Feature Article - February 2020
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Fitness for Life

An Expanding Audience, and Other Fitness Trends

By Rick Dandes


Take It Outside

With a desire to provide as many outlets for people to get active as possible, parks and rec organizations and others devoted to improving wellness have increasingly been adding outdoor fitness options, which most often are free for use by anyone in the community. This might include cardio and strength training equipment that works a wide range of muscle groups, as well as inclusive equipment aimed at getting a wider percentage of the population active.

"There has also been a push toward greater inclusiveness in outdoor fitness areas," explained Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Anaheim, Calif. "New machines that accommodate users at all fitness levels—including those in wheelchairs—are now available. The goal is to create an exercise environment where all participants can perform activities at their individual level."

Even if the selection of available apparatuses does not include activities for those at all fitness levels, she noted, it's often possible to adapt these machines to a wide range of users, and the programmer plays a key role here. "Take, for example an upper-body machine utilizing body-weight leverage. Those in wheelchairs may be able to transfer."

The able-bodied can keep their feet on the ground for an easier exercise, Abel said, or extend their legs in front of them with knees straight to engage the abs. "Pull-up bars can be made usable by those at lower fitness levels by using resistance bands looped over the bars to assist users in lifting their weight. Ideally, a class can accommodate a wide range of users and provide opportunities for diverse community members to socialize with each other at the same time as they work out."

A unique trend in 2020 outdoor fitness programming, added TJ Peele, HealthFitness director of Business Development, college and university, is the continued emergence of obstacle course races. They appeal to multiple skill levels, have collaborative components, and offer variety to those who find single-modality competitions limiting.

"Similarly," Peele said, "in fitness facilities and gyms, the emergence of ninja training courses will continue, as they allow for continuous engagement through multiple modalities while providing a great workout. For operators, ninja courses are ideal as they can be bolted in place but then removed if future programming trends and needs emerge."

And, similar to what's trending in indoor fitness centers and clubs, outdoor fitness has also increasingly been incorporating functional fitness, said Abel—exercises that mimic everyday tasks such as carrying, reaching, and bending. Programmers should make sure to include these types of exercises.

Think Small

The biggest growth factor in fitness facilities for at least the past five years is the emergence of boutiques and studios, said Meredith Poppler, vice president, communications and leadership engagement for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). "With less heavy equipment needs," she said, "they are able to open in smaller spaces and employ less staff than full-service multipurpose clubs or equipment-heavy fitness-only clubs."

Millennials and gen Z are driving this trend, Poppler said, as they are less likely to commit to long-term contracts, and therefore prefer paying a fee-per-class rather than committing to a monthly contract. Personalization and tribalism are fueling the boutique demand, especially among millennials.

"Most people want to be with 'their people,'" Poppler said. "They like being with people like them who have the same passions. Boutiques deliver on that, whether you are a cyclist and want to be around others in an indoor cycling space, or a yoga practitioner, or a CrossFitter. No matter what fitness or sports tribe you identify with, there's a studio that fits your calling."

Stay Ahead of Trends

At commercial clubs where the bottom line is important, said Thompson, "programmers should pay attention to trends in the industry. If a club is not doing group training, if for some reason they are avoiding it, they are not going to do as well as the gym next door that has group training. Same thing with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Some people shy away from it because they think there is going to be a higher rate of injury—that someone could get hurt or die from it. That hasn't been shown to be true. If your facility is not doing high-intensity interval training and you're not doing group exercise training, then you are probably missing out on a very large segment of the market."

Fitness programs for older adults is also a "must," Thompson said. As the baby-boom generation is retiring, they are doing so in good physical shape. "It's not like prior generations where you had your first heart attack by the time you were 60," he said. "Today retirees are looking for places to go and to live where they can be physically active. Community organizations like YMCAs and JCCs already do a good job with this, but the commercial clubs need to as well."

If you are 65 years old and walking on a treadmill at a 12-minutes-per-mile pace, and some young person comes in and sets the treadmill next to you at a 7-minutes-per-mile pace, that is not a very inviting place to be, Thompson explained. "So, what smart clubs are doing is at the end of the morning rush—around 9 o'clock—they turn the rock and rap music down and are inviting people to exercise who have that time between 9 and 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 in the afternoon, where the music played on loudspeakers is Bach and Beethoven and not Dr. Dre and Drake. And they are teaching their personal trainers how to work with older people, which is not the same as if you were working with a 25-year-old."

Those three—HIIT, group exercise and specialized training for older adults—are three areas Thompson said he would keep his eyes on if he were a commercial club owner.

Beyond that, keep your programming fresh and innovative. Reinvent older programs if necessary, Thompson said. "I was surprised that yoga was not in our survey of top 10 trends for 2020. Part of the reason why yoga remains popular is that yoga instructors reinvent themselves, introduce new forms of yoga. I contrast it to Zumba, which was incredibly popular years ago, and other forms of Latin-type dances. If you go to New York City, the eastern shore of Florida or California, you'll still see Zumba. But it doesn't have this worldwide popularity that it used to have."

The point, Thompson said, is they didn't reinvent themselves. "If you went to a Zumba class 20 years ago, it would be the same as you'd find today. Some people like that, but exercise has a tendency to get stale. People want new, exciting kinds of things, and unfortunately Zumba instructors did not reinvent themselves."

The same holds true with Pilates, he said. Pilates 20 years ago was very popular, Thompson said, "but we haven't seen Pilates in our survey of top 20 trends now for the past 10 years. They, like Zumba, did not reinvent themselves, as opposed to yoga classes where instructors are reinventing and remarketing."