We’re spending more on fitness than ever before. Yet, as a whole, we’ve never been more unhealthy — at least in the US. What gives?
Let’s look at the economics. Consumer demand for fitness-related products and services is higher than ever, pushing the global wellness market to a whopping $3.4 trillion. When it comes to gym membership and fitness studios, IHRSA tallied 57.3 million people who were members of some 36,540 health clubs in the US.
Of course, this number doesn’t capture the full scope of the boutique studio boom. Despite the hefty price tag (up to $40 per class), membership to these studios grew 70% between 2012 and 2015, while membership to traditional gyms only grew by 5% during that same period.
Identifying a root cause behind this shift is pretty simple — you can blame millennials. Studio attendees are 10 years younger than members at traditional gyms.
But millennials are impacting the industry beyond the boutique studio, too. Unlike previous generations, millennials view wellness as a daily, active pursuit. More than paying lip service to a healthy lifestyle, a majority of millennials spend one-fourth of their disposable income on health and wellness.
Though, while millennials are spending big to break a sweat, they’re not alone — one survey of 1,350 people ages 18 to 65 found that the average American spends $155 per month on their health and fitness; that’s $112,000 in their entire lifetime. That’s $13,000 more than a public four-year college education, which averages about $98,440.
But is the fitness industry failing us?
Based on the information presented thus far, one might assume that, as a population, Americans are pretty healthy. But CDC statistics tell a much different story — obesity rates in the United States are at an all-time high. More than 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. Something doesn’t add up.
Here’s the thing, health and fitness aren’t as accessible as you might assume.
If you live in a big city, cycling studios and juice bars are everywhere. But they’re actually a rarity for much of the country.
As this map from CityLab indicates, there are two “fitness belts” in the US — there is a concentration of fitness professionals in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and another in parts of the Plains, the Rockies, and the Northwest. Conversely, the Deep South and Midwest lack fitness trainers and aerobics instructors — which might be a factor in explaining why these regions have the highest levels of obesity.
As the urban fitness revolution intensifies, the divide in Americans’ health and well-being is becoming more obvious. According to Vox, the rich are getting fitter while the poor are falling behind. Minorities aren’t catching any breaks either — there’s a lack of diversity in boutique fitness classes that the Washington Post characterized as being “too white and too thin.”
Instead of making physical activity more accessible, it’s becoming more expensive and exclusive.
While I’d never rail against more people being more physically active, the fact that fitness classes cost upwards of $40 is absurd. Still, it’s not an excuse not to exercise — budget-friendly gyms like Planet Fitness offer memberships that start at $10 a month. Keep in mind, boutique studios only make up about 3% of the overall fitness market, while luxury gyms like Equinox account for 11%. Still, budget-friendly gyms have twice as many members as their luxe competition — it’s just an unfortunate reality that these low-entrance gyms rely on those that sign up but never show up to bolster revenue.
But even if you rule out every type of gym membership, lack of access is still a pervasive issue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45% of American youth don’t have parks, playground areas, community centers, or sidewalks and trails in their neighborhood. Worse, less than 40% of adults live within half a mile of a park.
As Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told Vox: “We privatize physical activity, instead of investing in good public spaces where everyone can run safely or community centers with free yoga.”
So who can afford to get fit? The answer should be everyone. And the solution, according to public health officials, is simple: make it easy for people to stay healthy, and make it hard for them to get sick. And the best way to do that is to remind people that exercise doesn’t have to cost anything.
How could that be, you ask? A New York Times article from earlier this year broke it down quite nicely: ditch that $40 class for free—or low cost—fitness activities.
As the article stated:
People are calling it quits on the sculpting and spinning circuit and taking up old-school physical pursuits that many of us think of as the preserve of childhood. They’re shooting hoops, picking up squash, playing tennis in city parks, swimming laps at the Y. And they may be getting a better workout.
Besides the fact that playing pickup basketball or soccer might be a better workout than your low-impact barre class, these activities tend to be much cheaper. But even if sports leagues aren’t your style, you can still break a sweat, all over your town, without breaking the bank.
Tech, streaming, and voice-guided workouts may be pushing the envelope in fitness, but the idea of community—and affordability—has proven and will continue to prove just how sustainable it really is. Just watch.
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