The IHRSA Foundation and ABC Fitness Solutions commissioned ClubIntel to conduct a research study examining the motivations and behaviours of US fitness consumers.
The resulting report, called The Next Fitness Consumer,, shows that post-lockdown exercise enthusiasts highly value the physical and mental health benefits of exercise.
Researchers found an active consumer preference for a ‘total fitness experience’ with highly personalised delivery, meaning operators are no longer advised to follow a one-size-fits-all approach.
“Consumers are looking for more choices when it comes to creating their fitness journey,” says Bill Davis, CEO of ABC, “they want variety in equipment, programming, and facilities.”
What motivates consumers to exercise?
Active consumers value physical activity for benefits beyond appearance and weight loss. Nearly half (46 per cent) of consumers surveyed said being active is their number one goal, with mental wellbeing ranking second at 35 per cent and weight loss third at 32 per cent.
A previous IHRSA report, The COVID era fitness consumer: Part 4 (www.HCMmag.com/COVID4), showed that fitness consumers have been engaging in exercise during the pandemic as a means to manage their stress and mental wellbeing.
Recently, The World Health Organization reported the impact of the pandemic on disrupting mental health services across the globe and although it’s no cure for serious mental illness, independent studies have shown the vital role regular exercise plays in promoting mental health.
In pursuit of all these benefits, fitness professionals and clubs are uniquely positioned to provide the personalised guidance and resources consumers need to engage in consistent physical activity.
What activities are being added?
Consistent with the omnichannel approach that fitness professionals and clubs have been employing, a host of things such as home fitness equipment, digital content, outdoor exercise, and gym and studio usage are shaping the fitness universe of the active consumer.
When compared to pre-COVID levels, active consumers increased their usage of free online workouts by 15 per cent, at-home fitness equipment by 13 per cent, other digital exercise programmes by 8 per cent and outdoor exercise by 7 per cent.
Since the start of the pandemic, nearly half of US consumers have invested in fitness equipment, with one in 10 having spent more than US$1,000.
More than two in five active consumers engage in outdoor exercise (43 per cent), with this move to working out al fresco being a trend that grew by 7 per cent during pandemic lockdowns when health clubs were closed.
Walking, running, hiking, biking, wild swimming and other outdoor socially-distanced activities all grew in popularity.
Some fitness businesses were also quick to pivot in response to the growth in popularity of outdoor exercise, and operators of clubs and studios across the globe moved equipment, fitness programmes and team training outdoors.
The Next Fitness Consumer confirms that outdoor exercise is here to stay, with the trend being backed up by scientific research which has shown that exercising in natural environments can boost self-esteem and mood, reduce stress, and help in the management of the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How will omnichannel develop?
Since consumers returned to their gyms and studios, home and online fitness engagement has continued, as a proportion of consumers have found it convenient to follow a blended workout routine.
Some are using competing services such as Mirror and Peloton, but Davis believes the industry can no longer run in parallel with the home sector and expect the same results as those achieved during home fitness booms in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
“Health club operators must compete and adapt,” he says, “and this is creating exciting opportunities for the industry, because operators now have the knowledge and technology to combine their existing expertise with their own omnichannel offerings to deliver blended experiences that include their brick and mortar offerings and exceed expectations.”
How are consumers feeling generally?
“There was a significant shift in the active consumer’s mindset from ‘fitness’ to ‘wellness’”, says ClubIntel’s Mark Williamson. “There’s an opportunity for operators to bring their wellness message forward more strongly – they need to understand that consumers have pivoted their thinking about an active lifestyle to encompass much more than just physicality and to include mental health as well.”
Regardless of how they choose to exercise, the research found that 75 per cent of active consumers feel on track to meet their fitness and wellness goals. This number increases to 84 per cent when considering active consumers that use a gym or studio, indicating that their membership provides them with better tools, structure, and accountability to reach personal goals.
In addition, 80 per cent of the fitness offerings deemed most relevant by active consumers are available at most health clubs and studios – they include cardio equipment training, flexibility and stretching, free weight training, equipment-based exercise classes and health and nutrition wellness coaching.
With the increasing importance being placed by consumers on access to total fitness experiences, the research indicates that health and nutrition wellness coaching is positioned to grow as a popular offering for both health club operators and fitness professionals.
How about members who cancelled?
Nearly half of active consumers that previously belonged to a big-box gym, but cancelled their membership when the pandemic began, said they intend to return in the next 6-12 months (49 per cent).
This isn’t surprising, given that most relevant fitness offerings among active consumers are accessible for an affordable monthly fee. The research also found that the range of equipment and variety of workouts trigger former members to return to their clubs.
The number one reason cited as an ongoing concern was the fact that the pandemic is not yet under control, with 44 per cent of former members selecting this reason.
As many industry insiders predict, a successful and speedy vaccine rollout is intertwined with industry recovery. Although challenges remain, with COVID-19 cases rumbling on due to variants, The Next Fitness Consumer shows that active members intend to resume their membership once they feel safe to do so and this makes engaging with this cohort a priority for health club operators.
What are the other priorities?
ClubIntel found the next biggest opportunity for operators lies in developing programmes and products to attract people who are not currently active.
A significant 25 per cent of the sample surveyed (representing 25 per cent of the US population) reported that they are not exercising or staying active but that they have an interest in getting active and are essentially waiting for someone to help them – a significant opportunity for operators.
“This is an opportunity for the industry to address consumers’ ‘wellness’ needs to help them feel comfortable and confident with adopting workout programmes,” said Williamson.
The low-waged are also a group asking for support – historically, the industry has been known for attracting affluent, able-bodied professionals in the US and the report shows that Americans with household incomes of at least US$150,000 a year are more likely to be active than those from households with an income of less than US$50,000 (78 per cent vs 59 per cent). However, it also found that nearly a third (31 per cent) of Americans from the lowest income group in the study do not generally exercise but are interested in taking part in regular activity, indicating there may be room in the market for more budget offerings.
Researchers also surveyed unemployed and disabled workers, finding they’re are a small part of the market, with the percentages who are ‘active’ standing at 7 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.
Among people with disabilities, 40 per cent (of the 4 per cent) who do not exercise are interested in getting active and although the number of people in this cohort is smaller than many other consumer groups, there is still an opportunity for fitness businesses to build inclusive programmes and offerings for them.
What do consumers need?
Fundamentally, the research underscores the increasing importance of physical wellness among active people and shows that operators are proving resilient, with a proportion on track to surpass their 2019 numbers by nearly 10 per cent.
“As fitness clubs redefine who they are and the value they provide to members, it’s becoming clear that programming and technology can bring together the disparate elements of member fitness journeys,” says Davis.
“Operators must prioritise and meet a wide variety of member needs, from goal tracking to personalisation to accomplish this.
“While this will look different depending on the club, every operator can craft and deliver customised fitness experiences for its members.”
• The Next Fitness Consumer is available free of charge at www.HCMmag.com/ClubIntelABC