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Study Defines Overweight People's Health Club Attitudes and Obstacles

By L. K. Regan

Here's something to ponder for anyone making weight a new year's resolution. Exercise is key to winning the battle against obesity, but according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only 30 percent of those trying to lose weight meet the guideline of 300 minutes per week of exercise. A study in next month's Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior compares overweight and normal weight people in terms of their attitudes toward working out in health clubs. In short, is there something gyms could be doing to help heavier people stick to a program?

Researchers at the George Washington University Medical Center surveyed over 1500 people, nearly a thousand of whom were classified as overweight. They constructed the research around a simple theory: that attitudes toward a planned behavior, and the perception of obstacles to that behavior, will determine individual success in following the plan. Overall, the researchers found that overweight and normal weight people had very similar attitudes toward exercising in a health club. They felt much the same about issues such as exercising in the presence of the opposite (or, for gay subjects, same) sex, complex fitness equipment, and exercise boredom. This result was, the study authors write, "somewhat surprising, in that it is often assumed that overweight people do not exercise as much as normal-weight people because the two groups have different attitudes about exercise."

So if overall attitudes are so similar, why do overweight people have a harder time sticking with a gym plan? That's where the obstacles come in. The study found that overweight people had greater belief in the power of exercise to improve appearance and self-image than did the normal-weight subjects. That may lead to some unrealistic expectations. They were also more embarrassed about exercising, and intimidated by working out around people who are young and/or fit. And, they were more likely to feel intimidated by health club salespeople. Finally, the heavier the person surveyed, the worse his perception of his own health. All of these factors function as obstacles to sticking with a gym plan, since they set up unrealistic goals, and produce discouraging self-comparisons.

In an ideal world, health clubs could use this information to do a better job of serving overweight people's needs. "It is important," the study authors write, "to minimize the negative and maximize the positive in order to promote the desired behavior. Thus, it would be wise for exercise professionals and commercial health clubs to help overweight people feel more comfortable around those who are different from themselves and to minimize the intimidating aspects of the exercise environment, while promoting the benefits of exercise to personal health and wellbeing." The desire is there—and gyms can help foster the attitudes to support that desire, by acknowledging that not everyone who works out is a hard-body.