Rohini Vibha
May 4, 2015 · 6 min read

We started seeing each other two years ago.

Though I was initially nervous around him, spending time together quickly became less of a question and more of a routine. It was natural. He loved me for me and I loved him for him.

By the second month, I was attached. But that same month, he stopped trying.

He became so distant that sometimes I wondered if he even noticed me. Yet I never thought about leaving our relationship. Not until our two-year anniversary, on April 12, that is.

When I saw him on April 12, he looked at me with a blank stare. Forget our history, he showed no signs of recognizing me at all. After a pregnant pause, I backed away, letting my shock congeal into a sort of relief.

It was over.

If this man doesn't sound human, it’s because he wasn’t.

Mine wasn't a romantic relationship, but a customer relationship: With my gym. The story still holds, however, that after almost 530 interactions over two years, our relationship ended in less than a minute.

The two of us sharing a precious moment

Why it ended

1. I was used for my money

After almost daily visits for the last two years, one day, without warning, the computer gym denied me access when I attempted to sign in.

“Oh, your membership expired,” said the lady at the front desk as she looked at my confused look then her computer screen.

“Well, I don’t have my credit card on me, so I’m not sure what to do.”

“You can come in just for today. Only today. Be sure to bring your credit card tomorrow.” She assumed I would renew.

At that moment, I realized that our relationship was, and always would be, transactional.

2. After two years, I was still just some girl

I looked back at her, the first person to whom I say good morning almost every day. I know her shift. I know that she likes to do bicep curls when she’s alone at the desk. I know what she’s studying in school.

But to her, I was just some delinquent former gym member. I may as well have been one of those people who signed up as a new year’s resolution then never returned.

In her defense, it’s not her responsibility to convince me to stay. She has no incentive to do so. Her job is to welcome people who make it past the electronic sign-in.

3. My effort went unacknowledged

I know a gym membership can’t be free. But I was shocked that there was no acknowledgement of my accomplishment. Two consistent years of visits is no easy task.

As of 2013, only 17 percent of Americans had gym memberships.

Twelve percent of new memberships start in January, which represents over a third of overall new memberships. By February, 80 percent of this New Year’s crowd stops coming in. In fact, gyms expect that only 20 percent of people who purchase memberships will actually use them.

It’s unfathomable, then, that after exceeding my gym’s expectation, I didn't receive a simple, “congratulations” or “thank you for your membership (a.k.a business).”

Unsurprisingly, I had no problem leaving for good.

It’s clear from the data that most people can easily find reasons not to go to the gym. As I left the gym that day, I felt no desire to renew my membership — despite its significant role in my routine and despite the fact that it only costs 51 cents a day. My gym didn’t seem that desperate for me to renew either. This was its tragic flaw. Gyms that exercise even some customer empathy would recognize how easy it is to lose members (and their steady payments) and do something about it.

The gift I received in the mail from Nike

How someone else won my cardio

About a year into my gym membership, I discovered the free Nike Training Club app. Essentially a personal trainer on your phone, the app is an ever-growing set of strength and cardio workouts led by professional athletes. Most workouts require nothing more than a mat and weights. Though I could do these workouts anywhere, I typically did them in a little corner of the gym where I could get crunching after an outdoor run. The gym was just my 3rd place — not home, not outside — to do the routine.

1. We’re building a history together

Getting to the next milestone

Even during short, 15-minute workouts, trainer voices encouraged me to stay strong and keep at it.

“Feel the burn. You can do it.”

“You might hate it now, but it’ll be sooo worth it.”

I felt results immediately and saw them shortly after.

Milestones are set by time, and each workout got me a little closer to the next milestone.

Today, I’m currently at minute-4947 — 53 minutes from the 5000-minute milestone.

2. I am individually recognized

When I hit milestones, I shared my progress with the world. Though I expected some (high-low) jabs from friends, I didn’t at all expect this:

At the 1250-minute mark

It was an indescribably wonderful feeling, being recognized by someone when I didn’t even know there was someone there. I bragged to anyone who would listen. More motivated than before, I continued to share my progress as I hit more milestones, relishing every extra push from @nikewomen.

3. I am treated like a friend

One month before the expiration of my gym membership, I came home to a box waiting at my front door. It was from Portland. Not having ordered anything myself, I cautiously opened it to find a handwritten card and brand new training shoes from Nike. Just because. It was like getting an unexpected present from a friend.

To put things in perspective, the shoes are equivalent in retail value to 10 months of gym membership.

A loyal relationship is a marathon not a sprint.

My Nike swag

I’m one month in to my exclusive relationship with Nike Training Club. Though I don’t pay them anything for my membership, Nike makes me feel more valuable to them than my gym ever did. They realize I pay in other ways like good ratings, word-of-mouth marketing, and the fact that — consciously or not — I’ll gravitate to Nike sportswear. In other words, with little investment up-front, Nike has sculpted me into a fan for life. I want to be their MVP.

As well-loved brands are expanding into additional services, yesterday’s gold medalists can’t afford to sit around and watch from the sidelines. With a build-it-and-they-will-come attitude, my gym can never compete in this world where customer relationships are more important than ever before. Alternatives are endless and barriers to switching are low. How might gyms encourage member loyalty? How might they create unique experiences for active members? How might they inspire non-active members to become active ones?

Until they can figure it out, I have no plans of returning to my gym. We had a good run. I’m sorry it didn’t work out.

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Rohini Vibha

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I like to play with words. Business Designer @IDEO. Read more on

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"It doesn't occur to most people that everything is designed" - Bill Moggridge

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