According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), health club industry revenue totaled $87.2 billion in 2017. The same survey also reported that 60.9 million people worldwide are members of health clubs, up from 45.6 million in 2008 – a 33.6 percent growth.
These numbers might seem at odds with the growing trend of enhanced performance and virtual home fitness equipment such as Peloton and Tonal, but gyms and fitness centers bring something to the table that simply cannot be experienced from your living room: community.
Community is what keeps gym members engaged, motivated and coming back for more. From OPEX Fitness:
Often times when we hear the word ‘community’, we instantly associate it with ‘unity’, ‘togetherness.’ Within gyms, ‘the community’ is most often the #1 response of every day folks who report on what keeps them coming back to their training, day in and day out. Clearly, a strong community is the most important aspect to a gym’s long-term success.
Moreover, these gym communities have evolved into a cultural identity that extends beyond the workout itself. From WIRED:
In the past few years, fitness has developed into something of a social identity — at least among plugged-in, upper-middle-class, roughly millennial-age urbanites. SoulCycle is marketed as an experiential group high; you pay a bunch of money to sweat it out with the Lululemon elite. If you join Orangetheory, you’re part of the “orange nation.” Barry’s Bootcamp, Throwback Fitness, and the Bar Method are all at least partly social. And on the more extreme end, CrossFit has basically become a lifestyle, with paleo diets and buttered coffee as much a part of the culture as burpees.
The IHRSA report claims that gyms and fitness clubs have the potential to continue these trends of growth, but they must seek out an extended audience. By developing fitness communities and growing awareness in key markets through media, club brands can reach beyond the “boxes” to new members while sustaining loyalty with their existing customers.
Fitness club brands know that more people are coming to classes and group sessions, but they need to understand what motivated this trend toward fitness communities in order to build them more fully.
Several factors have contributed:
- Greater access to information about self-care and health. According to this article from NPR, online resources and social media have brought on a cultural shift toward valuing health. Millennials seek information on therapies, healthy eating, exercise, meditation and medicine in reaction to health problems brought on by previous generations including soaring obesity rates and formerly growing rates of terminal cancer (on the decline since this cultural shift).
- The deterioration of former social hotspots (brought on largely by social media and home entertainment). Perhaps partly due to their obsessions with self-care and health, Millennials are not seeking out traditional nightlife activities such as bars and clubs with heavy drinking. Fewer people in general are going to church or places of worship. Shopping malls haven’t been hangouts for some time (actually, even teens are meeting up at gyms). Gyms, due to their positive contributions to modern values (health) and strong communities are, in fact, being compared to churches.
- The rare opportunity to unplug. One of the greatest challenges to being “live and in person” is that everyone is buried in their smartphones. While many people still hop on the treadmill with Instagram pulled up, fitness classes require listening to instructors (no headphones), constant full-body motion that often ties up hands (gripping handlebars, lifting weights, punching bags, etc.), and the need to be present (finding proper form, watching others). It is one of the few places people can come together and truly cannot be on their phones.
These contributing factors are reinforced by even greater health benefits that come through true social interaction. According to the Gallup-Healthways Happiness-Stress Index:
Of the more than 140,000 Americans Gallup-Healthways has surveyed so far, the individuals who report being alone all day (zero hours of social time) perform the poorest on the Happiness-Stress Index, with only 32 percent experiencing much enjoyment/happiness and nearly as many experiencing intense stress and worry (27 percent). This results in a happiness-stress ratio of one-to-one. The reverse is true for those who devote a large part of their day to social time, with the happiness-stress ratio rising for each additional hour of time spent socializing up to six to seven hours – at which point the happiness-stress ratio peaks.
And when these factors are added together, fitness communities specifically offer something everyone is craving in an increasingly “plugged-in” but “disconnected” society: a chance to be physically and mentally present in a space where many people have gathered and are also present, and everyone shares the desire and struggle to be healthy.
Steady streams of endorphins help, too.
By understanding that people go to gyms to find communities that are like-minded and physically present – that they are seeking health and information, a sense of belonging and social identity in the real-life world as well as encouragement and support (and sometimes even hugs) – fitness brands can take an active role in providing the experiences members value:
- Be a hub of relevant health information. People join fitness communities because they value their health both physically and mentally. Fitness apps like My Fitness Pal and gear brands like Fitbit often post healthy recipes and wellness articles exclusive to members and users. Gyms could also share informative media with members who want a more holistic approach to their health.
- Create social opportunities among members. Dancing in the park, happy hours, parties and other meet-ups outside of the usual class give members a chance to bond.
- Champion and acknowledge members’ successes. Life Time Fitness has promotions such as The 60-Day Challenge for which success stories are shared among other members. CrossFit has events and competitions worldwide. Many boutique gyms post leaderboards or show stats in real time.
- Provide opportunities for non-members to engage. Trial classes, meet-and-greets and promotional activities could motivate people to try something new. On November 4, 2018, as everyone was rolling back the clock and sleeping in, Orangetheory Fitness offered a free workout to anyone and everyone for the “25th Hour.” The idea was that people who said they otherwise “didn’t have time” to work out had an extra hour that day – and a free class to fill it with.
- Create a strong, unique brand/community identity. While gyms should strive to be inclusive and open to new members, people go to gyms seeking a sense of belonging to something. SoulCycle is an excellent example of how a unique experience can be built.
To members or potential members craving community, belonging and interaction, a gym can be every bit as important as a doctor, a church, a job or a personal relationship. Brands have the opportunity to really double down and own a much larger narrative than “spin class” or “barre” and position themselves as health authorities, emotional support, the best part of someone’s day and a place where you can find your people.