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How the Fitness Industry Failed The Majority of Americans

Fitness assessment testing overhead performance, where a person holds a stick overhead and squats while an instructor watches closely.
Anne, an AFS trainer, assess the overhead mobility of a new client.

How the Fitness Industry has Failed

If you’re reading this, there is a good chance that the fitness industry has failed you. I can make this statement with a great deal of confidence given that less than 20% of Americans go to gyms and fitness centers. Some in the fitness industry might find this statistic surprising, but the objective reality is that the fitness industry has failed the vast majority of Americans, especially the ones that need the industry’s help the most. Let’s explore why together, and most importantly, what needs to be done to change it.

Understanding the Fitness Industry

According to several industry sources, including the trade association for the fitness industry, IHRSA, the industry has hovered around 15-20% market penetration for the past 30+ years. This is a remarkable statistic given the growth of the industry during that same period of time. According to Forbes, the industry has seen significant growth in terms of revenue and organizations, particularly over the past decade (COVID declines notwithstanding). 

This presents an interesting paradox, the industry hasn’t necessarily seen a significant increase in market share, yet there are more fitness businesses and those businesses are making more money than ever. This certainly could make the casual observer wonder, what gives? 

The answer is clear to keen observers. The fitness industry has gotten very good at making the fit, fitter; and the healthy, healthier. This has essentially resulted in fitness consumers hopping from one gym to another, in the hopes of lower prices, better amenities, or both. The industry isn’t serving more people, it’s just serving the same people, better. 

The Fitness Industry’s Failure

The fundamental failure that exists here is borne out in statistics from the CDC suggesting that less than a quarter of Americans meet the recommended guidelines for both aerobic activity and muscle strengthening. It is clear this is a strong driver of disease and reduced quality life, with physical inactivity costs expected to exceed $27 billion annually, over the next decade, according to the World Health Organization

The bottomline is, although the fitness industry is growing bigger and more profitable than ever, it is not serving the people it needs to help the most – the 75% of Americans that don’t meet the CDC’s guidelines. This has to change, not only if we are going to control our ever-escalating healthcare costs; but, more importantly, if the fitness industry is truly going to help all people lead healthy, happy, and functionally productive lives. 

Despite the doom and gloom, there are some positive steps the industry can take to serve the broader American population. In fact, these steps are already underway in pockets of the industry. 

I wrote about a framework for the industry to implement in an article entitled The Five Steps to Professionalize the Fitness Industry. That article was written decidedly for industry professionals. Below I will outline the practical implications for you, in order for you to become a more discerning consumer of the fitness industry. Hopefully, in the process, you’ll begin to trust the high-quality providers in our industry, and maybe consider engaging with us. 

Redefining Gym & Fitness Culture

For decades the primary issue that has plagued the fitness industry is that gym and fitness culture has been very body composition, or weight, centric. Much of the industry’s imagery and messaging has been around weight loss, achieving a beach body, and before/after photos. This approach has very much spoken to the 15-20% of Americans that already go to gyms and fitness centers.

Not that improving weight and body composition is a misguided goal in the least, it’s just very complicated. It’s not only complicated biologically (as there is a strong genetic component to body weight), it’s even more complicated psychologically. Many people who attempt to lose weight feel they must do so to meet some societal standard. There is simply a lot of guilt and shame associated with body weight, and it’s pervasive. Many people experience weight stigma, and (sadly) the fitness industry has perpetuated it for decades.

The industry has implied, in many cases not so subtly, that you should workout because you should look a certain way. Should is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Who said what you should look like? In many cases it’s people who have the genetic good fortune to look a certain way, they deem as superior. 

The irony of the fitness industry’s misguided overemphasis on body composition and weight, is that as an industry, it’s failed to produce positive outcomes when it comes to weight loss and body composition improvement for the vast majority of people (more on outcomes below).

The fitness industry is in desperate need of redefining the culture associated with gyms, fitness centers, and exercise. The reality is, most people want to exercise to feel better, function better, and take control of their health. If they lose weight, or look better, from exercise that certainly is a nice bonus, but it’s not the driving force for most people to exercise. In fact, according to Club Industry, 87% of people exercise to improve their mental wellbeing. 

Collectively, the fitness industry needs to recognize that if they don’t embrace this shift away from a culture of weight and looking better, and towards a culture of feeling and functioning better, we’re never going to help the people who need it the most.

If you’re looking for a gym or fitness center to help you reach your goals, find one that focuses on feeling and function, not looks.

Increasing Inclusivity in the Fitness Industry

Given the culture I laid out above, it’s not surprising that much of the imagery, messaging and hiring practices of the fitness industry has been more exclusive, than inclusive. While DEI initiatives are starting to make some inroads in improving inclusivity, it’s not nearly dramatic enough to make a measurable difference.

Inclusivity is really all about safety. People want to go places where they feel safe, a big part of that is feeling like they belong. This is where the fitness industry has failed on the most fundamental level. If you look at the imagery used by nearly fitness organizations it tends to be disproportionately young, very fit, and white. This means that if you’re anything other than young, very fit, and white you’re told implicitly by this imagery you don’t belong. 

Diversity in age, gender, race/ethnicity, body shape/size, and fitness level are absolutely critical to making people feel safe from the second they engage with a fitness brand. As founder/CEO of the fitness company Applied Fitness Solutions, my fundamental rule of marketing is no stock images. Fitness stock images tend to be mostly young, fit, and white. They don’t reflect the population we need to serve. I’ve always hoped that when people look at our website, their first reaction is a feeling of safety because they see people that look like them. 

This diversity must extend beyond just the imagery on a website or social media ad, it has to extend to hiring practices as well. Traditionally, the fitness industry has hired everyone from fitness professionals to desk staff, who are – unsurprisingly – young, fit and white. It is difficult to create a truly safe and inclusive environment for people of varying ages, ethnicities, body shapes/sizes, and fitness levels if everyone that works in a gym or fitness center is not as diverse as the population they hope to serve. The industry needs to adopt hiring practices that are more diverse and inclusive. Doing so will create a level of safety, trust, and inclusivity that will engage the broader American public. 

If you’re looking for a gym or fitness center, find one that implements diversity practices in marketing and hiring. They’ll be much more likely to help you achieve your goals, because they truly understand you.

Measuring & Producing Health/Fitness Results

Everyone exercises for a reason. As I mentioned above, this reason isn’t necessarily to look better. Most often it’s to feel better, function better, prevent or treat disease/injury, and have more control over health. All of these are results, or outcomes, that can be measured over time to track improvement. This is quite possibly the area the fitness industry has failed the most. 

Sadly, because of the overemphasis the industry has placed on body composition and weight, most people have evaluated the success of their fitness routine based on the number on the scale. This is absolutely the wrong level of measure to consider. 

Weight fluctuates to a significant degree, especially when someone starts an exercise program. In fact, just as a result of fluid changes in the body, weight can increase in the first couple of weeks after starting an exercise program. Regardless of the complexity of what happens, one thing is clear, the scale is a poor indicator, at best, of the changes that occur from an exercise program. 

Looking at improvements in holistic fitness (including mobility/flexibility, strength, endurance, aerobic capacity, etc.) is the only true way to know if your efforts are producing positive results. Going a step further, improvements in mental health/wellbeing can also be quantified. All of this is critical to ensure you have a good perspective on your efforts and what they’re producing.

This is where the fitness industry can provide a lot of value to consumers. By using trained professionals to measure fitness levels at baseline and periodically throughout an individual’s journey, the industry can provide an objective way to monitor progress and keep people motivated. 

Beyond the ability of these qualified professionals to provide measurement, they should be involved in program development and implementation. Many people who don’t perform an exercise routine have some degree of fear or apprehension about starting. This could be due to general uncertainty and lack of confidence, or it could be a result of a medical or orthopedic condition. This is where a qualified fitness professional can make all the difference in the world. 

By qualified, I don’t mean the personal trainer who has taken a weekend workshop and passed an exam online. The person you’re looking for is a degreed and nationally-certified Fitness Coach (for more on the difference between a Personal Trainer and a Fitness Coach, go here). Their degree should be in Exercise Science, Kinesiology, or something related, from a four-year institution. They should also be a registered exercise professional through the US Registry of Exercise Professionals, ideally with an American College of Sports Medicine certification. 

Finding a qualified Fitness Coach will not only ensure you are able to have your progress monitored effectively, but also ensure you’re provided an individualized plan to meet your unique needs and goals. 

If you’re looking for a gym or fitness center to help you reach your goals, find one that has a mechanism for continuous monitoring of your progress; employing degreed and nationally certified Fitness Coaches to not only measure your progress, but work with you along the way to ensure you achieve the health and fitness outcomes you’re looking for. 

The Fitness Industry can Succeed Where it has Failed

If you’ve gotten to this point in the article, it would be fair if you felt equal parts frustrated and hopeful. It is frustrating the fitness industry has failed to meet the needs of so many people for so long. Truthfully, the industry has no one to blame but itself, for all the reasons I laid out in this article. 

At the same time, you might feel hopeful, if what I said in this article resonates with you. There is a growing movement in the industry to embrace the topics we’ve discussed here. There are organizations that are interested in moving beyond the 15-20% of the American population they’ve always served. Those organizations adhere to the principles and practices I’ve laid out in this article. Find one of these organizations and you’ll be well on your way to taking control of your health in the most empowering ways possible. 

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