The Fitness Cycle May Be On the Down Side for Now

Imagine this situation: You are driving your car to the next town, but you aren't sure how to get there. So, you stop and ask someone for directions. You follow the directions given to you but find that the path doesn't lead you to the right place. You ask someone else for directions, but the directions you receive don't lead you to the next town either.

Now if this process happened repeatedly, you probably would give up at some point and just accept that you must stay where you are even though you don't want to be there.

A recent survey published in USA Today found that fewer people are on a diet now than in the last 16 years. Twenty-six percent of women and 19 percent of men said they were on a diet in 2006, down from a peak of 35 percent of women and 26 percent of men who said they were on a diet in the early 1990s.

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) also reported that there has been no growth in members in the last three years. The last six months of 2006 were flat for many clubs. Some of this was because of strong new competitors, but other factors played a significant role.

History repeats itself, and, just like many other products and services, the demand for fitness happens in cycles. For example, in 1992, Dan Rather led off the “CBS Evening News” with the story, “The Fitness Boom Is Over.” The story cited numerous examples as to why the boom was over. Yet, phenomenal growth in all sectors of the fitness industry took place after 1992.

However, with the news from IHRSA, we must ask ourselves again, has the fitness boom ended? Or do people get frustrated with exercising because they aren't meeting their goals, give up after a lot of trying and go into fitness hibernation? Unfortunately, most health club members have many more stories about their fitness failures than stories about their fitness successes. This eventually can build a momentum of frustration and give the appearance that the boom is over.

Don't be discouraged, though. There is some good news for the industry (albeit bad news for most Americans). The U.S. population is suffering from record levels of obesity. Yet, everyone wants to look and feel good, no matter what size they are, and many will try over and over to do so whether through diets or exercise — or both. Sure, some people may give up on fitness forever, but most people are not willing to accept continued weight gain, poorly fitting clothes and less energy, happiness and self-esteem. Even when people seem to give up, it is usually temporary. They will come back — they must come back. Their return, as in the past, will result in bigger numbers for our industry than ever before.

However, fitness facilities can and should do more to get people out of their fitness hibernation. A club needs to be fun, exciting and fresh. Renovations need to be done every four or five years. Strong attention needs to be placed on creating a warm social environment because many people are not attracted to exercise or fitness facilities by fitness alone.

In addition, club owners should regularly promote the message that use of their facilities offer more than just weight loss. Using a fitness facility can help people feel better, become healthier and become happier. Marketing efforts must focus on how clubs can help individuals “feel good” even without exercise. Exercise just adds to the positive experience they have by belonging to a club.

The industry will grow stronger than ever, but it will often be a two-steps-forward, one-step-back experience because one thing is for certain: People will never give up wanting a better life.

Bruce Carter is the president of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design firm that has created about $420 million worth of clubs in 45 states and 26 countries.

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