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Nine Steps to a Successful Nutrition Challenge

For those gym owners, community leaders, and Facebook admins running a Whole30 in the new year… we remind you of our nine easy steps to a successful nutrition challenge. See you in January!

One of the most common questions we receive is, “How do I run a successful nutrition challenge at my gym?” This is usually followed by a variety of complaints about past challenges, all related to their general “flop” status. (Members didn’t care enough about nutrition to participate, most who started bailed halfway through, and those who stuck it out didn’t see results worth writing home about.)

The honest (but difficult) answer is that the structure of your challenge, and your nutrition program in general, probably did not facilitate a successful 30 day challenge for your members.

We talk to gym owners about implementing an ongoing, sustainable nutrition focus at every one of our Trainer’s Workshops, and running regular nutrition challenges are a big part of that effort. But, as many gym owners have realized, slapping together a 30 day “Look Good Naked” program on your gym’s blog isn’t enough to get real results for your members – and impart upon them the significance of making good dietary choices on a regular basis.

We’ve been running Whole30 programs via our site since July 2009, so we know a thing or two about pulling off a successful short-term “challenge” for our “members.” (Although we never use the word “challenge” around here, we understand why you might want to.) So for the first time, we’ll share with you our best strategies for creating a successful gym-wide nutrition challenge at your facility. (Just in time for the New Year, no less!)

Of course, we recognize our approach is just one of many, and our recommendations may not fit your gym’s culture. So as always, we encourage you to take what you like and leave the rest behind.

1. First, have a comprehensive nutrition program in place.

A 30 day nutrition challenge coming out of left field probably isn’t going to grab the attention of your members for the duration. If nutrition isn’t already a part of your gym’s daily culture, then what’s the point of giving up stuff you really like for 30 days? Consider investing in a comprehensive nutrition program for everyday use (not just at challenge time!), or creating one yourself. You’ve got to make nutrition important in the eyes of your members before you can expect them to get on board with a super-strict program for an entire month.

2. Set clear expectations.

“Eat as close to 100% Paleo as you can” is just about the worst strategy for a nutrition challenge. First, it doesn’t tell your members what you expect of them, which makes it easy for them to buy in, but doesn’t leave them particularly invested long-term. Second, wishy-washy challenge rules guarantees you a painful month of “Is honey Paleo?” and “But what if it’s gluten-free beer?” with no accurate way to actually measure members’ success. A program like the Whole30, with very specific, no-grey-area guidelines, tells your members exactly what you expect of them, and makes it easier for them to decide whether to commit. And once they’re in, they tend to stay in, because they’ve got a SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and timely) goal in mind.

3. Don’t set them up to fail.

Language like, “If you have to drink…” or “If you really find yourself stuck without something to eat…” pretty much guarantees your members are going off the reservation at some point. Language like that tells them you don’t think they’ll make it all the way through – so why bother trying? More importantly, semi-strict Paleo for a month doesn’t often get folks the staggering results of a program like the Whole30, making them less likely to put faith in your nutrition recommendations in general. Wishy-washy rules are a waste of everyone’s time. Take a firm stance – 100% strict for 30 straight days is the most effective path to the results your clients want.

4. Don’t create made-up consequences for their food-related decisions.

We’ve written about this extensively, and we’re going to take a firm stance on it here. Burpee penalties or assigned “points” for going off-plan is a ridiculously ineffective way of imparting upon your members the actual psychological and metabolic consequences of making a poor food choice. It also makes your nutrition program look unprofessional. This isn’t kindergarten. Your clients shouldn’t need the threat of points or exercise penalties to eat their vegetables.

5. Teach them how to fish.

Unless you want your members to continue asking endless questions like, “What do I eat for breakfast if I can’t eat eggs?” or “But what if I don’t like (fill in food here)?” don’t waste your time or money on a 30 day meal plan. Treat them like the big boys and girls they are, because eating like this does require a bit of effort on their part, and the sooner they learn that, the better. Show them where to find recipes and meal planning ideas – or better yet, give them the list of Whole30-friendly recipe links from our Resources page (thousands of recipes, all free!) and tell them to get to cooking! How do you expect them to build long-term, sustainable new habits if you hold their hand every step of the way?

6. Provide daily support.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the last three years, it’s the significance of having a community for efforts like this. If you really want your clients to succeed, you have to provide them with daily (yes, daily!) support via a variety of sources. Gyms who have been successful with their Whole30 programs have created Facebook groups, recipe blogs and nutrition pages through which participants can share tips and tricks, ask for help, and generally keep each other motivated and accountable. Others have weekly meetings with participants, and some have instituted a “buddy program” to provide peer support. These efforts can make the difference between keeping your whole group on track for the duration of the 30 days… or a group that totally fizzles out after the first week of excitement wears off.

7. Don’t make weight loss the primary focus.

The point of a nutrition challenge is to demonstrate that changing their nutrition will lead to long-term, sustainable improvements in health and fitness. Don’t undermine that important message by focusing only on weight loss or body composition changes! That’s just one small indicator of health and fitness, and there are a lot of unhealthy things your members can do in the name of losing weight and “winning” their nutrition challenge. Behavior like that misses the point of your challenge entirely – but it will happen, if you make aesthetics your main focus.

8. Make an essay a big part of selecting your “winner.”

Not everyone in your gym has a lot of weight to lose, or many performance points to gain. But your nutrition challenge will impact some of your members in ways you’d never imagine – and ways you would never, ever know about just by looking at them (or measuring their exercise efforts). Give those folks a chance to win your gym’s challenge by asking all participants to write a short essay, documenting their results. Your members will appreciate the opportunity to share their story, you’ll get to share in success stories you’d otherwise never know about, and your business gains written testimonials that you can use in your PR and marketing efforts.

9. Celebrate your efforts!

In business, “wrap-up” meetings are held after projects to talk about what went well, what could have gone better and what should be done next time to improve results. Honor your members’ successes (and failures) by holding a “wrap-up” celebration of your own. Let members share strategies that worked (and any that didn’t) and talk about what you can do as a community to make the next nutrition challenge even better. Finally, celebrate the success of all who completed their challenge, and hold those folks up as shining examples in your gym, to encourage others to make nutritional changes in their daily life. (P.S. It goes without saying that your wrap-up parties should not include beer and pizza, right?)

We hope these tips will help your gym create, implement and run a successful gym-wide nutrition challenge in the coming year. Post follow-up questions or your own strategies for a successful nutrition challenge to comments.


Interested in our comprehensive, everyday Nutrition Guide for your members? Our nutrition program also includes a separate Whole30® Success Guide, to help you effectively run the original Whole30 program at your gym. Email nutritionguide@whole9life.com for details.

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