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Nationwide Health Concerns May Be Pumping US Fitness Behavior

APRIL 21, 2004 -- Americans have been fitness-conscious for some time…but now there is evidence that a growing national awareness is finally inspiring many to action. Galvanized by widespread media coverage of the obesity epidemic, Big Foods' promise of reduced portion sizes and less fat content, new fitness-based premium incentives by HMOs and most fascinatingly, legislative murmurs about a new social contract between government and taxpaying fitness participants. Millions of tentative Americans could finally be making that long-delayed leap from enlightenment to actual fitness behavior.

A consistent finding of studies conducted by American Sports Data, Inc. in 1996, 1998 and 2002 is that over 80% of the adult population pays homage to the ideal of physical fitness, while only one in five gets enough exercise, a fraction that has remained constant over the years. But there is evidence that this is changing.

According to the seventeenth annual SUPERSTUDY of Sports participation, 54.9 million people who engaged in a single fitness activity on at least 100 occasions. While this measurement includes the new genre of "Mind-Body" exercise (and not comparable with prior estimates), "same-sport" comparisons indicate an overall increase in frequent exercise. In addition, the study projected 39.4 million health club members (+8.6%). While part of the increase is attributable to random statistical variation, substantial membership growth is supported by independent data.

A nationwide compilation of Yellow Pages listings by InfoUSA enumerates 23,497 clubs as of January 1, 2004 (+16%). According to ASD president Harvey Lauer, "70% of all Yellow Pages listings are bona fide Commercial Health Clubs and not YMCA's, gymnastics studios or personal trainers. This increment of over 3,000 new facilities by itself accounts for a good portion of several million additional club members. A modest growth rate of even 4% among pre-existing clubs could account for the remainder."

As a flagship of the Mind-Body fitness movement, Pilates Training is far and away the "hottest" growth trend, according to the new ASD report. With 9.5 million participants in 2003, this hybrid stretching/resistance activity has grown by 103% in just the past year, and by 445% from its initial measurement of 1.7 million in 1998. 89% of Pilates practitioners are female.

Elliptical Motion Trainers continue on an upward trajectory, garnering 13.4 million participants in 2003, up 25% for the year, and 247% since 1998. While users of these machines are not particularly old (average age 36.5), this equipment, among other virtues, is "knee-friendly," a clear qualification for the kinder/gentler category.

With an average age of 43.5 and 48.3 for frequent participants (100+ days), recumbent cycling is the second "eldest" exercise activity, trailing only fitness walking in participant longevity. Since 1998, recumbent cycling, a "back-friendly" variation on the kinder/gentler theme, has increased by 58%, to 10.7 million participants.

The compound measurement of yoga/tai chi claimed 13.4 million adherents in 2003, a growth rate of 20% for the current year, and 134% since 1998. Like Pilates, yoga has a large female following, 78%.

Treadmill exercise has slowed to lumbering, but inexorable single-digit growth. With 45.6 million participants in 2003, up only 5% in the past year, but a Vesuvian eruption of 937% from the small base of 4.4 million recorded at the study's inception in 1987. Treadmills are the most successful exercise equipment ever. At nearly 46 million, this activity seems near saturation; but its strong links with health club growth, aging demographics, and the continuing evolution of fitness holds the promise of vast, growing, perhaps inexhaustible pools of prospects. The phenomenal success of treadmill exercise can be traced to several roots; but the major attraction is the option to run or walk…and particularly, to walk as slowly as one likes. Conceived in another era, the timeless treadmill has been somehow transported to the vanguard of kinder/gentler fitness.

Strength training is another ponderous giant which lately, never disappoints; year after year, it continues to deliver single-digit growth. In 2003, there were a projected 51.6 million individuals in the US who trained with some form of free weights. an increase of 25% over 1998. Exactly 30 million used weight/resistance machines, up 33% from 1998.

Weight training is no longer the exclusive province of hulking giants in dank muscle gyms. The activity has gone mainstream, and its most dramatic growth is traceable to the least likely demographics, women and seniors. From 1987 to 2003, usage of free weights has grown from 22.6 million exercisers to 51.6 million, an increase of 129%; but among women, the increase is an astounding 233%!

The growing popularity of lighter equipment, dumbbells and hand weights, clearly (if counterintuitively) places free weight training at the center of kinder/gentler fitness.

The psychological dimensions of kinder/gentler, less taxing, less strenuous fitness are even more interesting than its physical aspects. In its "Comprehensive Study of American Attitudes toward Physical Fitness and Health Clubs," ASD has segmented the US adult population into four groups: Consciousness I, II, III and IV. Consciousness IV is the "Hard-Core" group of 34.2 million converts which has internalized fitness dogma and converted to the lifestyle. 45% are already health club members, 18% work out at clubs but are not officially members, 11% prefer outdoor exercise, while 15% are frequent home exercisers.

Consciousness III is the "Uninitiated Believer," a huge segment comprising over 60% of the population, said to be the "low-hanging" fruit for recruiters and marketers seeking brand new fitness converts. These acolytes need no further persuasion; a single spark will launch them into the fitness lifestyle.

Curves for Women, the fastest growing retail franchise in American history, has provided this spark. With phenomenal, yet unceremonious growth, this studio chain has grown from one in 1995 to over 6,000 US franchises in 2004. Curves has become the Mecca for Consciousness III: unathletic, often overweight, sometimes older women, many of whom have never before joined a health club. A relatively inexpensive, bare-bones environment (30-minute "express" workouts, low-stress circuit training to music, no showers, lockers, or other amenities, the general absence of intimidating thongs, hardbodies, mirrors or other depressive influences), it has produced the ultimate democratization of fitness: eliminating virtually every excuse for not exercising, and making fitness available to everyone!

The "Curves" concept, growing at the rate of 200 new outlets per month, is being frantically copied by solo entrepreneurs and large health club chains. But the phenomenon is not without its detractors; purists disdain the exercise regimen as "too easy," while others dismiss it as a mere fad. Business cynics fear the low franchise investments of $20,000 - $30,000 (and very high returns per square foot) impart an artificial boost indiactes that Curves is more an entrepreneurial movement than a genuinely consumer-driven trend. Indeed, flameout is a possibility; but more likely, the "Express" workout is tracing an early arc of the fitness future.

On the other hand, the democratization of fitness may not be a sufficient remedy for the US obesity epidemic; in the present research, a first-time-ever measurement by ASD reveals an average adult bodyweight higher than imagined…

The SUPERSTUDY of Sports Participation was conducted in January 2004 and based on a nationally representative sample of 15,015 Americans over the age of 6, who were among 25,000 respondents targeted in a sample drawn from the consumer mail panel of NFO Worldwide. 103 sports and activities were measured along over 20 demographic, attitudinal and behavioral dimensions. Data were also collected on health club membership and other subjects pertinent to Physical Fitness.

This annual tracking study has been conducted by ASD every year since 1987, and sponsored by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association of North Palm Beach, Florida and the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association of Boston, Massachusetts. For more information, log onto www.americansportsdata.com.


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Sporting goods industry
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American Sports Data Inc.
infoUSA Inc.
Young Men's Christian Association

health club
club members
kinder/gentler fitness
single-digit growth
recumbent cycling

Harvey Lauer

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