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The 86 Percent Opportunity

Why does an industry with so much to offer seem so challenged in its efforts to solicit more people to take advantage of its programs and services?

According to the most recent statistics from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, Boston, Mass., the fitness club industry currently serves a little more than 14 percent of the U.S. population. In most other developed nations, the industry serves less than 10 percent of the population. Given the considerable evidence that shows the value of engaging in physical activity on a regular basis as an effective countermeasure to many lifestyle-related diseases and disabilities (heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, etc.), the 14- percent segment is astoundingly low. Put another way, why is it that the fitness industry is only able to serve 14 percent of the population, when 37 percent of people in the U.S. will eventually succumb to heart disease (most earlier in their lives than later), and when the majority of people in the U.S. are either overweight, pre-diabetic, or have at least one or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease? The critical issue is, why does an industry with so much to offer seem so challenged in its efforts to solicit more people to take advantage of its programs and services?

Excuses, excuses

One argument many industry observers and experts put forth is that most individuals simply do not know the real value of exercise. If they did, they would be more assertive in their efforts to join a fitness center and start exercising. This intention is countered by research conducted by Roper Starch in 2001 and American Sports Data in 2003, which found that more than 90 percent of people in the U.S. state that good health is essential and/or important, and just more than 80 percent indicate being fit and getting enough exercise is essential and/or important. As such, the claim that people "don't know any better about exercise" does not hold water. A second rationale commonly put forth for why such low participation exists at fitness facilities is that behaviors are driven by beliefs and values - the abysmal record for how many people join fitness centers is a byproduct of the fact that exercise does not fall high on the value and belief list for most people. On the other hand, according to the same research by Roper Starch and American Sports Data, health is listed as the third most important value among Americans, while fitness is ranked seventh. In other words, even though joining a fitness center is not a priority for most people in the U.S., these same individuals definitely seem to know that being fit and exercising are important.

Interpreting the numbers

Even more perplexing statistics are these: Just more than 70 percent of people in the U.S. are satisfied with their health, and approximately 60 percent are satisfied with their appearance. What can these numbers mean? They would seem to illustrate that most Americans already feel that they are healthy and look good, contrary to what empirical observations might otherwise indicate. A more insightful interpretation of the numbers might yield a more productive analysis. An old salesman once stated that unless a company uncovers the needs of its audience, it'll never be able to connect the benefit of its product to the individuals it is attempting to serve. As such, it would seem that the fitness industry really doesn't know the actual needs of real Americans. Rather, everyone perceives that they know the needs of the public (lose weight, get healthier, prevent disease, look better, etc.), but in reality, they don't. Research indicates that people avoid buying a fitness center membership because of three primary factors: objection (e.g., the facility never uncovered a strong enough need to override the person's disapproval), indifference (e.g., individuals are happy with who they are and what they are doing) and skepticism (e.g., potential members simply don't believe what they are being told). In the fields of exercise and behavioral science, these individuals can collectively be referred to as uninitiated believers. If the industry's appeal is viewed in terms of being a large personal sale, it could reasonably be concluded that its audience is either indifferent to, skeptical of or objects to its product offering (flashy facilities, tons of equipment, fit bodies, cheap prices, empty promises, etc.). It could be argued that offering beautiful facilities at a relatively low price is not the benefit everyone is looking for to fulfill their need to be lean, happy and productive. A salesperson might conclude that the industry has taken the easy way out. It has chosen not to deal with indifference, skepticism and objection. Instead, it has unduly focused on high-pressure closing techniques, building facilities that all look the same, offering similar cheap prices, providing an illusion of credibility and indulging itself with sales gimmicks. Having defined one of the major underlying problems facing the industry, next month's column will set forth some specific strategies that the industry can consider in an effort to increase the overall percentage of people who are enrolled as users of fitness facilities.
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