Happy New Year: Off And Running

Well, I chased the treadmill belt early this a.m. So the new year is starting out pretty much like the old one ended. Oh, by the way. Could somebody tell the folks at Fox and Friends that it is 2012 — not 2011 as the banner opening the 6 a.m. newscast proudly proclaimed.

And while you’re at it, could you please tell them — and this goes for the pundits at CNN and Morning Joe as well — that most of us are bored with the Iowa caucuses.  Mitt will win — or not. But regardless, the conservatives don’t like him and aren’t trilled with the prospect of another McCain moderate matching up with Prez O in the fall.

Back to the treadmill. I get to the fitness center — remember when we used to call these places gyms? — a few minutes before 5:30 a.m. most days. There are 50 or so regulars there at the same time: women and man, young and old. And over the years the mix has changed slightly, but not much. Same people. Same time. Same workouts.

Except in the first few weeks following the new year. And no. This isn’t a rant about those who make a resolution to get fit — only to see that notion go down in flames before the end of January. Finding the time and discipline to exercise is difficult. Still,  I have believed and opined for decades now that it is beneficial both physically and mentally. But hey. What do I know?

Well, as it turns out, failed and then recycled resolutions represent a growth opportunity each and every year for our economy. Here’s from the NYT by Natasha Singer, “New Year’s Resolutions Are a Boon for Business“:

THIS year, I swear, I will lose those 10 pounds. I will hit the gym more than once a month. I will buy less and recycle more. I will kick that $4.20-a-day cappuccino habit.

Or not.

Like many Americans who’ve made resolutions for 2012, I made these very same New Year’s promises about this time last year.

Which, it turns out, is great for business. Our collective failure to keep our resolutions represents an annuity of sorts for health clubs, weight-loss centers and other enterprises that make up what you might call the self-improvement industry. It’s an industry that thrives on our failure to change: recidivism is good for the bottom line.

Americans spend many tens of billions every year in the hope of keeping resolutions to lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, fix their finances, organize their closets — on and on. Last year, we spent $62 billion on health club memberships, weight-loss programs, exercise tapes, diet soda and the like, according to projections from Marketdata Enterprises, a market research firm.

We start with good intentions. Memberships for health clubs and weight-loss programs spike each January, says John LaRosa, the president of Marketdata. But by March, the lines thin at the treadmills and many dieters relapse. So the next year, we try — and pay up — again.

“If I try one quick fix and it doesn’t work, I may be more likely to try the next quick fix,” says Lisa Lahey, the co-founder of Minds at Work, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass., which coaches executives and educators in sustained behavior change.

Supposed easy remedies like celebrity diets hold a powerful allure, but they rarely work in the long term, she says. After all, it’s hard for people to shake the underlying conditions — like stress or anxiety — that cause unwanted habits. If exercise tapes, dietetic meals, nicotine lozenges and personal finance apps worked by themselves, we’d all be fit, thin, smoke-free and rich.

The hard work of changing a lifestyle isn’t as alluring as dropping 30 pounds in 30 days. But some stop-smoking and weight-loss programs, as well as gyms, are trying to help for the long haul, a strategy that can improve customers’ chances of success and, for companies like Weight Watchers International, build brand loyalty and revenue.

JANUARY is the most important month of the year in the health club industry. At many gyms, new memberships double. Given that about a third of all members tend to turn over every year, the resolution crowd is crucial.

“The resolutioners always pop up,” says Scott Hamann, an analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets covering the fitness industry.

But you probably know what happens next. Only a fraction of members work out twice a week or more, despite all those monthly dues. Health clubs in the United States had more than 50 million members and revenue of $20.3 billion in 2010, according to the latest data from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group. But clubs reported that members typically visit only 54 times, or slightly more than once a week.

Hmm. Like I said. It’s not easy to stick to an exercise schedule, weight-loss program and so on. And get this:

THE idea that we can transform ourselves is deeply ingrained in American culture. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography described a self-improvement plan that he devised for himself as a young man. It included virtues to which many of us still aspire: control stress (“Be not disturbed at trifles,” Franklin wrote); get organized (“Let all of your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”); and show some temperance (“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”).

But Franklin didn’t have to cope with home shopping channels and the local drive-through McDonald’s. Americans spent about $26 billion on diet soda, prepackaged diet dinners and artificial sweeteners in 2010, along with about $1.2 billion on diet books and exercise videos, and about $3.3 billion on commercial weight-loss programs, according to Marketdata estimates. Despite all that, people generally lose only modest amounts of weight and have difficulty keeping it off, says Kelly D. Brownell, the director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; human biology and the current food environment, he says, are stacked against us.

Hard to keep those resolutions — but worth trying. And if nothing else, at least the efforts are good for the economy.

And full disclosure: I managed to stay up late enough New Year’s Eve to see Kathy Griffin strip live on CNN. Wow. It’s a totally different world out there after 8 p.m. when I’m generally sound asleep in front of the TV.

 

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