Photo by Acquille Dunkley
Photo by Acquille Dunkley

Pre-bikini season, I decided to join a gym. This gym promised that regular attendance of their 900 calorie-burning classes would guarantee that by the end of one year I would be in the best shape of my life, and all I needed to do is commit the time and a hefty monthly fee to achieve Olympian status. I committed myself to gym culture: waking up early to catch a crack-of-dawn class, investing in fitness items that served no purpose outside of the gym and I even began downing protein shakes, all the while tracking everything I ate and all my exercises in a fitness app. All of these are good habits, but in an attempt to achieve this unattainable body ideal, I found my commitment to this gym taking up more time and money than it should have. Now that we are nearing sweater season, I am nowhere near an Olympian physique and instead have come to realize some gyms behave very similarly to cults.

According to howstuffworks.com, cult leaders use thought reform, deception, isolation and induced dependency to get members to remain compliant while performing increasingly extreme and potentially harmful behaviors. While it may seem like a good thing for a gym to pressure members to be more committed to a consistent workout routine, this pressure is often detrimental to a person.

Gyms start with love-bombing, a practice of showering potential members with affection and positivity to make them drop their guard and build trust that will eventually be exploited. Some gyms offer a free week or two or a heavily discounted month where they get you in the door and tell you how awesome you are for wanting to get ripped. Once that trial period is over, gym recruiters move to phrase two of indoctrination — thought reform and deception. This is the moment when you find out how much of a financial commitment it is to be a member of this “awesome gym” that’s going to get you “super fit” in one month. Regardless of your fitness level or interest, they will present each membership package like it is vital to your fitness goals. Remember all those compliments you’ve been receiving in the past week or so? If you want them to continue, purchase a gym membership that might cost more than your monthly grocery budget.

Once they get you in the door, that affection you experience in the trial period ends. This is the final stage of indoctrination that cements members’ loyalty. It uses a basic principle of learning: rewarding a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior being performed. Once they take away the reward of affection for you showing up, you will increase the time you spend at the gym, seeking that validation you were previously receiving. This makes you susceptible to more exploitation. Were you previously coming three times a week? Now they will suggest four to five for better results.  Did you get the basic membership? They’ll suggest the pricey one that includes classes you have no intention of attending.

This is why after a month or two, gym attendance starts to slack off. There is only so long a person can tolerate doing a task for an award that won’t come. The problem with these tactics is that it interferes with people finding intrinsic value in regularly working out, but with home fitness equipment and workouts becoming more accessible and cheaper, gyms have to do something to get people in the door.

This doesn’t mean all gyms are bad. Group fitness is greatly motivating for weight loss and other fitness goals. But if a gym schmoozes you to get you in the door and completely ignores any of your interest or fitness needs in the process, it might be a cult.