Fitness and Wellness Intertwine: A Major Industry Rises
What direction is the industry taking? And how can fitness professionals position themselves to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
In the United States in 2006, total revenues from the health club industry were $17.6 billion (IHRSA 2007a), and total fitness equipment sales were approximately $4.7 billion (SGMA 2007). That means that the U.S. health and fitness club and equipment market is currently worth $22.3 billion—and experts project a 5% growth in 2007 (SGMA 2007). According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2006), the job market for “fitness trainers and aerobics instructors” is among the fastest-growing in the United States, and it is expected to grow faster than average through 2014. Before we start congratulating ourselves, however, consider this: The U.S. soda pop business is a $68 billion industry, according to an article in The New York Times (Martin 2007). The fitness industry clearly has much more room to grow.
Some of the major forces that will drive growth in the coming years include the aging Baby Boomers, industry diversification, a growing awareness of the link between fitness and health, and the desire to control healthcare costs.
Baby Boomers. The Boomers—who are highly motivated to stay healthy, maintain a youthful appearance and enjoy a high quality of life—are driving the sales of fitness products and services, according to industry experts. Mary Furlong, EdD, author of Turning Silver Into Gold: How to Profit in the New Boomer Marketplace and a market expert on the Baby Boom Generation, believes that the enormous size of the Boomer market translates into enormous business opportunities for fitness professionals.
Industry Diversification. Consumers today have many alternatives to traditional health club settings. Medical fitness clinics, express workout facilities, and specialty yoga and Pilates studios offer options to clients who might not be interested in conventional health clubs.
The Exercise-Health Link. The knowledge that exercise improves health is also stimulating demand for fitness programs. Healthcare professionals recommend exercise to their patients, and health news reporters regularly communicate medical research results that support the importance of being active to improve health and reduce disease risk.
Cost Control. Both businesses and government have a strong financial interest in cutting healthcare costs, and this fact is stimulating business activity in wellness and health promotion, as well as physical activity programs. Corporations are implementing worksite health promotion programs; insurers are promoting wellness activities; and government agencies are supporting physical activity initiatives. What’s more, all these market forces are occurring at the same time that technological improvements are making exercise more accessible, more fun and easier to manage.
What do all of these trends mean for the fitness industry’s future? Is the sky the limit, or have we tapped out the easy markets? This article focuses close-up on market trends and asks industry experts what they see as they look toward future options.
To evaluate fitness trends, we need to define the market—its services and products. Today’s diverse providers of fitness services can be loosely divided into commercial clubs and business owners; community-based and academic organizations; corporate health promotion providers; and clinically based centers such as those owned by hospitals, physicians and other allied health professionals. The challenge in evaluating growth among these segments is that significant overlap exists. For example, some commercial clubs and community organizations, as well as clinically based fitness providers, are developing corporate wellness programs for local and national enterprises. Some commercial clubs are taking a step into the clinical market by offering physical therapy and postrehab services that are reimbursable by medical insurance. In addition, a new market is emerging for “wellness centers,” which provide an array of services, including fitness, nutrition, massage, acupuncture and personal coaching. Outlets for fitness products exist in all of these settings and retail establishments. The industry is in such a phase of rapid growth and redefinition that it is difficult to analyze as a whole.
Paul Zane Pilzer, economist and author of The New Wellness Revolution: How to Make a Fortune in the Next Trillion Dollar Industry, provides some insight into the diversity of the fitness market. He detects an overall trend toward a wellness market that includes fitness among many other products and services. Estimating that wellness is a $500 billion industry today, Pilzer projects that it will become a $1 trillion industry in the next 5 years. Think about that: a billion is a thousand million; a trillion is a million million! As explained by Pilzer, the wellness industry includes products and services provided proactively to already healthy people to make them feel even healthier and look even better, to slow the effects of aging and to prevent diseases from developing in the first place.
Chip Baird, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of North Castle Partners, a private equity fund, has invested over $1.5 billion in more than 40 consumer-oriented companies. Like Pilzer, he is optimistic about the future of fitness. He cites “healthy living and aging” as a $500 billion market now, and believes it will be a market worth well over $1 trillion by 2020.
These analyses identify economic opportunities in the so-called “wellness” business. The challenge, however, is that not all fitness programs are geared toward wellness. Some are focused solely on athletic performance or physical conditioning. And not all fitness clients are already healthy; many new clients in emerging markets for fitness professionals with special expertise have chronic medical conditions. Perhaps the issue is that not all fitness professionals realize that they work in a “wellness” space.
Many experts consider wellness to be something more than a variety of products and services; they think wellness encompasses an overall approach—a way of delivering products and services in a holistic, or integrated, fashion. For example, on its own, a face cream that promises to slow the effects of aging may not be considered a wellness product; however, a full-service program that integrates skin care products and services with nutrition, physical activity, stress management and spiritual goals tailored to the specific needs of an individual is considered a wellness program.
“What we’re looking to, in the words of Ken Cooper, is a brand-new definition of fitness,” says Pamela Peeke, PhD, MPH, author of the newly released Fit to Live and a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal. “It’s no longer about how big and strong your biceps muscle is, but how big and strong your spiritual and mental muscle is. It’s a humanization of fitness into an integrative experience, a brand-new direction based on hard-core science that says, ‘If you want to get anywhere with the body, you start with the mind.’”
“Wellness is whole. Fitness is part,” says Ken Alan, a fitness industry veteran and owner of Ken Alan Associates, based in Los Angeles. “Wellness is a process, not an end. Most people, even if they don’t know it at first, are more interested in their wellness than their ‘physicalness.’ They want to wake up in the morning and look forward to their day. Fitness professionals are in an ideal position to foster wellness in their clients, but many don’t take it all the way. They simply stop with teaching exercise technique alone.”
We need to realize that the fitness industry is broad. Fitness products and services include a variety of activities and equipment that achieve distinct objectives for equally diverse types of people. As noted in the 2006 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey, the trend in fitness is to put people first, then choose the exercise mode (Ryan 2006). People come to fitness at all ages; in various states of health; with diverse backgrounds, interests and levels of ability—and with many different goals. The fitness business can evolve to meet the needs of every person who can benefit from physical activity. An effective way to evaluate future trends, therefore, is to focus on the needs and profiles of participant groups, not providers.
A broad spectrum of current and potential fitness consumers exists, and some individuals fit into multiple categories.
As already noted, much of today’s fitness growth is attributed to the aging of the Baby Boom Generation. In 2006, 77 million Americans ages 43–61 represented the Boomers (SGMA 2007). As a rule, the members of this generation are healthy, wealthy and educated, and they exert tremendous market influence.
While the majority of elderly adults have chronic diseases, many members of the 50 and older category are still working, active and interested in maintaining functional performance and enjoying recreational activities. These individuals are enthusiastic about maintaining a good quality of life. They play recreational sports like golf and tennis, travel often and enjoy personal time with friends and family. They exercise to maintain health and vigor.
Health and fitness facility membership demographics reflect the profile of these customers. Health club membership is at a record high of 41.3 million Americans (IHRSA 2007a), and 20% of these members are over age 55 (IHRSA 2007b). Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging in Vancouver, British Columbia, points out, “Between 1998 and 2004, the number of frequent fitness participants age 55 and over increased by 33%, while the growth rate was 13% for ages 35–54, according to the Superstudy® of Sports Participation.”
Older adults are not only driving up health club membership; they are also the prime market for exercise equipment, since they are willing to buy expensive home equipment to make working out more convenient (SGMA 2007).
In addition, older adults are pushing growth for new styles of clubs. “Another type of franchise that is gaining prominence is targeted to people who are 50 years and older. While still small, Miracles Fitness and Club 50 Fitness are franchising their concepts to grow this segment,” says Milner. With an American adult turning 60 every 7 seconds for the next 18 years (Furlong 2007), this category has tremendous room for growth.
Furlong notes that not all older adults share the same tastes and passions. “The key to reaching this market lies in developing relevant services and products through understanding the demographic data, the trends, Boomer psychology and how to effectively communicate with the target audience.”
This category includes elderly adults with chronic diseases and multiple risk factors. Eighty percent of Americans age 65 and older live with at least one chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2007). The Medical Fitness Association (MFA) reports that more than 850 medical fitness and wellness facilities serve 3 million members internationally (MFA 2006). In the past 20 years, the number of hospital-owned or physician-sponsored wellness or fitness centers has increased almost 1,000%, yet much room for growth still exists in this category (Muth 2006).
In the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) 2007 Fitness Trends Survey, physician referral to fitness professionals was among the top 20 worldwide fitness trends (Thompson 2006). John McCarthy, former CEO of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), noted in his prediction of the fitness industry’s 10 mega-opportunities that “alliances with healthcare providers can provide fitness facilities with a level of credibility with millions of Americans that they could never otherwise obtain.”
Advances in medical technology have enabled many people to continue activity after knee, hip and other joint replacement surgeries, and, indeed, substantial evidence supports exercise’s healing power. But healthcare insurers often provide minimal support for recovery, which means that long-term physical therapy is not a viable option for many patients. Properly trained fitness professionals who form alliances with healthcare practitioners and organizations can get referrals to clients and provide guided training after the rehab period. In addition, many individuals facing surgery are taking advantage of “prehab” training to minimize postoperative downtime; the stronger an individual is prior to surgery, the more rapid the recovery is afterward. The prehab category has potential for much more growth but—like the postrehab category—requires specialized education.
Adults who do not like the traditional fitness environment and prefer shorter workouts in an atmosphere with people like themselves seek express workout facilities, such as those developed by Curves®. According to IHRSA (2007), in January 2005 the number of express clubs in the United States was 29,069, which is an increase of 77% from the year 2000—an increase largely attributed to the Curves phenomenon. In January 2006 the number grew 1% to 29,357, indicating that these new clubs may have saturated much of the market for this niche.
Approximately one-third of all health clubs are studio facilities. These venues are about 2,000 square feet and offer either a programmed half-hour workout on a machine circuit or a specific type of exercise, such as yoga, Pilates or dance. With approximately 200 members each, these facilities are more intimate than the larger multiprogram clubs, which may have 2,000 or more members (SGMA 2007).
Opportunities may exist for express-style clubs and studios that serve niche groups whose needs are not being met by Curves and copycat franchises. Rosemary Lavery, a spokesperson for IHRSA based in Massachusetts, says, “There’s a focus on niche consumers and niche markets— seniors, women, [families], special populations. Clubs are identifying with who their members are and how to help them achieve their fitness goals.”
Joe Moore, president and CEO of IHRSA, predicts growth in the niche personal training facility, where everyone who comes in is on a regimen designed by a trainer. Moore thinks that as the industry grows, it will become more diverse, not more alike, and we will see success in different niches.
The steadily increasing popularity of yoga, Pilates, tai chi, qigong, Feldenkrais® and other body-mind fitness disciplines has stimulated the expansion of yoga and Pilates studios and continued to attract clients to facilities that offer these programs. Almost 23 million American adults practiced yoga, Pilates and/or tai chi in 2004, according to the Superstudy of Sports Participation; and 41.6% of yoga practitioners were between 35 and 54 (American Sports Data 2006). The number of these classes seems to be leveling out, but they remain popular (Ryan 2006).
Kids under age 18 are the second-fastest-growing demographic group in clubs, representing 12% of all health club members (IHRSA 2007b). Youth fitness growth is attributed to the fact that schools are less able to provide physical education. More children are overweight and have health problems like diabetes. Parents’ awareness of the need for kids to be physically active is increasing demand for family fitness, kids’ personal training and kids’ fitness. Program development to reduce obesity among children was the number-one trend identified by the ACSM 2007 Fitness Trends Survey, and family programming was among the top 20 trends (Thompson 2006).
The 2006 IDEA Fitness Programs & Equipment Survey noted that kids and teens have a variety of programming options. Personal training for youth is more available than after-school classes or camps (Ryan 2006). Other popular programs include dance-based classes, such as urban street, funk and hip-hop. While kids’ fitness is growing, kids’ participation in sports is not, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association (SGMA 2007). Interestingly, fitness activities seem to be filling a gap that was formerly occupied by sports.
Multipurpose family fitness clubs with comprehensive youth programming are very successful. Before retiring from IHRSA, McCarthy was quoted as saying, “Clubs that excel in attracting and serving the family market have literally struck gold. The family market may be the richest opportunity in the entire [health club] industry.”
The cost of health care is escalating in both the private and public sector. According to the National Governors Association (NGA) issue brief “Creating Healthy States: Building Healthy Worksites,” the cost of health care doubled between 1990 and 2001 and is expected to double again by 2012 (NGA Center for Best Practices 2006). The economic impact of these expenses is being felt by both employees and employers, and pressure to reduce costs is growing.
Survey data show that more large employers are offering programs to improve employee health and productivity. In 2005 and 2006, 75% of large employers offered some type of health promotion program, up from 56% in 2003 (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services 2006). Workplace wellness programs are not simply fitness programs; they are much more broadly based to target lifestyle behaviors that increase disease risk and, in turn, employer expenses.
How does this trend affect fitness professionals? Margaret Moore, MBA, founder of Wellcoaches Corporation in Wellesley, Massachusetts, says, “Employee assistance coaching is growing rapidly. Companies can now estimate the healthcare costs to them of individuals with high-risk behaviors. . . . [and] are looking for a higher standard of trained professional to work with these individuals. For example, we recently trained 15 staff members for a major corporation. More and more individuals who come to be trained by us are sponsored by their employers, who want them to offer these services in the workplace.”
For the public sector, nationwide healthcare-related expenditures for state employees were $24 billion in 2001—or 2.5% of all state spending (NGA Center for Best Practices 2006). In an attempt to lower these expenses, both federal and state governments currently offer, or are developing, workplace wellness programming.
As more corporations and government organizations implement wellness programs that include physical activity, and more research substantiates the cost savings of these programs, tremendous opportunities will emerge for fitness professionals with a wellness orientation.
“There’s . . . a nucleus of people who want to look [and feel] good; receive personal, individualized treatment; and enjoy all their services in one location from the best-trained individuals in the best environment—and they’re willing to pay for it,” says Thomas P. Wicky, an expert with over 40 years’ experience in the high-end hospitality, spa and resort industry, and president of Wicky & Associates in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “It’s about creating an ambiance where every element supports the experience. A treadmill is a treadmill is a treadmill. It’s not the machines that create wellness. The human element is the key.”
While no single definition or profile of a wellness client exists, an emerging group of people is looking for more holistic experiences from service providers. “When people go to a club or trainer and they don’t feel better from an exercise class, they will seek another route to find their oneness or wholeness,” says Alan. “It may be through some other bodywork or a spiritual or religious method.”
Peeke adds, “To mechanically take the human body and make it physically fit is not wellness. You need to look at it in a much more integrative way. We can’t treat people like science fair exhibits. Fitness professionals are on the launch pad of a brand-new career explosion.”
Joe Moore agrees: “All trainers need to understand that no matter why a client comes in to start personal training, underlying everything is the concept of wellness. We are the fitness industry, the wellness industry—the two are intertwined.”
“The typical private client for wellness coaching is a woman over age 35,” says Margaret Moore. “[For these clients, the] main issues are weight and stress. Typically, they’ve tried diets, been through many programs and realized that they need to come up with something that works for them. Part of what happens with a coach is that you come up with a blueprint that works for you individually.”
Technological developments stimulate the fitness and wellness market by creating products that help keep track of clients, manage records, increase the fun factor, add motivational bells and whistles, and broaden accessibility. Today, computerized protocols can assess and clearly identify people at risk who can benefit from physical activity and other lifestyle programs. Programs, particularly in the workplace, can be targeted to the people who need them most. New software can aid in prescreening, records management and protection of confidentiality.
High-tech, interactive fitness equipment, virtual reality programs and other technologies are increasing exercise’s fun factor. Pedometers and computerized strength and cardio training equipment are being used to monitor exercise activity and increase motivation. New low-impact equipment, such as treadmills with slower and wider walking decks, are making exercise accessible to people who cannot tolerate high-intensity, high-impact activities. Innovative aquatic exercise equipment and specially designed pools are increasing the movement options for individuals who cannot exercise on land. All these developments can lead to market growth by providing the means to reach and serve formerly inactive people.
The movement toward increasing self-care and enjoying a satisfying and full life, coupled with strong research evidence on the benefits of exercise for health, is stimulating many more individuals and organizations to seek professional support for improving wellness. Instead of reaching for a quick fix, people are looking for practical, sensible, long-term solutions to looking, feeling and being their best. The media are educating consumers that eating disorders and extreme dieting can kill you; that moderate exercise, good nutrition and balance in life can produce powerful results; and that healthy solutions are long lasting.
Wellness-oriented fitness professionals who are willing to serve the needs of today’s clients have unlimited opportunities. To take advantage of these opportunities, you need
- continuous education;
- motivation and communication skills;
- a commitment to helping people improve their total well-being;
- openness to an integrative approach that includes working with a team of professionals and focuses on the needs of body, mind and spirit; and
- dedication to service with heart and mind.
Special thanks to all those who participated so generously with their time for in-depth interviews for this article.
Medical Fitness Association, www.medicalfitness.org
Wellcoaches Corporation, www.wellcoaches.com
Furlong, M. 2007. Turning Silver Into Gold: How to Profit in the New Boomer Marketplace. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Press.
Peeke, P. 2007. Fit to Live: The 5-Point Plan to Be Lean, Strong, and Fearless for Life. New York: Rodale Books.
Pilzer, P.Z. 2007. The New Wellness Revolution: How to Make a Fortune in the Next Trillion Dollar Industry. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2007. Healthy aging: Preserving function and improving quality of life among older Americans. www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/pub
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Thompson, W.R. 2006. Worldwide survey reveals fitness trends for 2007. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 10 (6), 8–14.
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