Illustration by Dave van Patten

Why the January Gym Bubble Always Bursts

Advice on achieving your fitness goals from a gym owner named ‘The Beast’

Let’s be frank: Sticking to a goal is damn near impossible. Before you scoff at that assessment, think back to how many goals you have achieved and seen a successful end of. Maybe there was that time you studied and aced that spelling bee in eighth grade, or when you decided to take up knitting and wound up giving birth to a cute little pair of mittens you’ll never wear. However, most of the time when people create goals for themselves, they either come up short or forget about them completely. I once made it a goal to start brewing my own beer until I remembered that you can buy beer literally anywhere at any time, so what’s even the point?

At the beginning of each year, however, goals take on a different name: resolutions. Prime New Year’s Eve party-conversation material, a resolution is something to achieve in the new year, which you’ll most likely completely abandon. There’s no better place to see the trajectory of this time-honored tradition of goal-breaking in motion than at your local gym. For the first couple weeks in January, gyms are full of fresh faces with a single mission in mind: to get super duper fit. In fact, according to a 2015 survey by Statistic Brain, the number one resolution people make is to lose weight. (Number eight was to “Help others achieve their dreams,” whatever that is.)

Fitness and resolutions go hand-in-hand, like Ellen Degeneres and dancing. But the same survey found that a mere 39 percent of people actually follow through and achieve their resolutions, whether fitness-related or generally speaking. (That number drops down to just 14 percent for people over 50. Sorry, boomers.) Gyms know this full well and they thrive on it. While they’re filled to the brim with new members in early January, attendance declines as the weeks go on—and by huge margins. At Gold’s Gym, traffic sores 40 percent in January, but of course it doesn’t last.

So, what’s the deal? Why do so many people who, at first seem so gung-ho about their resolutions, eventually just throw up their hands and go back to their old ways? Are gyms designed to spit people out as quickly as possible, or are people just inherently lazy? Searching for answers, I went to New York City’s DogPound. While it may sound like a place where Golden Retrievers spend the weekend, it’s actually a popular training facility where the likes of Victoria’s Secret Angels and Hugh Jackman work out. (In other words, it’s where people who are way more fit than you go.)

“Yeah, a lot of resolutions tend to fail,” concedes Brey “Beast” Peña, DogPound co-founder. Beast, as we’ll call him, seems to be made of 90 percent muscle and has a personality like Tony Robbins crossed with the aforementioned Golden Retriever. Beast and his team are well-accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the crowds at the DogPound throughout the year. “In fitness, you always have your highs and lows,” he notes. “The end of December is always slow. Actually, the slowest week in fitness overall is usually the third to fourth week of December.” And then what? “Everyone’s back by early January.” And then it starts to level off again.

Beast has a theory as to why so many resolutions, especially fitness ones, fall flat. “I think people tend to give up too easily,” he says. “Anything in life is going to be hard for the first three weeks, whether it be juicing, cleansing, or training. Anything.”

Another theory is the fact that many people set unrealistic goals for themselves. The more unrealistic, the harder to achieve, the easier to fail. “Let’s say you want to drop 20 pounds in a week,” Beast says. “That’s impossible, because you accomplish goals when it comes to longevity and regular, steady hard work. You want to give yourself time to see rewards. …. Time is everything, whether it’s with working out, work, or personal goals. I love putting in the time and hard work into everything I do. When you don’t, that’s how goals fail.”

Joe Murphy, a strength and conditioning coach who’s helped countless clients attain their fitness goals, echoes those sentiments. “Many times I think people start their resolutions expecting the weight loss to to be quick and easy,” he says. “That’s why most people who haven’t been actively working out fall off and stop using the gym. They are impatient and if they aren’t seeing quick results, they think it’s just a waste of their time.” In addition, realizing a goal means to change something about yourself. “People seem to struggle with change,” Murphy says. “It ultimately comes down to self discipline. Can you be motivated and handle the change and stress of working your body differently then you have before?”

So how does one become an outlier and actually, you know, make good on their fitness resolution, much to the envy of their friends and family? Back at the DogPound, Beast has some ideas. (Three, to be exact.) “One, find something fun to do, because it has to be something fun in order for you to stick with it. Anything you dread is going to be a nuisance. Two, never have your favorite foods in the house. Me, I love peanut butter and I keep it out of reach when I’m trying to watch my diet. …. And three, give yourself at least three months to accomplish something. When you eventually start to see results, you’ll only want to continue. Our biggest enemy is ourselves.”

With that last sentiment, maybe Beast has a point. When it comes to making resolutions, the beautiful and ugly part is that no one’s going to make you achieve your goals, besides, well, you. Goals, in essence, are intensely personal, and failure is squarely on one’s own shoulders. At the same time, however, so is success. Perhaps that’s what makes missing a resolution so bitter, and completing one so sweet. Now, get off your ass and make a resolution you can actually keep… even if your nickname isn’t “Beast.”