Feature Article - November 2007
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Survival of the Fitness

Adapt to Evolving Fitness Trends and Demographics—or Be Left Behind

By Kelli Anderson

As hard-core fitness users over the decades have come to expect a sophisticated experience, fitness facilities have stepped up to the plate to offer this seasoned demographic the complex equipment, multipurpose environment and creative, challenging programming they demand.

Enter a growing demographic of first-time users, however, who require just the opposite—ease of use and non-intimidating equipment and programming—and you have a seemingly impossible task: to be all things to all people.

When Janet Kotynski, a 49-year-old fitness novice, entered a health club in her Geneva, Ill., neighborhood for the first time last year, she described her experience as intimidating.

"I ran from it, it was so scary," Kotynski explained. "It was so crowded with machines all close together—and noise and colors and excitement—I just felt intimidated."

After continuing her search for an environment and fitness program more suited to her needs, Kotynski and her husband finally settled for a fitness center with a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere and where social interaction was less high-pressure sales and more casual.

Although not yet 50, what she experienced was a typical reaction from the fastest-growing segment of first-time fitness facility users when faced with a club still geared to cater primarily to the see-and-be-seen user.

"We've seen a big jump in 55 or older," said Thomas Doyle, vice president of information research with the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) out of Mount Prospect, Ill., which provides research and information on trends and issues impacting those in the sporting goods industry. "Ten years ago it was at 8.9 percent, and now it's 14.4 percent. Above half are baby boomers, so that makes sense—they seem to be a health-conscious bunch."

Not only is the fitness industry seeing more beginners from the older spectrum of the population, but the younger population's participation is growing as well.

"We are seeing a rise in club use for the under-17s," Doyle observed.

In fact, thanks to the nation's growing awareness and concern over childhood obesity, coupled with a growth in young athletes' interests in sport-specific training, fitness facilities are experiencing a significant increase in younger users. With such a diversity of fitness seekers, the industry is changing the way it thinks about facility design, equipment and programming.

But not all facilities experience clientele the same way or in the same numbers. By far the facilities that are most affected by these broadening demographical trends are those that cater to the public at large. According to research conducted by IDEA Health and Fitness Association, parks and recreation departments; YMCAs, YWCAs and Jewish Community Centers (JCCs); and corporate and hospital settings attract the highest percentage of inactive or new exercisers.

Add to those a growing number of fitness facilities specifically targeting newbies like the recently opened Kids Action Fitness in Denver or 1-2-3 Fit neighborhood fitness centers across the United States, and the reason behind evolving equipment design becomes clear.