Get Moving! Consumers and Exercise Trends in North America

People are happy to talk the talk but not so enthusiastic about walking the walk. Exercise is a game of two halves in much of North America, half the population are avid participants and the other half have thrown in their gloves.

Young woman Jogging 270

Key trends

Wearable technology sets the pace;

Generation games;

Baby boomer bounce;

Strut your stuff.

Commercial opportunities

  • Fitness apps;
  • Athletic (older) age;
  • Dance fitness.

More Americans are exercising each week on a regular basis: 55.5% of respondents to a Gallup and Healthways survey last June claimed they exercised for at least 30 minutes three or more times in the previous week. The figure represents the highest monthly average since the poll, which asks participants each day about their exercise frequency, started in January 2008. The survey results indicate exercise follows a seasonal trend in the USA, with more Americans saying they work out in the summer.

Hispanics, young adults and men are the most committed exercisers, according to the survey. Upper-income Americans are the most likely to exercise frequently, and lower-income Americans the least likely. Americans living in the west are more likely to exercise than those in any other region, while those in the south are the least likely.

Some Americans, however, are still not moving enough. Two in three Americans are clinically obese or overweight and a key factor is lack of exercise, according to analysis by Healthy People 2020, a federal programme designed to improve the nation’s public health. The 2014 study indicated 36% of US adults do not engage in any type of exercise or leisure physical activity.

Wearable technology sets the pace

The results of the American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) annual fitness trend forecast, now in its tenth year and announced in November, predicts wearable technology will for the first time take the top slot in 2016. The category includes fitness trackers, smart watches, heart rate monitors, and GPS tracking devices. “Wearable technology has overtaken activities like body weight training and high-intensity interval training to claim the number one spot in this year’s survey,” said Walter R. Thompson, the lead author of the survey and associate dean in the College of Education & Human Development at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “Consumer interest in fitness technology may signal that the low-cost, DIY exercise trend is waning,” he added.

In 2014, high-intensity interval training won the no. 1 spot but is now relegated to no. 3. Body weight training took first position in 2015 but fell to no. 2 in 2016. Two new trends appear in the top 20: flexibility and mobility rollers (no. 16) and smart phone exercise apps (no. 17). Dropping or remaining out of the top 20 for 2016 were Zumba, Pilates, indoor cycling, employee incentive programmes and boot camp. Exercise programmes aimed specifically at children and weight loss also dropped off the list, having seen dramatic falls in previous years, falling from the top 5 in every survey between 2007 and 2013 and appearing at no. 11 in 2014 and no. 17 in 2015.

Some of the survey respondents, composed of fitness professionals, argue the results are influenced by a sluggish economy and a consequent reluctance to sign-up to training programmes requiring expensive equipment or technical instruction. A counterview is that the economy is back on track and the attraction of new technologies is their ability to provide immediate feedback, making the wearer more aware of their activity level and increasing motivation to achieve fitness goals.

One Massachusetts-based fitness instructor, quoted on the campaigning website PHIT America, summed up the views of many in the industry: “I’m in complete agreement with the popularity of wearable technologies as I see men and women wear them in my fitness classes every day,” adding, “The electronic feedback serves as a source of motivation.”

Technology was also identified in December as an emerging trend in a survey of Canadian fitness experts, which predicts the top 10 most effective fitness trends for 2016. The survey by Canfitpro, an education provider in the Canadian fitness industry, highlighted the potential of technology-based fitness such as virtual fitness classes, fitness and nutrition apps and wearable devices.

Sales of Wearable Electronic Units in the USA and Canada: 2010-2015

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Source: Euromonitor International from trade sources/national statistics

Generation games

Survey results released by Fitbit earlier this year, covering January 2010 to December 2014, confirm generational and gender exercise preferences amongst Americans and Canadians. The top five favourite exercise activities in both countries are running, biking, strength training, elliptical workouts and yoga. Sports like hockey, football and golf are more popular with men than women, indicating men enjoy sweating it out in a team atmosphere. Women prefer activities like Pilates, dance and aerobics, suggesting when they workout they prefer to do it in a class setting. Millennials favour trendy workouts like barre, rock climbing and snowboarding. Activities like skiing, canoeing and ice skating are more popular among GenXers, while the baby boomer generation prefer easy, low-impact exercises like gardening, golf and walking.

While the US Physical Activity Council’s 2015 annual study, tracking participation in more than 120 sports, shows a drop in activity levels across the generations, the 209 million Americans who are active, out of the 292 million aged six plus, seem to be participating more often and in multiple activities. Those aged 18 to 24 showed the greatest decrease in activity, dropping 0.2% from 2013.

“Gen Z,” or those born this millennium, continue to dominate the team sports category, according to the survey, while the Millennials and “Gen X” feature more prominently in fitness sports, with Millennials leading the field in water and racquet sports. All three generations are actively involved in outdoor sports and individual sports, and continue to express interest in swimming as a means for future fitness. Spending on gym membership/fees continued to increase in 2014, in line with the upward trajectory of the last four years. The study also indicates that most parents with children who play sports in middle or high school participated in pay-to-play programmes.

Baby boomer bounce

By 2030, nearly one in four Canadians will be 65 years or over, according to data from Statistics Canada, so there is likely to be significant demand for fitness programmes and services to help them stay active and maintain their quality of life. Current demand sees fitness programmes for older adults at no. 8 in the ACSM fitness trend forecast for 2016. A significant segment of the baby boomer generation aging into retirement have more discretionary money than their younger counterparts, and more time for exercise or sports. Many health and fitness professionals are tapping into this market by creating age-appropriate fitness programmes to keep older adults healthy and active, including functional fitness activities for the frail elderly.

In Marion County, Florida, 27% of residents are aged 65 or older, and many view exercise as a key component of a healthy lifestyle. A veteran member of one of the county’s health clubs, aged 90, told daily newspaper the Ocala Star Banner in November what the attraction was: “Of course it is about the exercise, but equally important it’s about seeing everyone.” He is one of the growing numbers of older Americans who visit health clubs not only to exercise but to socialize with friends.

About one-third of the 54.1 million people with gym memberships in January 2015 in the United States were aged 55 or older. Research by American Sports Data, Inc., indicates the 55 and over gym member group is the fastest growing since it began studying fitness trends about two decades ago. It also indicates the number of people aged 55 and over who visit the gym at least 100 times per year jumped 33% in recent years, as compared to 13% growth for gym members aged under 35.

Strut your stuff

Dance is becoming a mover and shaker in the US fitness industry. The 2015 Exercise, Movement and Dance Insight National Survey, conducted by YouGov, indicated “improving health” was the main motivation for most women (60%) who enjoyed regular dance fitness classes, followed by a desire to increase fitness levels (54%) and to lose or maintain weight (54%). An overwhelming 76% of 16-25 year olds said their main reason for participating was keeping fit.

Reasons given by wallflowers for not participating were not being in good enough health to take part (20%), not good enough rhythm or body co-ordination (20%), embarrassment (19%) and body image self-consciousness (16%). The research indicated, however, that women become much less worried about their body image as they grow older, which is another reason the fitness industry needs to place the baby boomer generation in its sights. According to a spokesperson for the Exercise Movement & Dance Partnership over 1.5 million American women a month take part in dance fitness.

Outlook

Wearable technology, including smart watches, looks set to run and run. Anecdotal evidence suggests for some the attraction only lasts as long as the battery life of their device but, in a digital age when people want digital solutions to their problems, the market is likely to expand in step with expanding waist lines. Similarly, North America’s aging demographic suggests demand for targeted programmes for the athletic elderly is likely to continue in the short, medium and long term.