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Shaking Things Up in South Africa

Moving forward and leading the way.

With a population of over 49 million people, who speak 11 official languages, South Africa is a country booming with growth and activity, especially as its weather and natural attributes contribute to a favorable outdoor culture. South Africans are excited and proud to be hosting the World Cup for football (soccer) this year, and can even be described as fanatical about rugby.

With so much passion for sport and exercise, it’s not surprising that the fitness industry is robust and growing. According to Cape Town–based Darren Jacobson, the head of fitness and product for Virgin Active South Africa, “the message of fitness spreads quickly throughout the territories,” thanks to global, regional and local players in the industry. “With the help of globe-trotting fitness personalities and well-known, cutting-edge offerings, we are a progressive and focused fitness society.”

By this, Jacobson means that South Africa’s vibrancy and diversity have increased access to facilities and products and made them more affordable. For example, he says, “we have a large demographic of Muslim communities, which has contributed to the growth of women-only facilities.” These coexist comfortably with mixed-use and mixed-gender club areas and with global chains.

Specific trends that Jacobson sees include a shift from personal training niche offerings to a more group-oriented focus. “Group exercise has taken center stage once again, with many personal training studios moving to boot camp and small-group offerings.” In addition, Zumba®—recently introduced by Virgin Active—has taken the country by storm. Jacobson attributes part of its popularity to South Africa’s “many tribal influences and dance styles.” There is also continued interest in mainstream offerings, such as step, pump, toning and boxing.

This does not mean that personal training is in decline. “The [personal training] culture is exceptionally strong and has been cemented over the past few years with the advent of fitness regulations regarding qualifications,” says Jacobson. He also sees a “maturing” of the industry, with personal training now presented as both an everyday health and wellness offering and a valuable investment. As usage has risen, “equipment costs have decreased, which has led to an increase in the use of the TRX® Suspension Trainer, ViPR rubber exercise tubes, and kettlebells,” says Jacobson. “Other concepts that are gathering momentum are yoga (including Bikram), Pilates, fusion mind-body classes and functional fitness.”

One of the biggest shifts Jacobson has seen is the move away from a “hardcore” approach to exercise as people have realized that fitness “isn’t about the muscle, but more the ability to move without resistance in everyday life. Although there is some interest in shows such as The Biggest Loser, this type of exercise hasn’t gained much momentum, as aggressive weight loss is not well-received.”

A significant challenge that South Africans face is the high unemployment rate (23%), which makes it difficult for some people to access clubs or studios. Although childhood obesity is a growing pandemic, as in other countries, Jacobson is optimistic for the future, because the government is investing heavily in the development of disadvantaged areas.

With hope in hand, South Africans are excited about 2010. As Jacobson puts it, “We look forward to a busy year, filled with finished stadiums, upgraded transport systems, fresh investment and a fitness culture that continues to grow.”


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Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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