Exercise is great medicine that has immense emotional and psychological effects, making it a powerful tool for people struggling with chronic diseases. This population may feel isolated or have a hard time making behavior changes. So how do you engage them?
Use these four tips to engage this unique group of people in your medical fitness center.
1. Focus on self-efficacy.
People with chronic diseases have a higher hurdle to clear when it comes to exercise, and not just due to physical limitations. Those with chronic diseases may have less self-efficacy — the belief that they’re capable of exercising — than healthier gym-goers.
“There’s a lot of awfulizing and catastrophizing in this population,” says Michael Mantell, Ph.D., a former psychologist who’s now a transformational behavior coach in San Diego. “They’re thinking, ‘I’m going to hurt myself’ or ‘This is going to be really hard,’ and medical fitness center staff need to understand this. That support and reinforcement has to be there before they can start talking about doing actual exercise.” This is where the psychological benefits start to play in to a healthier well-being.
Amanda Radochonski, senior director of health care operations at EXOS, agrees. “The first step when people come in isn’t necessarily putting them into a class or right into the gym,” she says. “It’s a slow roll of education and conversation. It all starts with the mindset and meeting the individual where they’re at.”
2. Provide resources outside of the gym.
Support at the medical fitness center shouldn’t end when the member walks out the door. “At EXOS facilities, we might send them home with articles to read or videos to watch, or the on-site dietitian will contact them to schedule a grocery shopping trip or home visit,” says Radochonski. If a member doesn’t show up for a class or a workout, the coach and possibly even fellow classmates will check in to make sure they’re OK.
“The beginning is that critical time when we’re trying to change behaviors,” says Bonnie Mattalian, vice president of community services for EXOS. “At EXOS there are specific protocols in place regarding onboarding, intakes, and follow-ups to make sure people show up and don’t slip through the cracks.”
3. Create social connections using group exercise.
Besides direct interaction with coaches and dietitians, engaging new members in small group training is a good place to start. Mantell notes one benefit of group exercise is that it provides people social connections that may allow them to live longer. At a medical fitness center, members who might otherwise feel isolated due to their health can create their own tribe and strengthen bonds. They can talk about the program and their illness. This boosts exercise adherence and self-efficacy.
People often believe that they’re going to be working out one-on-one at a medical fitness center, but Radochonski and her team prefer to steer people to a small-group environment. One of the biggest benefits of group exercise is that people motivate one another. Even though they’re engaged in a group program, each participant’s workout can still be personalized.
4. Prioritize quality of life.
Mantell points out that people with issues like pain and cancer want hope. What medical fitness centers focus on is quality of life — that a person moved better today than last week, or that a person spoke with friends. These positive changes provide hope that a patient’s condition may get better.
At EXOS facilities, members fill out surveys and questionnaires to track these quality of life improvements. “Maybe they’re sleeping better or have more energy to play with their kids,” says Radochonski. “Being able to see that kind of progress — not just losing weight or having more muscle — is really important and keeps people engaged and coming back.”
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