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The science of gym lighting can make or break your member retention

The science of gym lighting can make or break your member retention

Few design choices can instantly upgrade the look and feel of your fitness business like light, so if you’re looking to hold onto more members, it’s time to give your lighting situation some reflection.

“Lighting, like music, can significantly impact the focus, energy and mood of a fitness space,” says Carlos Davila, M.A. in developmental psychology, member of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology and a trainer at Fhitting Room in New York City. The right lighting can boost mood and workout performance, and the wrong lighting can tire your members or make a high-energy class feel lackluster.

Essentially, optimizing the lighting in every corner of your club will elevate the member experience, and if you can give your members a stellar experience time and time again, they’re more likely to stick around. (Read more about gym member retention here.)

The science of lighting

Lighting is important because it affects the body’s circadian rhythms, which affects energy levels, says Rudy Fabiano, founder of Fabiano Designs, a New Jersey-based interior design firm that specializes in community-based facilities like fitness centers. “If we’re talking about exercise and optimizing people’s performance, then we need to understand that lighting affects our bodies.”

Circadian rhythms are natural processes in your body that follow a 24-hour cycle. The sleep-wake cycle is probably the best-known, and it’s mainly affected by the light in your environment. Sunlight helps you perk up in the morning, whereas darkness lulls you to sleep at night. But even artificial light affects your circadian rhythms, which then impacts your mood and energy. See: the sunlamps people use to treat seasonal depression in the winter.

Certain types of artificial light have stronger effects than others. Blue lights tend to be the most energizing, whereas red lights are more relaxing. Blue wavelengths (found in sunlight and your smartphone screen) actually suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep, according to a 2019 review in The Journal of Biological and Medical Rhythm Research.

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How light affects exercise

So, what does light have to do with your workouts? For starters, check out this PLoS One study: Researchers exposed a group of men to bright light (roughly the equivalent of a typical office) and another group to dim light for 160 minutes. During the final 40 minutes of exposure, the men hopped on an exercise bike and pedaled away while researchers kept tabs on their total work. Both groups came back on a separate day to repeat the test in the other lighting condition. Both groups generated significantly more power per minute after they were exposed to bright light than they did following dim light.

But don’t write off other types of light just yet. Red lights, for example, may not have the same effects on your circadian rhythm as blue, but they still have a place in exercise. (Just go to a boutique fitness studio like Barry’s and Rumble.) Namely, red lights can give you a burst of energy by stimulating your “fight-or-flight” response. (Related reading: How Barry’s pivoted to digital during the pandemic.)

Case in point: When University of Rochester researchers showed a group of students the color red on a computer monitor, they squeezed a handgrip harder and faster than they did after seeing the colors blue and gray. Researchers speculate that students reacted so quickly and forcefully to the color red because they saw it as a danger cue.

Notably, this type of lighting works best in group fitness studios, where classes are less than an hour long. If you incorporate red lights into a general gym area, where members work at their own pace, this strategy could backfire and make people tired, Fabiano says.

Woman doing yoga in well-lit studio

How to use light to your advantage

Now that you recognize just how important lighting is to the mood and energy of your fitness facility, it’s time to figure out how to make it work for your members.

If you own a boutique studio…

Have fun with colors

Multi-colored lighting is having a moment in fitness, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t get in on this trend. Bright colors can liven up group fitness classes.

If you’re lighting a spin or rowing class, try synchronizing the colored lights with the music to transform the studio into a nightclub. “This inherently cues the rider or participant that they’re about to have fun and takes the focus away from insecurities and anxieties that tend to accompany boutique fitness spaces,” Davila says.

Blue and red lights are popular choices, but don’t be afraid to experiment with other colors, like greens, yellows and pinks, Fabiano says. (Read more about the latest fitness trends.)

A cheap way to experiment with lighting is to buy some color-changing smart light bulbs. Simply screw the bulb into a lamp or other light fixture and choose your colors. The Phillips Hue bulb, for example, offers a whopping 16 million colors and 50,000 shades of white. You can download the accompanying app and easily switch colors from the app over Bluetooth. One bulb costs about $50.

If you own a large gym...

Encourage natural light as much as possible

Natural light is the most under-appreciated type of light you can have indoors, says Fabiano.

If you have the budget, incorporate more windows or skylights into your main workout space. This not only brings in natural light—proven to improve mood and energy levels—it also lets members quickly touch base with the world outside in between sets or hard intervals.

“You need to make some decisions about the number of windows and where to put them for maximum benefit,” Fabiano says. “But I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘we shouldn’t have put them in there.’”

If windows are in the cards for your club, Tim Welsh, senior vice president of development at Crunch Fitness, recommends building them higher off the ground (at least eight feet up). This way, you can keep wall space free for mirrors and equipment, while still allowing natural light to come through. This will also offer good lighting for any workout videos you plan to shoot in your space.

If windows aren’t an option, install LED light sources that mimic the sun throughout the day. The Alcon Color-Changing Linear Slim LED Pendant Light allows you to change the lighting in your space from a remote control or an app on your smartphone. “People are going to feel good without even knowing why,” Fabiano says.

If your gym has different rooms for different classes...

Use light to set certain areas apart

If you have an open-gym concept—that is, few doors and walls—you can still create the illusion of separate spaces through the strategic use of lighting. And with the right lights, you can transform the energy within those “spaces.”

Crunch gyms, for one, are designed to feel open. However, they use different lighting to minimize or draw attention to various spaces, or zones, throughout the club. For example, the space where their HIITZone class takes place becomes brighter when a class is in session. Other spots in the club are dimmed to keep the energy in the HIIT space higher and to make that class the focal point, says Welsh.

You can achieve a similar effect by using brighter lights in high-energy areas of the club. Colored lights can help set these areas apart even more.

Sometimes, Fabiano will take a dual light fixture (a fixture that has two lights side-by-side) in a functional training area that also hosts group fitness classes and place a blue light bulb in one fixture and a white bulb in the other. Then, he’ll point the blue light toward the ceiling so it creates a halo effect. The blue light lends a blue tone to the space, which then intensifies when you turn off the white light fixture and leave the blue fixture on. Gyms can use this approach to change the identity and mood of that space when it’s time for a group fitness class.

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