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The Transformation of Group Ex Part Three: Where Do We Go From Here?

My March column briefly described the history of the group exercise business inside health clubs, starting with the mid-1970s aerobics revolution. I traced the evolution of class offerings, the bundling of memberships, the development of certifying organizations, the beginning of the competitive era in the early 1990s, the increase in the delivery costs of group exercise classes and the early warning signs that something was amiss.

In April's second installment, I reviewed the five dynamics that predicated change in clubs and group exercise — a shift in membership to an older, less fitness-oriented clientele; the growing size of clubs, the need for more members and an emphasis on membership rather than service; the technological automation of the United States, which was accompanied by less activity on the part of the average person; the introduction and adoption of massive amounts of highly sophisticated cardiovascular equipment; and the same old, same old, highly choreographed presentation mode of group classes. I also referred to the decreasing percentage of class participations compared to overall member facility usage and the growing number of clubs losing money on group exercise programming.

In this final chapter, I've outlined what I think will happen to group exercise in most clubs — and where this aspect of the fitness business will go from here.

  1. Group exercise, which evolved from aerobics classes, will be replaced by group fitness. Group fitness indicates a wider platform for classes, possibly using all types of equipment, accessories, audio and visual presentation, and a much broader delivery mode than we currently see.

  2. Packaged program licensers such as Body Training Systems, Les Mills International and others who are offering quality systems including choreography, music, presentation, marketing and education, will continue to grow.

  3. The majority of clubs will eliminate standardized group exercise classes, replace in-club exercise rooms with smaller studios and gravitate toward sign-up-only, fee-paid, smaller-size, age- and/or type-specific group fitness programming in shorter time segments (such as eight-, 10- or 12-week “semesters”).

  4. Many clubs will eliminate group fitness altogether in an attempt to concentrate on core businesses, such as membership and personal training, and to reduce payroll and program expenses.

  5. Quality group fitness offerings will move more towards skill-set development rather than just movement mechanics.

  6. Many facilities will begin offering video-programmed group fitness classes (as already being implemented by the women's facility Butterfly Life).

  7. Group fitness studios will be reintroduced, just as in the 1980s, when we saw large numbers of aerobics-only studios develop. These businesses will concentrate solely on group fitness offerings and may range in size from as small as 2,000 square feet to as large as 20,000 square feet or more.

  8. Group fitness will segment out in great measure to various types of age and demographic groups, such as children-only, women-only, men-only, seniors-only, sports-training or sports-specific, and post-medical, post-surgical and/or preventive-medicine-only.

  9. Soft movement programs such as yoga, Feldenkreis, Pilates mat and others will mushroom in use statistics.

  10. There will be much more implementation of equipment-use classes by small groups than presently exists.

  11. Savvy entrepreneurs will reach out to their communities and offer programs of many types in their communities, not necessarily inside their own facility walls.

  12. Too many health clubs will hold on too long to dying programs and will gradually spiral down to unalterable operating deficits from which they will not recover. In other words, trying to be something to everybody (except in very large, multi-faceted clubs) will escalate the failure rate of facilities in the next few years, and obsolete group exercise offerings will be a substantial contributor to this demise.

Fitness delivery in general is in for a radical and rapid shift. The inherent value of people in groups has to be exploited in a vastly different way. Those who understand that performance must be augmented by education and personal development will be the group fitness leaders. Modern successful fitness entrepreneurs will grasp the understanding of paying for a pleasurable, meaningful experience and capitalize on that concept.

Michael Scott Scudder, a contributing author for Fitness Business Pro, owns and operates MSS FitBiz Connection — an online-based club consulting and training service. Michael can be reached at 505-690-5974 or

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