Are You Buying a Gym Membership for the Wrong Reasons?

A group of people of different ages and sizes exercising in Pilates class while smilingThe alarm goes off at 5 a.m. Your gym bag is beside the front door, ready for action. Athletic shoes, check. Workout clothes, check. Combination lock, towel, water bottle: check, check, check.

This is only a test. You’re practicing for when you buy that gym membership because, gosh darn it, you’re going to use it this time!

For now, you can go back to bed and catch up on some much-needed sleep. You’ll be ready once that shiny new membership card is burning a hole in your gym bag.

Or will you?

If you do join a gym this year, you’ll become one of an estimated 58 million individuals who hold memberships at a gym or health club. But here’s a sobering statistic: a full two-thirds of them—almost 40 million people—will never use these memberships.

So why did they join in the first place? This is a good question to ask yourself if you’re thinking of signing up, as many so-called “resolutionaries” do at the start of every year. Your answer could mean the difference between you and the 67% who waste billions of dollars on a good intention that didn’t, um, work out (pardon the pun).

Every year, losing weight beats quitting smoking, volunteering, and spending more time with family as the most popular New Year’s resolution. It’s also the one most commonly broken, according to Time.

That’s your first clue.

It’s important to understand your reasons for seeking a gym membership before you sign a contract, because negative motivations often lead to negative outcomes.

What’s a negative motivation? Here’s one: trying to prop up low self-esteem by changing your physical appearance.

Wanting to look different on the outside in order to feel better on the inside may be a common reason to join a gym, but judging by the numbers, it’s not a good bet. If you have low self-esteem and/or a poor self-image, and that’s your motivation to start working out, you could end up worse off than you started.

“If someone goes to the gym to fix their self-esteem, they’re more likely to destroy it further,” says Anne Cuthbert, LPC, a therapist in Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon who specializes in food and body image issues.

Houston, Texas-based eating disorders specialist Kelley Dawson, LPC, agrees.

“Typically, your feelings about yourself get projected onto how you feel about your body,” Dawson says. “This is why changing your body most likely won’t lead to improved self-esteem in the long run, since your self-esteem is what influences how you see your body in the first place.”

Dawson cites the following unhelpful motivations that send people to the gym. Do any of these feel true for you?

  • Hating your body and wanting to change it
  • Punishing your body for being the size it is
  • Punishing yourself for having eaten more than you think you should
  • Fear of weight gain or feeling guilty about weight gain

Shame and self-loathing are poor motivators. They may get you to set an alarm for 5 a.m., but they’re not good at providing energy for follow-through. Just look at anything you’ve ever started because you’d have felt like a bad person if you hadn’t. How long did you sustain it?

Cuthbert agrees that shame, along with feeling “unlovable” and “unworthy,” is a terrible reason to seek a gym membership. In many gyms and health clubs, she says, weight loss is held up as a desirable, attainable prize. Posters showing trim, athletic bodies are hung to inspire members as they work out.

Shame and self-loathing are poor motivators. They may get you to set an alarm for 5 a.m., but they’re not good at providing energy for follow-through. Just look at anything you’ve ever started because you’d have felt like a bad person if you hadn’t. How long did you sustain it?

But for those with body image issues fueled by low self-esteem, those pictures are more shaming than inspiring. “The message that comes across is, if you can’t be thin, it’s your fault,” Cuthbert says.

But it’s not that simple, she continues. Willpower doesn’t work in the long run, and dieting is “the best way to gain weight over time.”

Fueled by all those “inspiring” posters, you could find yourself entering a diet-and-exercise shame spiral.

What if you’re dead-set on joining a health club, even if you suspect low self-esteem is behind that goal?

Cuthbert suggests a good alternative if you can find it: a body-positive gym where the emphasis is not on weight loss or even weight control, but rather on the enjoyment of moving your body, whatever its shape or size. These havens support self-acceptance by modeling acceptance of all bodies.

If you can’t find one of those, you might be okay at a regular gym as long as your reasons for joining are positive. Some good reasons to buy a gym membership include:

  • You want to be strong enough to take the stairs, carry groceries, or do other daily tasks more easily.
  • You want to improve or maintain your overall health regardless of the shape of your body.
  • You like to exercise with others and want to attend classes.
  • You’ve had a membership before and enjoyed using it.
  • A gym membership genuinely feels like a gift, and going to the gym does not feel like punishment.

Dawson suggests asking yourself the following question before signing up: “If getting a gym membership wouldn’t change the way my body looks at all, would I still want to get one?”

If the answer is yes, then go for it. The alarm is already set, your gear is ready to go, and it sounds like you are, too. Have fun at Zumba class, in the pool, or swinging those kettlebells.

If your answer is more along the lines of, “Of course not—that would defeat the purpose of going to the gym!” consider investing in therapy instead. Why pay for an experience that could further injure your self-esteem and solidify existing issues?

No matter how often our image-obsessed society tries to convince us our bodies have to look perfect, with support we can learn to love ourselves exactly as we are.


  1. Gym membership statistics. (2016, October 30). Retrieved from
  2. New Year’s Eve resolutions 2016: Top 10 most popular commitments for self-improvement. (2014, December 31). Latin Times. Retrieved from
  3. Webley, K. (2012, January 1). Top 10 commonly broken New Year’s resolutions. Time. Retrieved from,28804,2040218_2040220,00.html

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, Self-Esteem Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • heidi

    January 6th, 2017 at 12:30 PM

    I would love to join a gym but for the sake of my budget I can’t ever figure out how to do that and still have a little extra left over at the end of the month. I have always just had to resign myself to walking or running outside and doing some cardio videos and strength training. For me luckily this has always been enough and I can self motivate so that I don’t need that pressure of going in some where to make me work out. I do think though for a lot of people who struggle with this having a gym membership can be a great motivator to go exercise and eat right. Who wants to pay for something every month that you aren’t using?

  • Stella

    January 7th, 2017 at 11:31 AM

    No I have mine to keep happy and healthy that seems like the right reasons to me

  • Annie G

    January 9th, 2017 at 4:32 AM

    No because I know me. I know that I see these stories all the time about how I don’t need the gym membership, that everything that I do there I could do just as effectively at home.
    But what I need that maybe others don’t is that sense of accountability that having that membership makes me feel. I feel so guilty if I don’t go and I am paying for it and I especially feel guilty if I have joined a certain class there and then skip a meeting
    Maybe the guilt trip isn’t so effective on other people but it is on me and if that’s what I have to do for myself to go workout then I guess so be it.

  • Reid

    January 9th, 2017 at 8:40 AM

    Look, I don’t think that there is a right reason or a wrong reason. Well I guess that ultimately there could be but even if you are doing it for the wrong reasons don’t you think that at least you are up and moving and getting something positive out of it in the process?
    And although you may start this journey with the wrong intentions or motivation it could, after a bit of really hard work, actually turn into something good in your life.
    You might start seeing the results that you wanted to see and this is going to be what you needed to inspire you to keep moving forward.
    Even though something may have started out wrong, it doesn’t have to always stay that way.

  • cooper

    January 9th, 2017 at 2:20 PM

    The folks who work at the gym they are just doing their jobs and selling memberships, I get that. But do you think that at some point they too have to speak up and take some responsibility? They should have a pretty clear idea of who is coming in to make a real difference in their lives and who isn’t. I am not saying that they now have to offer some counseling but wow, wouldn’t it be great to have folks who worked in these places who could help us understand ourselves and our reasons a little bit better? Or is that too much to ask?

  • Caitlyn

    January 10th, 2017 at 11:11 AM

    There is a part of me that knows this is true, that losing weight is not the ultimate key to my happiness but at the same time I just feel like it can only do good things for my self image and self esteem to lose some weight and to get a little more confident in how I look. I understand that looks are not the only thing, but we do have to remember that this is the first thing that someone will notice about you so it has to make some kind of difference at some point. And if I know that other people are not judging me and looking at me critically then maybe as a small step I can stop doing this quite as much to myself.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    January 10th, 2017 at 4:45 PM

    Hi Caitlyn,
    It’s hard to avoid feeling judged in our weight-conscious society. I’m afraid there won’t come a time, no matter what you look like, when you’re going to feel certain others aren’t judging you.
    So if you only stop judging yourself AFTER you feel acceptable to others, well… you might be waiting a long time.
    If you beat everyone to the punch and stop judging yourself first, then it truly won’t matter what others think.
    I know it’s a tall order, but self-love is a good antidote to the unnecessary shame so many of us have about our bodies.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and good luck.

  • Caitlyn

    January 14th, 2017 at 12:36 PM

    Thanks for that encouragement. I need all the help I can get!

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