Understanding Today’s Health Club Consumers

As many people begin to return to their pre-pandemic fitness routines, it’s more crucial than ever to understand their habits, their wants, and their needs.

Demand for fitness showed strong growth before and during pan­demic-induced closures. Record numbers for health club usage heading into 2020 showed the high priority placed by many on health and fitness. While club access was unavailable for weeks, if not months in many areas, consumers invested in home fitness.

This is according to The 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, which is sponsored by ClubReady and discusses health club member growth and trends over the past decade, along with the impact of the pandemic on fitness consumers.

Some of the key findings from the report include:

Health club membership and usage trends indicate sustainable growth over the long term.

Over the decade, the average annual growth rate for health club members and total users amounted to 2.5% and 2.7%, respectively. Also, net membership growth for the industry totaled 2% in 2018 and 3% in 2019.

Although characteristic of a mature industry, modest increases indicate sustainable growth over the long term. The IHRSA Health Club Business Handbook, written by former IHRSA executive director John McCarthy, details the resilience of the health club industry over past recessions. While not recession-proof, the industry has historically been resilient during downturns, a characteristic that will be tested as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growth of popular equipment and activities has been impacted by the rise of dedicated boutique studios and specialized programming at traditional facili­ties.

Treadmills, free weights, and resistance machines remain the most popular pieces of equipment among members. From 2018 to 2019, the cardio equipment that posted the greatest growth were treadmills (+7%), group cycles (+6.9%), and rowers (+5.5%). Rowers and group cycles were often fea­tured at niche facilities - either boutique studios or studio-like boxes within traditional health clubs.

Along with treadmills and free weights, the growth in rower and cycle utilization mirrors the in­creasing popularity of high-intensity and metabolic training workouts over the decade, all of which were featured at dedicated studios. HIIT closed out the decade as the most popular conditioning activity at health clubs, while yoga remained the number one mind-body discipline. Boutique studios and luxury clubs provided such activities in a class-based format as did affordable gyms that offered membership plans to trade up to group exercise and team training.

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Health and fitness facility members will pay more for an experience and per­ceived value.

Boutique studio members pay the most in monthly dues and on a per-visit basis, showing the premi­um these users place on a niche experience. Collectively, the average fee members paid at all stu­dios was roughly $40 more than the average for health club members of all facilities. The average cost per visit paid by studio members was more than twice the per-visit cost of overall members.

However, members will also pay more for perceived value if a club offers an array of programming and amenities, like multipurpose facilities. Roughly one out of every four multipurpose members pay at least $100 in monthly dues. This shows the value some club-goers, particularly those with families, place on having access to a facility with a wide range of programming for all ages. Some spacious and upscale multipurpose clubs also feature an in-club boutique-like studio.

Although they are casual, transient consumers now, Generation Z has the in­gredients of a long-term, avid user once they increase their earning potential.

The youngest generation achieved the greatest growth over the past decade, and their early intro­duction to fitness should keep them patronizing health and fitness businesses in the future. Accord­ing to the 2020 Physical Activity Council Overview Report, Gen Z has the highest participation rate in outdoor activities and team sports. They are also the most highly connected generation.

While a return date to team sports appears uncertain in many parts of the country, clubs may consider offering in-club (or outdoors) and virtual sports-specific training programs to keep this segment conditioned for sport. Also, family membership plans with children and youth-specific programs, both in-person and digital, can help engage the youngest users.

Keep serving Millennials with an experience built on popular club attractions and deliver the experience through their platforms of choice.

According to a COVID-19 consumer survey conducted by Kelton Global, along with Generation Z, Mil­lennials are the least worried about resuming in-person club activities, which should bode well for the future. As a transient group with one of the shortest membership tenures, it may be challenging to retain younger Millennials in the long term, especially without a strong hybrid in-club and digital offer. Still, this group’s voracious consumption of fitness and tendency to pay a premium for fitness indicates that they are willing to support multiple facilities and businesses.

In the new normal, it’s critical to offer digital content for Millennials. Being active on popular social media platforms is just a start. Booking classes or gym floor reservations on their smartphone, streaming live workouts, and accessing on-demand training sessions are close to must-haves for this generation. Keep in mind the club activities popular with this group as you contemplate digital: free weights, yoga, HIIT, bodyweight training, cycling, and dance/choreographed exercise.

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For avid users with children, fitness is a high priority for Generation X.

More than one-third of avid health club users are from Generation X, who are also the parents of Generation Z. Generation X has a high likelihood of purchasing family memberships and/or addition­al services for themselves and their families. The impact of the pandemic on school closures, job uncertainty, and telecommuting has left many in this group with the challenges of balancing home, career, and children as well as elder care responsibilities.

The new life demands placed on some Gen X’ers make convenient fitness options an imperative. Club operators can meet this need with a hybrid of in-club and digital fitness delivery. Shorter 25-30 minute live or on-demand workouts can help busy Gen X consumers engage in regular exercise. Also, consider offering nutrition guidance online for both healthy meal prep at home and healthy takeout or meal delivery.

Older Boomers & Silents: the most loyal members may be the wariest of re­turning to their clubs.

Silents belong to their health club for an average of 7.4 years, the longest tenure of all age groups. According to the aforementioned Kelton study, older Boomers and Silents are the most worried about resuming in-person activities. It doesn’t help allay concerns that the CDC has found that 8 out of 10 COVID deaths reported in the U.S. are adults ages 65 and older. Despite data attest­ing to the safety of health clubs and measures employed by club operators, some older members may not feel comfortable returning to clubs at an early point.

It is possible to engage the oldest segment through a hybrid offer. First, consider a one or two-hour block reserved for seniors and other high-risk populations to access the fitness center, similar to what many grocers have implemented. Second, keep in mind the popular social media platforms with the 65+ group. Nearly half (46%) of the online 65+ population in the U.S. use Facebook, while 38% use YouTube. It may be possible to deliver some of the popular lower impact activities to Older Boomers and Silents through video on their preferred platforms.

For much more on this topic, download the 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report at ihrsa.org/publications. Use the code SPRING21 through June 30th and save 20% on this and all IHRSA reports. This includes the 2021 IHRSA Global Report, which will be published in late June. Contact store@ihrsa.org with any questions.

2020 IHRSA Consumer Report cover

The 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report

This annual publication provides demographics and health, sports, and fitness participation data on America’s health club and studio users. New to this year’s report is an analysis of trends since 2010 as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the fitness consumer.

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Related Articles & Publications

  • The 2020 IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report

  • The COVID Era Fitness Consumer

  • 5 Millennial Consumer Habits That Can Make or Break Your Gym

Author avatar

Kristen Walsh

Kristen Walsh previously served as IHRSA's Associate Publisher—a position focused on the creation and distribution of Club Business International, as well as writing and editing articles, newsletters, and research reports.