The Good Soul IHRSA Series - Part 2: Everybody wants to rule the world

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

As the world comes back, clubs are proving their weight in membership dues as the favorite place to exercise for health and wellness enthusiasts.


This is the second instalment of our series of articles which mark our roll into IHRSA in Dallas (13-15 October), and IHRSA Smart Summit in Munich (17-19 November), where we look forward to fist bumping you IRL. We’re hosting short, sharp mobile meetings to share the epic shifts in talent acquisition and look forward to raising a glass with you at the bar.


Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive


There’s no doubt that the pandemic placed ‘health’ at the base of our ‘hierarchy of fitness’ needs. Nothing like the motivation of avoiding a one-way trip to the hospital or morgue to stir up priorities once it became clear that underlying health issues – obesity, high blood pressure, heart conditions – worsened the effects of COVID-19. Thankfully the industry, supported by the advocacy from associations, has strengthened fitness as an essential part in the overall health solution. Being able to leave home to exercise outside not only reengaged our connection with nature, but spawned the resurgence in outdoor fitness and movement per se.


Hiit me with your best shot


Let’s face it - lockdowns are like HIIT (high intensity interval training). They come hard and fast and by the time you get to the 4th round, there’s nothing left in the tank.


We’ve all been sent back to our rooms to think about what we did. Not only has this given us the time and space to reassess our relationship with fitness, but also the broader meaning of our lives. COVID-19 has spawned a brand new wellness mindset, which now permeates our global consciousness of how we intend to live going forward.


Day-to-day decision-making has been brought into focus. Food, movement, social outreach, self evolution and even activism. This has had an effect on people’s every-day decision-making. From an increased focus on healthy diets to incorporating more exercise into their lives, people are generally more aware of what is good for them – and actually follow that awareness with actions. This manifested in the way bikes were dusted down and wheeled out from the garage, running shoe sales went skyward and digital fitness services exploded in 2020.


This shift was detected by a number of studies from around the world. A study of the Italian population reported increased physical activity, especially for bodyweight training, in 38.3 percent of respondents. A similar study in India observed an improvement in healthy meal consumption pattern and a restriction of unhealthy food items. So whether in Italy or India, in Belgium or Bali, people finally got it. Keeping fit can keep you alive.


However, there are only so many burpees, bike classes and booty bands mere mortals can endure, as each new set of lockdowns ensue - breaking both hope and stride. By January 2021, experts in the UK had detected the tell tale signs that people, including children – were becoming less and less physically active. A huge demotivator in the northern hemisphere invariably being the winter lockdowns. With shorter days and longer cold spells – with the gyms, swimming pools and sports clubs remaining closed – bikes became coathangers and fitness subscriptions were replaced with Netflix, and food and alcohol delivery.


Let’s get physical


The power of the club is laid out in The Next Fitness Consumer report, compiled by ClubIntel, the IHRSA Foundation and ABC Fitness Solutions. Conducted in June 2021, the study examines the exercise motivations and preferences of US fitness consumers post-lockdown and beyond. The report is based on a survey of consumers who are either currently physically active, or are not active but are interested in being so.


It shows that, by the time we emerged from winter, fitness had floated back to the top of consumer consciousness as nearly two-thirds reported exercising regularly – great news for the health clubs and studios that have survived the pandemic.


“The surge in demand for fitness is encouraging and opportunities remain for the industry to meet the physical activity needs of consumers,” IHRSA Foundation says in the report.


The study shows that clubs and studios still have a huge role to play in people's fitness regime. Perhaps even a bigger role than before the pandemic, because not only is there a new, health-and exercise-conscious cohort eager to improve their fitness, the people who were already “in the zone” pre lockdowns are keen to return with a vengeance.


This is evidenced by the report showing that, although the pandemic saw unprecedented numbers of membership cancellations, nearly half (49 per cent) of the US members who did cancel are eager to rejoin their clubs within six to 12 months of reopening.


The main reasons for re-joining were given as:

• The range of equipment (53 percent)

• Amenities (45 percent)

• The variety of workouts available (40 percent)

• The routine of going to the gym (38 percent).


Crucially, more than a third (35 percent) also said they'd re-join a club or studio as it provides them with a more motivating environment to exercise in.


In short, the report proves that people still prefer to workout at purpose-built facilities with the kit they love. The more clubs can provide the backdrop for transformation the more powerful proposition for those willing to return.


Because while the way people accessed fitness during the pandemic changed, their favorite workouts did not. The five most popular exercise methods among active US consumers are cardio equipment training, free weights, flexibility/stretching, equipment-based exercise classes and health/wellness coaching. All of these are readily available at most clubs.


The Next Fitness Consumer report provides some useful advice to facility owners: “The exercise preferences of active consumers attest to the gyms and studios as the go-to hubs of fitness and wellness. As you re-engage members and attract new prospects, keep the attractions of your clubs upgraded regularly, in working order, and in compliance with safety guidelines.


“The next fitness consumer values what fitness clubs have to offer and is poised to engage with gyms and studios – now and in the future.”


I like big butts but I cannot lie


While the report makes reassuring reading for bricks-and-mortar fitness providers, there are some honorable buts worth mentioning. If only half of the members are returning, what are the other half doing (at least within the next 6-12 months)?


Fear and confusion takes some of the claim in the US. After all - a little shot of bleach goes a long way. With the highly varied handling of pandemic protocols in America, nearly half (44 percent) of those who said they’re staying away said they were not confident COVID-19 was sufficiently under control in their area.


Some have decided to tackle this issue head on. Luxury lifestyle brands Equinox and SoulCycle announced their impending requirement of proof of vaccination across New York and Southern Californian businesses. The announcement was made just days before New York City mayor Bill de Blasio said that in order for New Yorkers to take part in certain indoor activities, proof of vaccination would be needed.


Among other reasons people quoted for staying away from clubs was a significant shakeup in their work/life balance (28 percent of respondents), where visiting a gym was no longer convenient. A total of 14 percent said they had not re-joined because their preferred club had closed permanently.


Another positive worth pointing out is that, out of those who do not currently plan to return, only a quarter (25 percent) said they've adopted an alternative option for fitness and “no longer need a club”. This is in stark contrast to the doomsayers, who predicted that at-home fitness and the digital revolution seen in 2020 would “definitely kill off the gym industry”. And panning out to a macro level, it’s positive that some previous club members are still invested in health and have just discovered a new way to do it.


In fact, the report clearly shows that, rather than a war between the virtual and physical, the future of fitness is a combination of bricks and digital. A new hybrid – or omnichannel – approach to fitness will be the one dominating the sector as we head into and beyond 2022.


The fitness pie is bigger. Health and fitness businesses are getting better. A greater phygital (the best of physical and digital) ecosystem is being created for us all to play our part.


Stay tuned for Part 3 in the Good Soul IHRSA Series.

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