Why Most Fitness Programs Fail

It's only partially because people are lazy.

A woman does a frog stand

As the global population has grown more unhealthy and less fit over the past four decades, the number and variety of health and fitness gurus promising to solve their problems has multiplied like Tribbles on the Enterprise.

While choice and variety are part of The American Way, there's a big logical problem with this embarassment of riches: if any of the advertised methods were significantly more effective than the others, everyone would be doing it by now. The fact that none have moved the needle to any substantial degree suggests that there are no outliers in terms of success.

The fitness industry has a saying: "simplify for results, complicate for profits." When athletes and entertainers need to get in peak physical shape for a competition or a role, trainers use boring, repetitive programs that combine:

  1. multi-joint strength exercises like squats, pull-ups, and deadlifts with
  2. cardiovascular exercises like running, bicycling, jump-rope, or burpees, and
  3. sport-specific movements that apply to the particular goals of the individual.
A man doing pull-ups

But when it comes to working with personal-training clients - and especially when it's time to sell something online, all of the tried-and-true methods are replaced with an endless variety of complex routines designed to keep people engaged, entertained, and spending money. Some, like Barre and Yoga, focus on precise body movements; others use a variety of specialized accessories, like resistance bands, bosu balls, or kettlebells. Many mix-and-match various elements of different styles into a sort of fitness puree.

Spend a couple of years doing Yoga or Barre, and you'll probably be fairly pleased with your progress. But most people don't have the determination to stick through the uncoordinated beginner stages of these exacting disciplines. This is because overly complex fitness programs inherently appeal to people who are not motivated by results (because it's hard to track your progress if you're constantly switching exercises), but only stick around as long as they aren't bored. Since virtually any form of physical exercise turns into tedious manual labor after a while, especially if it doesn't seem to provide any benefit, this results in the familiar phenomenon of people "trying it for a while," and then switching to something else.

A woman doing a complex exercise

Complicate for Profit

Under the wide umbrella of "complicate to profit" programs, there are two basic approaches: friendly, and hardcore. Friendly programs are designed to be accessible, nonjudgmental, and often targeted at people struggling with their weight. Examples inlude Noom, Daily Burn, and apps that offer an endless variety of follow-along-at-home exercises. Hardcore programs are designed to be challenging, competitive, and targeted at people who want to either make a major lifestyle change or recapture a level of fitness they may have enjoyed in their youth. Hardcore programs include Crossfit, P90X, and various flavors of bodybuilding, powerlifting and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training).

A woman working with an online fitness class

It's important to note that, in theory, most of these programs could work to improve overall fitness, at least in the short-term. Doing something active is almost always better than doing nothing at all. However, the main reasons these programs usually fail their users are these:

  • Lack of consistency. How many people do you know that tried one of these programs and were still enthusiastic about it 6 months or a year later? Crossfit in particular is notorious for encouraging a cult-like level of engagement, only for people to quickly burn out on spending an hour or more in the gym every day, being encouraged to push themselves so hard they "meet pukey."
  • Unrealistic expectations. Yes, the people who lead and promote these programs are strong, lean, and attractive. The only problem is that they probably already were strong, lean, and attractive before they started. In reality, they probably got that way by playing sports as kids, and doing boring exercises like squats, pull-ups, and running. Most programs also use "before and after" photos of users in their marketing. These "transformations" make persuasive ads, but very often the people featured in before-and-afters are either returning to a previously high level of fitness (which is much easier than starting from scratch), or have never done anything, and are tapping into their genetic potential for the first time. Either way, customers who expect to get similar results are almost invariably disappointed.
  • Inadequate nutrition. Some programs - Noom in particular - do make a concerted effort to incorporate nutrition into their fitness plans. Most of the others only provide cursory guidelines, like suggestions to cut back on sugary drinks. While that's good advice, it's not adequate to take the average person with a dysfunctional endocrine system and give them a superhero physique in 90 days. Another fitness industry saying is "abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym." Working out and ignoring the importance of nutrition is never going to yield decent results for either fat loss or muscle gain.
  • Incomplete development. The human body works best as a unit. That's why gym-rats who "skip leg day" are the butt of internet meme jokes. It's also why multi-joint movements like pull-ups are more productive than single-joint exercises like bicep curls. It's also why people who have been sedentary tend to get hurt shortly after they start exercising. Our bodies are designed with muscles that balance and complement each other. By focusing on, for example, push-ups and crunches for the front of the body, but neglecting exercises that strengthen the posterior chain on the back of the body, workout routines set people up for injury.
  • Incorrect preparation. Muscles adapt relatively quickly to new demands. Connective tissue - the tendons and ligaments that attach muscles to the skeleton - take much longer to stretch or grow, and even longer to heal once they've been damaged. Too many fitness instructors are still advising people to start a workout by stretching, without warming up adequately (or at all). Pulling on a stiff muscle is like yanking on a cold rubber band, and just as likely to have undesirable consequences. Likewise, finishing a workout without stretching out properly increases the likelihood of soreness and stiffness that can be a deterrent to future efforts, and even reduce flexibility, increasing the probability of future injury.

To be sure, some programs are better than others, and most would probably be beneficial if followed carefully. But, to the extent that all of them prioritize complexity and variety over consistency and safety, they should all be examined with a skeptical eye being purchased.