and are in a bit of a rut.

You can encourage members to form teams of four or five to compete in any number of areas: most check-ins, most classes attended, most reps in the weight room, most miles walked or jogged. New members who don’t yet have “gym friends” can join incomplete teams to get to know people. At the end, the winning team can enjoy the spoils, whether that’s a cash prize, membership freebies, or a celebratory photo of the victors by the front desk and on the gym’s social media accounts.

Celebrate the Season

There are good times and bad times to run a fitness challenge, Korzan says. Early in the year, when people are making resolutions to get in shape, is a popular time. A challenge in the summertime, when gym attendance is down, is less likely to gain traction. If you’re in a cold climate, don’t plan a walking challenge for winter; in a hot climate, avoid summer.

If you think some of your members are game, you can tie a challenge to a holiday. Consider a “Love Yourself Challenge” in February, to recommit members to consistent exercise. Participants can make a promise to themselves, such as working out 15 days that month, and earn a free massage. To keep costs in check, you could raffle off one big prize, such as a spa day, among those who completed the challenge, while giving every finisher their due on social media.

For Halloween, fun-loving members might enjoy attending a certain number of themed classes with spooky music and even dressing up in costume. Again, prizes are helpful but not always necessary if the event itself is a blast.

Walk It Out

After living through the COVID-19 pandemic, many gym-goers want a mix of in-person and remote fitness activities. A walking challenge can fill this need perfectly; members keep track of their steps or mileage whether they’re walking on the treadmill at the gym or around their neighborhood. As for “winning” the challenge, there are options: You can, of course, give a grand prize to the person who logs the most steps — there will always be someone who manages to put in 25,000 a day. To bring more people into the “winner’s circle,” consider what Korzan has done when running walking challenges in the past: designate gold, platinum, and diamond “status” to finishers, depending on steps taken.

Be Mindful 

It’s good to remind members that wellness isn’t just about what we eat and how we move. Mental health, stress reduction, and adequate sleep are critical to quality of life. As a gym, you could run a mindfulness challenge to encourage members to meditate five minutes a day. If your gym offers yoga or other breath-based activities, you can make those part of the challenge, too.

The winter holidays are a great time for a mindfulness challenge, Korzan says, because people are so busy and frazzled. Something relatively easy and achievable — almost everyone can find five minutes to sit quietly — can provide a boost and reduce stress. This primes members to see your gym as an ally in their overall wellness and happiness.

Ready to attract new customers to your gym? Contact the team at UpSwell for a free marketing assessment.

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