10 Years After - Fitness Participation

In 2005, The Leisure Database Company reported for a client on the state of the UK fitness industry. Not, on that occasion, our annual snapshot which transforms the country’s most comprehensive and up to date record of leisure facilities in the public and private sectors into a statistical digest, enabling us to make year on year comparisons (the 2015 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report will be published in the next month or so) but a broader attempt to put the nation’s efforts to mobilise the population towards a healthy lifestyle into perspective. At the same time, the main aim was to see participation levels (as they were) in their true light and look ‘outside the box’ at the huge majority who remained largely inactive.  That inactivity, of course, threatened to have huge implications for the health of the nation, long term costs to the health services and – and this is where our client was clearly interested – business opportunities for those who could display innovation and a fresh marketing perspective.

You have probably guessed where I’m going with this.  I had a look through some of the figures which formed the backbone of our conclusions then and compared them with similar numbers from 10 years on.  We all know that there are ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’ but for the most part they did not make for pretty comparisons.

Fitness Industry UK

In terms of the percentage of the population who is a gym member - a gold thread which runs through our annual State of the Industry Report - this has risen from around 12% then to more than 13% now. This might seem modest but we should bear in mind the fragmentation of the fitness sector in the interim which has given rise to a whole gamut of alternative options – military fitness, studio-based activity (including spinning) and fresh fitness concepts - which may not fall under the heading of a conventional gym and prevent that gym membership figure from eating more significantly into the numbers of non-participants. That was one of our themes in that original report: for every minority which was engaged in a sports or leisure activity (15% in aerobics or keep fit type classes, for instance – the names themselves date it!) there was, by implication, a much larger majority who appeared unreachable, on either practical, educational or financial grounds.

Since 2005 this country has had the great good fortune to host the Olympics, the greatest sporting show on earth; a once in a lifetime opportunity to promote elite sport as an attainable goal and, further down the pyramid, to set a generation of young people on the road to a healthy lifestyle. The fear remains that, to a great extent, the opportunity has passed us by; that it is the same committed regulars who make up the vast majority of weekly participants. Their activity of choice may change, since those regulars are the most receptive to new ideas but many of them could be the same faces you would have encountered at your gym or club ten years ago.

In the wider sporting world, too, the picture threatens to make depressing reading. We know the travails that swimming has suffered as falling participation levels have led to a cut in central funding; one participation survey records that the number of people playing squash regularly has fallen by half; the percentage of the population visiting yoga classes (5% of us 10 years ago) increased 5 years ago but has now dropped below 2005 levels.   And, it seems, 44% of us are trying to slim now, compared to 36% 10 years ago (is that good news or bad?)

At the same time, the demographic changes which we expected in 2005 were never going to be held at bay. The associated costs of looking after a UK population of well over 64 million now, compared with just under 60 million then, are ever greater – particularly when the share who are over 50 continues to increase.

All is not lost, however. In 2005 we berated those leisure providers who were happy to expect the general public to dance exclusively to their tune, with a ‘one size fits all’, ‘take it or leave it’ philosophy. The gym operators, in particular, who clung to that view found themselves overtaken by those who offered 24 hr convenience at bargain basement prices, without the frills which 99% of users didn’t want.

The fitness experience – and that includes using the Great Outdoors! – has also made huge efforts to become brighter, happier and more user friendly. There are some great innovators out there and many are using new technology to make sure that monitoring health & fitness can be a permanent part of our lives.

Some of our conclusions from all that time ago must, however, remain largely unaltered, which you can see either as slightly depressing, or still a huge opportunity for growth and engagement, depending on where you stand.

Non-participation in sport has been addressed up until now largely from a medical and curative perspective – by doctors and hospitals, way too late, in other words – rather than a preventative and educational one.  As the proportion of the population who don’t take part in regular exercise and who are endangering their health through this omission increases, so the chances to form partnerships with health providers from all areas to make exercising a more natural and widely available part of our everyday lives continues to increase. 


Jon Huxtable - The Leisure Database Company