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International Inspiration

A global sampling of what professionals are doing in their countries to Inspire the World to Fitness® and wellness.

Nothing fires up fitness professionals more than the thought of helping others discover the joy of living healthy, active lives. Individually, we do phenomenal work to make a difference in our communities. Universally, however, we can’t do it all alone: we need to connect with each other to share knowledge and information and to brainstorm new ways to reach the people we want to serve. The fabulous news is that with today’s communication networks, we truly are globally connected.

Globalization refers to the increasing connectivity throughout the world, resulting in integration and interdependence in economic, social, technological, cultural, political and ecological spheres (www.wikipedia.org).

The fitness industry exemplifies globalization, because ideas and resources are shared across national borders. In today’s market economy, large players do business in multiple developed countries. For example, Curves®, a leading fitness franchise, has more than 10,000 clubs with over 4 million members in 49 countries around the world (Curves 2007). Gold’s Gym International, the next largest global fitness chain, features 620 locations in 28 countries with nearly 3 million members (Gold’s Gym 2007b).

While the United States is the market leader of the fitness club industry, with approximately 40% of all facilities, 31% of members and 30% of total international revenues, other countries are also inspiring the world to fitness (IHRSA 2007). Approximately 45 other countries generate the rest of the market.

In addition, numerous fitness organizations have an international presence. For example, IDEA Health & Fitness Association currently has members in more than 80 countries, and IDEA conventions regularly attract several thousand fitness pros from all corners of the world.

One of the greatest benefits of globalization is that we can all learn from one another. This article takes an up-close and personal look at what is going on in fitness around the world. What consistent trends are driving the industry? How does the business of fitness differ from nation to nation and region to region? What lessons can we learn from each other, and what aspects of our business are unique to our native lands?

Unifying Global Trends

The most pressing public-health issues worldwide provide the greatest opportunities for fitness entrepreneurs.

Overweight and Obese People of All Ages
The problems of overweight and obesity continue to grow across all age groups. For the first time, the number of people in the world who are overweight has surpassed the number who are malnourished. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are now more than 1 billion overweight adults, at least 300 million of them obese (WHO 2007c). Obesity and overweight pose a major risk for chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, as well as certain forms of cancer. The key causes are reduced physical activity and increased consumption of rich foods high in saturated fats and sugars.

Longer Life Expectancy
“The rapidly aging population is impacting most countries around the world,” says Colin Milner, chief executive officer (CEO) of the International Council on Active Aging in Vancouver, British Columbia. According to the WHO, in 2000 there were 600 million people aged 60 and over; there will be 1.2 billion by 2025 and 2 billion by 2050. Today, about two-thirds of all older people are living in the developing world; by 2025, the proportion will have risen to three-quarters, or 75%. In the developed world, the very old (age 80+) are the fastest-growing population group. Women outlive men in virtually all societies; consequently in very old age, the ratio of women to men is 2:1 (WHO 2007a).

Widespread Chronic Diseases
Chronic diseases across age groups are affecting quality of life as well as public and private healthcare systems. Chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, cancers and respiratory diseases, account for 59% of the 57 million deaths annually and 46% of the global burden of disease. Five of the 10 leading global-disease-burden risk factors identified by World Health Report 2002—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, physical inactivity and insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables—are strongly related to diet and physical activity (WHO 2007b).

Good News and Bad News
Because medicine has reduced infectious disease and technology has improved our lives in a good many ways, we are living longer and doing less physical labor. The flip side is that inactive, modern living presents new lifestyle challenges. In fact, these challenges mean that opportunities for fitness professionals throughout the world abound. While the solutions include multiple factors—becoming more active, improving nutrition, quitting smoking, managing weight, coping with stress, enhancing personal relations, incorporating spiritual activities, promoting better sleep, increasing access to health care and improving environmental factors that support healthy behaviors—becoming more physically active is a fundamental key.

More than ever before, individuals, governments and corporations are interested in wellness and preventive measures to encourage self-care, to promote the practice of healthy lifestyle habits and to improve overall quality of life. For example, Rana Alomani, a group fitness instructor in Khaldeya, Kuwait, notes that “the interest in fitness and wellness is growing here [in Kuwait] the same as in any other country,” she says. “People are becoming more aware of how important it is to maintain an active life and how effective it is in preventing diseases and obesity.”

Katie Rollauer, senior manager of research for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), adds, “While the health club industry has shown itself to be diverse in scope across the world, club companies face similar challenges—combating the global concern of obesity and aligning exercise with the healthcare continuum. As those needs continue to grow, so too will the health club industry.”

Fitness, or Fitness and Wellness?

While countries across the world share certain trends, they also face their own particular issues, depending on the size and duration of the industry’s presence; the availability and quality of professional education and training; the strength and stability of the local economy and the availability of disposable income from customers; the cultural attitudes toward exercise and fitness; the degree of interest in wellness; and the relations among medical providers, corporations, the government and fitness and wellness professionals.

One noticeable distinction worldwide is the degree to which the fitness, wellness, spa and beauty businesses are integrated.

The United States
Fitness in the United States, at least in many health club settings, still focuses primarily on physical conditioning, without connecting that component to a broader wellness vision. While the body-mind movement has significant momentum, many body-mind disciplines in club settings are promoted primarily for their physical rather than their mental or spiritual benefits. This situation is changing, however, as more and more clubs develop body-mind studios and wellness programming. For example, Gold’s Gym is undertaking a $30 million marketing campaign to rebuild its brand image with the aim of appealing to a wider audience (Gold’s Gym 2007a); the company is also partnering with the American Diabetes Association in a campaign to educate Americans about diabetes (Gold’s Gym 2007b).

Outside of commercial clubs, exercise activities embrace more of a wellness or preventive approach. In medically based organizations, corporate settings, older-adult communities, schools and community recreation centers, more programs target health concerns—such as coping with arthritis, preventing back pain and learning how to relax—or wellness issues, such as how to age actively and how to improve quality of life through functional fitness. In these settings, programs tend to emphasize scientifically based approaches to training and exercise, and fitness professionals are required to have breadth and depth of training in particular specialties.

The integrative approach to wellness that includes fitness, body-mind approaches, beauty and therapy is primarily seen in the American spa industry, reflecting spa industry trends worldwide. “The spa is growing as a center of healing and wellness, far beyond massages,” says Lawrence Biscontini, MA, international wellness and spa consultant based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “People are learning to manage stress through writing haiku, dream interpretation, self-acupressure massage, and stress reduction techniques past breathing.”

In Western Europe, fitness facilities are diverse, with some standing as part of multifunctional facilities that enjoy an alliance with the spa and beauty business. The spa tradition in Europe dates back to Roman times. Closely associated with promoting self-care and well-being, it blends easily with other types of wellness programming that focus on improving health and fitness and enhancing beauty. Fitness per se does not have the history that it has in the U.S. Body-mind activities are popular, since Europeans are attracted to the focus on mindful movement rather than purely physical exercise.

What trends are fitness professionals seeing in Europe?

  • Joan Breibart, president of the PhysicalMind Institute®, headquartered in New York City, has this to say: “Since Europeans don’t have our obesity problem, they can look at exercise as more beneficial for the total body—not just a calorie burner. They seem to be more interested in and sophisticated about technique than we are here.”
  • Mirian Izuierdo, owner of Benessere Health Group, based in Madrid, Spain, adds, “In Europe the interest in being fit and paying attention to diet is growing. [People] want to minimize the impact of growing older. New methods to improve well-being and appearance are growing by means of mind-body training and also by means of aesthetic and cosmetic support. People are demanding higher education of the professionals they are dealing with and a clearer response to their needs. Personal trainers are becoming more popular.”
  • According to Erin Mohr, a PhysicalMind Institute–certified Pilates instructor in Paris, “The French do not have a history in their culture for exercise the way that Americans do. Gym memberships are not very popular; [people] tend to play tennis or soccer to stay in shape. Many French clients that I have appreciate the softer side of Pilates, and they complain if they actually sweat. Pills and creams for cellulite are an extremely popular alternative to exercise. Parisians are naturally active and walk everywhere, like New Yorkers. Instead of going to the gym after work, they meet at a café for a drink. The French are gaining weight, too, but not with the same momentum as Americans. However, a change in diet has occurred and the increase in exercise levels will shift accordingly.”
  • Pablo Vera, in Madrid, is educational director of AkroStudio, a sports physical therapist and a STOTT PILATES® instructor trainer. Vera says, “Here a new concept has been born. ‘The Wellness Center’ integrates all the old and new techniques in a unique business model. This kind of business is growing fast and a great number of important clubs are remodeling . . . to be competitive—[to offer] health, movement and body-mind techniques in personal training, all in the same place to [help people] feel better each day, inside and out.”
  • Chris Onslow, CEO of Pro Active Health Ltd., based in Oxford, England, says, “In the UK, there is recognition that the public (our customers) are becoming better educated and aware of health and wellness issues. There’s also recognition that the base level of knowledge and experience that a newly trained fitness instructor has is barely satisfactory to meet the public’s expectations. As a result, there’s a clear move for ongoing education and higher standards of graduate education for fitness instructors.”

Eastern Europe. In contrast to the highly developed countries of Western Europe, Eastern European countries offer emerging markets. In particular, Russia, as the largest country in the world, offers high growth potential for the health and fitness market, except for Moscow, where the fitness business has had a presence for some time. For fitness professionals in these countries, access to professional training and continuing education in native languages remains a high priority (IHRSA 2006b).

Asia-Pacific: Developed and Emerging Markets
The Asia-Pacific region presents great diversity featuring mature fitness industries in Australia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong and large potential markets in Korea, Mainland China and India (IHRSA 2006a). As in Western Europe, many fitness centers are part of multifunctional facilities that include spa and beauty services. In some countries, these facilities primarily serve tourists and high-income clientele. In those venues, one finds cutting-edge, creative, integrative programming that features the best of traditional Asian disciplines—such as yoga, tai chi and qigong—along with East-West fusion programming, all presented with a wellness focus.

Some of the challenges facing fitness professionals who serve local clientele in Asia are the same as those facing professionals in America. “Teenagers and children [in Asia] have inactive lifestyles, predominantly due to the pressure to be academically successful, which then leads to bad habits. [Adults] are no different,” says Susie Misini, executive director of Kancy International Ltd. in Hong Kong, as reported in IHRSA’s 2007 Global Report. “People are quite often under a lot of stress, and this leads to poor choices of food and no time for exercise. Relaxation is predominantly eating out, drinking with co-workers, going to a movie or shopping.”

Middle East
“The most common goal [fitness professionals are] aiming for is making fitness part of everyone’s life and promoting active and healthy living,” says Alomani. “People here [in Kuwait] are trying to educate themselves about having a healthier life.

“We lack recreational activities. For example, we don’t have any dance studios like they do in the States. Living in a conservative society kind of limits the variety of activities. The lack of professional fitness resources and organizations is another problem.” Many fitness professionals have to go abroad to attend workshops or get certified, she says.

Sulaiman Qabazard, owner and manager/director of a health club in Kuwait City, adds, “The [most recent] information in Kuwait is that 80% of people are obese because of the way of life. People are starting to be more [aware] about getting into health and fitness. We need to educate the kids . . . more in my country [with] a fun kids’ gym in school and a special class about what to eat to be healthy and strong.”

“Boutique fitness facilities with specialization are booming in Canada,” says Helen Vanderburg, president and owner of Heavens Fitness and HI Fitness Consulting, based in Calgary, Alberta. “We’re finding more and more people are interested in having focused programs, whether it be in mind-body, personal training or indoor cycling. They are searching for a greater experience than simply getting fit.”

In Canada, as in the UK and many other European countries, the government provides medical services. This can lead to more government incentives to promote exercise among citizens. “We are finding that more corporations are actively pursuing health and wellness for their employees as part of their benefit package,” says Vanderburg. “We’re working with numerous companies that don’t want their employees to just go to a health club, but are also working to bring wellness, yoga and fitness to the workplace.”

Latin America
According to Kimber Bedoya, LodeKim Gym owner and certified group fitness instructor based in Asunción, Paraguay, the fitness industry has developed in a similar manner in Latin America as it has in the United States: it began with the aerobics craze in small studios and progressed to megagyms. “The top trends in gyms [now] are indoor cycling, Pilates, group strength training and personal training, and dance classes are on the rise again,” says Bedoya, who has been in the industry for more than 25 years. “I want to see more classes for elderly people here. We’re the only gym so far to provide a class for people over 60.”

Fitness instructor Maria Codas, also of Asunción, has been an IDEA member since 1988. She says, “Based on my experience at IDEA conventions, I share what I learn with my colleagues and, through the media, with many Paraguayan [consumers]. For example, I have participated in En Familia, a health interview on CNN in Spanish, talking about the benefits of healthy habits. I am the author of a monthly column on wellness at the most famous newspaper here, called Diario ABC Color. The Paraguayan Ministry of National Health invited me to teach as a volunteer to poor pregnant mothers. Over 10 years I gave them the tools to take care of their bodies and minds—which not only benefits them but also their babies. Currently, I [am] hired by Coca-Cola to train their employees to exercise. Places to exercise are being built so people and families can enjoy the benefits of exercising together.”

What We Can Learn From Each Other

When you look at the world of fitness, the United States emerges as a leader in producing high-quality research in exercise science and behavioral medicine and in finding ways to apply this research to the standards and training required of fitness professionals. Personal training is gaining traction and becoming much more popular in other parts of the world. The rest of the world can learn from the U.S. how the business has professionalized itself and become successful. The trend of express fitness and specialized studios—which began in the U.S.—is also very popular and has taken the rest of the world by storm.

While the U.S. is a leader, Americans have much to learn from how the fitness movement is evolving in other countries. Foreign nations, especially those coming to fitness very late in the game, seem to be more able to adapt to a wellness model, since—unlike the U.S.—they do not have the long history of aerobics, rooted in a focus on physical conditioning. Milner, an expert in older-adult activity, adds, “The main thing that we can learn is the value that other nations have for their elders. Aging is looked at as something positive, not negative.”

In the international arena, where businesses are newer and working hard to attract customers, fitness clubs emphasize service and cleanliness, state-of-the-art technology and high standards of quality (Tharrett & Peterson 2007). The fact that businesses are younger may make them more easily able to adapt to the latest trends and techniques.

Whatever country you are in, you can learn much from people in other countries. Many fitness professionals around the world echo the comments of Monique Gaymer-Jones, a Pilates instructor based in Ashley Green, England: “To be inspired and energized, I have to connect to the outside world through the Internet, listen to podcasts, read monthly magazines, belong to organizations and attend workshops and conventions. As personal trainers, we cannot just rely on our training only and live in our little bubble. We need this connection with the outside world to keep up with the world of fitness.”

Also, fitness professionals should remember that it’s never too late to learn another language. The language barrier is one of the only remaining obstacles to international communication. By making the effort to speak another language, you help reach out around the world.

Inspiring the World to Fitness

Worldwide, nearly 107 million members belonged to 98,594 fitness clubs in 2006, according to IHRSA’s 2007 Global Report (IHRSA 2007). The fitness club industry’s goal, as spearheaded by IHRSA, is to achieve 120 million club members worldwide by 2010. We also face the challenge of helping the 60% of the world’s population who do not meet minimum activity requirements (WHO 2007d). Is it possible to reach IHRSA’s goal and to inspire people to exercise in both club and nonclub locations? Yes!

For the first time in history, we can truly think about actually inspiring the global community to exercise and to be well. Market research, demographic data and health statistics that enable us to analyze and look at the fitness market from a global perspective are now available; before, we did not have all this information at our fingertips. Now that we do, it helps us set goals and think, dream and envision on a global scale. What’s more, technology enables us all to be connected—to network, share knowledge, brainstorm and motivate one another.

Throughout the world, in diverse regions, there are many more people who need the services of qualified fitness professionals than there are fitness pros to help them. Through educating, training and mentoring others, acting as role models and spreading our message, we can increase the ranks of dedicated industry professionals. The power of our vision is magnified by the numbers who share it. As we touch the lives of others—young, old or in-between—we make a difference. Today, the world is our arena. Together we can Inspire the World to Fitness.

SIDEBAR: Physical Activity Facts Worldwide
  • Appropriate regular physical activity is a major component in preventing the growing global burden of chronic disease.
  • At least 60% of the global population fails to achieve the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity daily.
  • The risk of getting a cardiovascular disease is 1.5 times higher for people who do not follow minimum physical activity recommendations.
  • Medical costs related to inactivity were estimated at $75 billion in the U.S. in 2000 alone.
  • Increasing physical activity is a societal, not just an individual, problem, and it demands a population-based, multisectoral, multidisciplinary and culturally relevant approach.

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an IDEA Fitness Journal contributing editor, a certified fitness professional, a body-mind movement and wellness expert, and an award-winning author of Pilates Fusion: Well-being for Body, Mind and Spirit. To help people around the world, her books are available in French, German, Russian, Chinese and English. She is based in Palm Beach, Florida, and Zurich, Switzerland. Contact her at www.shirleyarcher.com.

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Gold’s Gym. 2007b. Press room facts and stats. www.goldsgym.com/golds/press
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International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). 2006a. The IHRSA Asia Pacific Market Report: The Size and Scope of the Health Club Industry 2006. Boston, MA: IHRSA.

International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). 2006b. The IHRSA European Market Report: The Size and Scope of the Health Club Industry 2006. Boston, MA: IHRSA.

International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). 2007. The IHRSA Global Report: The State of the Health Club Industry 2007. Boston, MA: IHRSA.

Tharrett, S., & Peterson, J., 2007. Fitness centers in the U.S. can achieve success by applying international practices. Fitness Management www.fitnessmanagement.com/FM/articles/0107-mm1-operations.html; retrieved July 12, 2007.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2007a. Ageing and life course. www.who.int/ageing/en/index.html; retrieved July 23, 2007.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2007b. Chronic disease information sheets. www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/facts/en/; retrieved Aug. 5, 2007.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2007c. Obesity and overweight.www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/facts/obesity/en/index.html; retrieved July 23, 2007.

World Health Organization (WHO). 2007d. Physical activity. www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/publications/facts/pa/en/index.html ; retrieved July 23, 2007.

Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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