Generation X: From Slackers to Stars, the Future of Fitness
The second wave of fitness pros continues to move the industry forward.
Did you ever have to cue audiocassette tapes before teaching aerobics? (You might’ve heard about playing albums in class, but that was before your time.) Were you among the first wave of personal trainers to get certified through an official course?
If you answered yes to either or both of these questions—and you joined the fitness industry before or around the time step aerobics became popular—you might be a member of Generation X (also referred to as Gen X). This group, now in their 30s and 40s, has influenced the fitness industry through many permutations.
As the predominant age category in today’s workforce, Gen X will continue to steer the fitness industry. And in doing so, this self-sufficient generation must reach and inspire incoming generations, including Millennials (also referred to as Gen Y), who are already beginning to move the industry forward in their own right.
Gen Xers aren’t done yet!
Born in the mid-1960s to late 1970s, Gen Xers have a reputation for being cynical “slackers” (if you remember—and perhaps relate to—the 1994 film Reality Bites, starring Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder as young adults facing life after college, that’s another sign you might be a Gen Xer). But “slacking off” isn’t how Gen X has handled the fitness industry over the past 15 or 20 years. Rather, Gen Xers (and Baby Boomers) have enthusiastically shaped the fitness industry with a drive for greater education and professionalism, myriad creative group fitness formats and dozens of specialized offshoots in the expanding world of personal training.
Workplace fun is high on the typical Gen Xer’s list, and so Gen X instructors quickly morphed basic “aerobics” movements into a virtual playground of hops, turns and pivots to stave off boredom. “I remember the first class I taught,” says Sherri McMillan, MS, owner of Northwest Personal Training, with studios in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington. “One song was the jumping-jack song. Another was the jogging song: Jog forward, then on the spot, turn right, jog forward, going around the room like that. It was a tough workout but super easy to follow.”
“As we all evolved in the industry,” continues McMillan, “we looked for ways to incorporate variety. I remember my first step workshop—we were all so excited: Basic step 16 times on the right leg, tap, and do it on the left. Switch back to right, and change your arms. So basic. But the first time [step creator] Gin Miller said we could jump onto the step, [the workout] took off and the options became limitless.”
That was back in the early 1990s, and hyped-up choreography set the stage in group fitness for about the next decade or so. But the climate of group fitness—no longer called aerobics—gradually began to change as Gen Xers changed. For one thing, Gen X fitness pros and participants are older now. Priorities have shifted.
For example, before I had a family of my own and a full-time career, I relished teaching fancy choreography in the majority, if not all, of my fitness classes. That was the norm back then, and as a 20-something instructor with no kids, I had the time to devote to it. Now I prefer classes that allow me to balance family life with career. Gone are the days when I could devise and practice complicated patterns for an hour or two before each class!
Judging from today’s trends, it seems that many Gen X instructors seek simpler, less time-consuming fitness formats. More important, though, is that lots of Gen X clients (and Boomers and Millennials) appear to prefer that same freedom of choice. Simpler choreography in some types of classes provides more options for how and when participants join group fitness. That is, the majority of fitness classes no longer cater only to those participants who can follow super-choreographed routines.
Jonathan Ross is the 2010 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, author of Abs Revealed (Human Kinetics 2010) and owner of Aion Fitness in Bowie, Maryland. The way he sees it, complicated choreography is on its way out. “The future will bring the death of choreography, except where it is absolutely necessary, like in a dance class,” he says. “The Gen X disdain for authoritarian structure has already started this trend, and you’re seeing more group exercise classes where everyone is thankfully encouraged to move at a speed that is appropriate for them. This is the only way to successfully bring exercise to a wide swath of the population, because everyone moving on cue at one speed is without question going to be too fast for some people and too slow for others.”
While there may always be a place in group fitness for choreography—just look at the current popularity of dance-based workouts like Zumba®—Gen X participants are also interested in the deeper meaning of exercise, especially as they move from their 30s to their 40s and beyond.
“Gen Xers want more than entertainment—that is the biggest change I see,” says Shannon Fable, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sunshine Fitness Resources and GroupEx P.R.O. in Boulder, Colorado. “Yes, they still want to be entertained, but in an intelligent way. Gen Xers want to work together to achieve results, not be talked down to or talked at. They want to be part of the process. Coaching-style instruction is preferred over follow-the-leader type workouts.”
Today’s successful instructor—Gen X or not—is one who can blend entertainment value with educational value. “[Gen Xers] recognize where the industry was born, and what created adherence to early programming: the fun factor and the performance factor,” says Stacey Lei Krauss, Denver-based international fitness educator and founder/creator of The willPower Method. “I’m not sure that Gen Y understands how vital stage presence is in group exercise. I was groomed by instructors who had a flawless presentation from start to finish. Now, the workouts are more technical and more equipment-driven, but they lack the luster that was required in the earlier days.”
If this is the case, the onus falls on Generation X to mentor younger instructors in the art of presentation, not just the delivery of knowledge and technique. While the science behind exercise is becoming more of a priority than in the past (and for good reason), group fitness continues to draw crowds because it’s social, fun and, when delivered with enthusiasm, a bit like a fitness party. Gen Xers aren’t willing to give up that kind of excitement. After all, they were labeled the “MTV Generation” because of how strongly they identified with music videos, which first became wildly popular in the mainstream media when Gen Xers were kids and teens in the 1980s.
“Gen X built a fitness industry based on popular culture—starting with borrowing from the music and the movement of MTV to inspire group exercise class formats,” says Julz Arney, fitness educator and the education programs director and lead master trainer for Schwinn® Cycling. “Today, the forms of exercise created by Gen X actually shape popular culture. Dance, Pilates, yoga and boot camp workouts are embraced by celebrities in infomercials, featured on reality TV shows and seen as ‘must haves’ in the way a popular car or pair of jeans becomes fashionable.”
Amid pop-culture influences, Gen X has been a gatekeeper of sorts to what makes it big in the fitness industry and what does not. This generation is known for its cynicism, which turns out to be a strength when evaluating trends and fads. Gen Xers don’t easily buy into whatever new craze is on the horizon; you’ve got to earn their trust and respect first. That’s not to say, however, that they won’t adapt quickly when they see a new product, program or technology worth pursuing. “We are more skeptical of trends and equipment,” says Lawrence Biscontini, MA, a mindful movement specialist based in both New York City and Greece. “But we use YouTube, Facebook and Twitter™ to check things out. We know what works and what doesn’t, and we share that info.”
Group fitness took off long before YouTube, Facebook and Twitter came along, but Gen X fitness pros have always endeavored to share information in whatever form works best—and that’s one reason why personal training has also become such a driving force in the fitness industry.
Gen Xers have a general thirst for knowledge, and if they could sum up their directive for the future of personal training, it would likely involve the word education—and lots of it! Gone are the days when fitness buffs could declare themselves trainers because they knew enough to help the average person take up exercise.
“We bring a more educated approach than the majority of our predecessors,” says Bill Sonnemaker, MS, Georgia-based founder and CEO of Catalyst Fitness. “We’re not afraid to question authority or challenge the mold. Whereas many of our predecessors used ‘gym science,’ we use an evidence-based approach when assessing and designing exercise programs.”
While the evolution of personal training started with basic certification, it has progressed to include various branches of specialization—skills that the majority of trainers might eventually be expected to bring to the table as part of their professional services. “More people need the help of fitness leaders, not just workout leaders,” says Ross. “Personal trainers will have more education about movement in the future, be more skilled at correcting postural deviations and movement dysfunctions and teach clients how to exercise for less dependence on this model. This is the only way for personal training to continue to grow. Trainers who just run people through tough workouts will mostly be an endangered species in the future,” he believes.
From a Gen X perspective, Ross’s forecast makes particular sense because, well, Gen Xers aren’t 25 anymore. And so they’re beginning to seek out programs and career opportunities that adapt to their changing experiences and lifestyle.
Gen Xers used to preach “no pain, no gain,” recalls Krauss. “As we age, we’re recognizing the ‘smarter, not harder’ mentality.” Likewise, the average Gen X client is no longer content with just the gym basics. “I think Gen X will bring mind-body personal training into the mainstream, encouraging more thoughtful, intrinsic workouts,” says Krauss.
“We’re getting older, but we really value beauty and fitness,” adds McMillan. “We recognize we can’t do it on our own; we need help. We’re also super busy, juggling various responsibilities, including work and kids, so we need the accountability and results that a trainer can provide.”
As a result, personal training will likely continue to stay in high demand, but in a way that suits the Gen X preference for qualified fitness guidance without heavy-handed supervision. Gen Xers still like their freedom, after all. “I anticipate that in the future, people will dedicate less time to training,” says Krauss, “so teaching them how to be efficient in less time would be a gift for them.”
Considering the Gen X preference for work-life balance, fitness pros should continue to blend personal training offerings with leisure/play time. McMillan recommends programs that are fun and effective but not too impactful on the body. “[Provide] lots of adventures/events to help address ‘bucket list’ items. We want to live life to the fullest, and a studio that can offer those experiences will do very well.”
Ross adds, “I know Gen Xers whose entire fitness plan consists of doing things—playing various sports, rock climbing, snowboarding, martial arts, etc. We’ve embraced the notion that movement can add a lot to life and that adding enough challenging movement to your life can even potentially obviate the need for traditional structured exercise.”
The importance of knowing which programs will appeal goes for clients of all ages. Gen X trainers who wish to work with a cross-section of clients must pick up on what makes the average Boomer client tick, yet also grasp what younger adults are after these days.
How is the Millennial (and younger) experience similar to or different from the typical Gen Xer attitude? Arney sums it up well: “The biggest health issue facing our younger generation is inactivity. But this group does not appreciate the ‘exercise for the sake of exercise’ mindset that defined the onset of the fitness movement for Gen Xers. Instead, Gen Yers, and those who are younger, seem to fall into two camps when it comes to what motivates them to move: (1) exercise disguised as recreation or gaming or (2) real-life event training (e.g., 5K, triathlon, mud run). To appeal to these clients, fitness pros will need to retool class formats and personal training sessions and possibly even divide them into and specialize in two different camps based on their appeal.”
Now that Gen Xers are no longer the youngest fitness pros—and are the first generation to be “sandwiched” between two others in the industry—what role do they play in bridging the gap between the well-established Baby Boomers and the less-experienced Millennials?
Gen X fitness pros may be in a perfect position to make meaningful connections on both sides. “Our generation is mature and experienced enough to relate to an older population, but also cool and hip enough to hang with the young kids . . . or at least, we think we’re cool and hip enough!” says McMillan. “We look younger and act younger; therefore we can relate to a younger crowd. We often like the same music, same fashions, etc. For our parents, this wasn’t the case.”
Gen Xers also share other pop-culture preferences with Millennials, such as hanging out on Facebook. To leverage ongoing relationships with Millennial clients and colleagues, and even with other tech-savvy Gen Xers, it pays to take advantage of social media and mobile devices. Technology plays a substantial role in connecting to the younger generation, according to Arney. “The smart phone is a universal accessory and the number-one source of information and communication for younger generations. It’s [really a necessity] for fitness pros to incorporate this device into clients’ exercise experience, whether through texting, social network connections or apps that track workouts.”
Where does that leave Generation X’s relationship with Baby Boomers? Apart from the fact that plenty of Boomers also use social networks and smart phones, Gen Xers have been nurturing professional relationships with this group of clients and fitness pros essentially since the inception of the fitness industry. Now Gen Xers can apply that experience and knowledge to helping connect Boomer and Millennial groups in the industry as well. “Because Gen Xers have taught classes to and/or trained a variety of clientele on both sides of their generation,” says Arney, “they can pass along insights and teaching techniques that are appropriate for a wide range of age groups.”
As for clients who are themselves Gen Xers, they’ll mostly be in their 40s and 50s over the next 10 years. Now’s the time to start looking ahead to programming that will appeal to this new generation of aging adults. “As Gen Xers get older, they will experience more free time (retirement, fewer parental responsibilities, etc.),” says Arney. “Providing them with the encouragement to take advantage of that free time by exercising more, practicing good nutritional habits and taking time to rest will help ensure they lead healthier, happier lives in their later years.”