While I’m not as disciplined as I should be, I am an avid gym goer (it serves as a marvelous counterpoint to my many vices). I am far from alone. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), health club industry revenue topped $90 million last year. Today, 70+ million people worldwide are members of health clubs. Gyms are gathering places and retail spaces. They convey status, belonging, and identity. Gym communities have evolved over time into a cultural groups that extend well beyond the workout itself. SoulCycle, for example, is marketed as an experiential group high. Joining Orangetheory makes you part of the “orange nation.” Planet Fitness, Throwback Fitness, and the Bar Method are all largely social. CrossFit is more than a method, it has become a lifestyle, with paleo diets and buttered coffee as much a part of the culture as the lifts, running, and rhetoric of strength. Fitness club brands know more people are signing up, going to classes and group sessions, and bringing their families along for the ride, but they need to understand what motivated this trend toward fitness communities in order to build them more fully. So why are gyms social spaces?
- Greater access to information about self-care and health. The abundance of resources and social media have brought on a cultural shift toward valuing health, or at least the image of health. People seek information on therapies, healthy eating, exercise, meditation and medicine in reaction to perceived health problems brought on by previous. The result has been, at least in part, the belief that many of these problems can be mitigated by exercise – particularly structured exercise in a constructed environment. Information access has led to a stronger belief they we can stave off decrepitude and even death if we find the right exercise combination/regimen.
- The deterioration of former social gathering places. Perhaps partly due to their obsessions with self-care and health, fewer people are making traditional nightlife hangouts such as bars and clubs their single points of connection. Additionally, fewer people are going to church or places of worship. Shopping malls are become antiquated As a result, gyms have become points of reference that indulge the need to feel in control, feel healthy, and feel part of something bigger than oneself. The gym has become a point of congregation.
- The rare opportunity to unplug. One of the greatest challenges to being “live and in person” is that we are increasingly tethered to our technology. While many people still hop on the treadmill with Instagram pulled up, fitness classes require listening to instructors (no headphones), constant full-body motion that often ties up hands (gripping handlebars, lifting weights, punching bags, etc.), and the need to be present (finding proper form, watching others). Quite simple, while you can get work done while at the gym, it’s not easy. Additionally, the gym gives you license to unplug. It is one of the few places people can come together, disconnect, and engage.
- Stemming loneliness. Of the more than 140,000 Americans Gallup-Healthways has surveyed so far, the individuals who report being alone all day (zero hours of social time) perform the poorest on the Happiness-Stress Index, with only 32 percent experiencing much enjoyment/happiness and nearly as many experiencing intense stress and worry (27 percent). This results in a happiness-stress ratio of one-to-one. The reverse is true for those who devote a large part of their day to social time, with the happiness-stress ratio rising for each additional hour of time spent socializing up to six to seven hours – at which point the happiness-stress ratio peaks. When these factors are added together, fitness communities specifically offer something many people are craving in an increasingly “plugged-in” but “disconnected” society: a chance to be physically and mentally present in a space where others have gathered and are also present, and everyone shares the desire to be healthy. Again, whether or not being healthy is the mitigating factor is secondary. It’s the shared quest that matters.
Building the community furthers the brand. By understanding that people go to gyms to find communities that are like-minded and physically present – that they are seeking health and information, a sense of identity in the real-life world as well as encouragement and support. Fitness brands can take an active role in providing the experiences members value:
- Be a hub of relevant health information. People join fitness communities because they value their health both physically and mentally. Fitness apps like My FItness Pal and gear brands like Fitbit often post healthy recipes and wellness articles exclusive to members and users. Gyms could also share informative media with members who want a more holistic approach to their health.
- Create social opportunities among members. Dancing in the park, happy hour, parties and other meet-ups outside of the usual class give members a chance to bond.
- Champion and acknowledge members’ successes. Life Time Fitness has promotions such as The 60 Day Challenge for which success stories are shared among other members. CrossFit hosts worldwide events. The point is that creative celebration of success builds loyalty.
- Provide opportunities for non-members to engage. Trial classes, meet-and-greets and promotional activities could motivate people to try something new.
- Create a strong, unique brand/community identity. While gyms should strive to be inclusive and open to new members, people go to gyms seeking a sense of belonging to something. SoulCycle is a great example of how a unique experience can be built.
Ultimately fitness brands should be part of the communities they facilitate. To members or potential members craving community, belonging and interaction, a gym can be every bit as important as a doctor, a church, a job or a personal relationship. Brands have the opportunity to really double down and own a much larger narrative than “spin class” or “barre” and position themselves as health authorities, emotional support, the best part of someone’s day and a place where you can find your people.