Inside Fitness: The What and Wear of Today’s Trends

Research tells an interesting story when it comes to what  activities are trending.
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A lot of hand wringing has taken place in regards to getting people active. But how much do we know about the people who already are active?

Seventy-two percent of the U.S. population is active while 28 percent is not, says a recent sporting goods industry study, “Tracking the Fitness Movement.” So while some work on getting the 28 percent off the couch, the more we know about who the 72 percent are (aka the active people), and what they are doing, the better we can respond to their needs.

Two recent research surveys, one done with fitness professionals and one with fitness participants, provided results that may seem contrary to what we see in our own town or health club. But across the country, several trends are indicators of what is ahead for sports manufacturers and retailers—or what is not.

Survey of Fitness Professionals: The Inside Scoop

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) has long been recognized for applying scientific research to training  sports and fitness professionals. In its 11th annual study, the editors of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal circulated an electronic survey to thousands of fitness professionals around the world to determine health and fitness trends. They differentiate “trends” from “fads” using the Cambridge Dictionary definition, “a general development or change in a situation or in the way that people are behaving” as opposed to a “fashion taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period.”

The study reports the newest and top trend for 2017 is Wearable Technology. This is of no surprise as activity trackers, smart watches, heart rate monitors, GPS tracking devices, and smart eyeglasses are apparent on the wrists and bodies of athletes, aspiring athletes or weight watchers around the world. The study quotes business analysts as predicting sales of the Apple iWatch alone to exceed 485 million devices by 2018, while smart glasses are predicted to reach $1.5 billion in sales. On the apparel side, smart fabrics and interactive textiles will approach $2.6 billion his year. Counting steps and calories on devices coordinated through an app is status quo, as multiple segments of the population have become reliant on phone apps to communicate information about topics from traffic and entertainment to parking and bill pay. The use of apps is especially important to younger users who are exercising outdoors or want feedback on their daily living to monitor progress toward a weight or exercise goal.

People are watching what they are doing, but what ARE they doing? According to this study, Body Weight Training and High Intensity Interval Training, (HIIT) are no. 1 and 2, with Body Weight Training moving up a notch from no. 3 in 2013 and HIIT dropping from no. 1 in 2014.

Using Educated, Certified and Experienced Fitness Professionals came in at no. 4, while Strength Training and Group Training followed at no. 5 and no. 6 respectively; Group Training made the Top 20 for the first time. This trend is one to watch as it appears that larger groups are motivational and effective for all fitness levels, but the study excludes specialty classes like Zumba, Pilates and Indoor Cycling which are dropping in popularity and are now seen as fads. Tell that to the thousands of students who still cram into Zumba and Pilates classes and those who are opening franchises like CycleBar around the country. The trend does, however, bode well for fitness professionals, as the public seems to crave instruction and direction.

In the no. 7 spot, Exercise is Medicine is another trend to watch as this global initiative encourages primary care physicians and health care providers to include physical activity in treatment plans for patients—and to refer them to exercise professionals. Keep in mind that exercise professionals completed this survey, and they are likely to remind doctors that the commonly prescribed rest may not be the best medicine.

Yoga, Personal Training, and Exercise and Weight Loss round out no. 8, 9 and 10 on the survey. Yoga has had a yo-yo range in ratings over the years, due to its ability to reinvent itself regularly with a variety of types, from Hot and Power to Yin and Slow Flow, while Personal Training and Exercise for Weight Loss have been in the top 20 since the survey started. It seems people want to move, but need to be incentivized by a professional who can inspire, instruct and motivate.

The editors of the ACSM survey prompt health and fitness professionals to “take advantage of the growing market of older adults now retiring by providing age-appropriate and safe exercise programs for this once-ignored sector of the population, which seems healthier than other generations.” This older adult population desires functional fitness, balance, coordination, power and endurance and has the time and money and can exercise at off-hours when most gyms are underused. Therefore, the Baby Boomer generation presents excellent potential for the fitness industry, if it capitalizes on the demographic trend noted by PEW Research: 10,000 people will turn 65 each day for the next 19 years. That figure represents a large segment who need, want and will buy fitness apparel, products and gear for themselves, their children and grandchildren, so retailers need to market to that buyer for cross-generational shopping.

Survey of Participants: Who What Wear

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a national organization that “Promotes Sports & Fitness Participation and Industry Vitality” worked with the Physical Activity Council (PAC), to design and conduct a nationwide online study during the 2015 calendar year to get the story behind the numbers. Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. sampled 32,658 people and the results were reported across gender, age, income, and activity levels in “2016 Tracking the Fitness Movement.” Given all the variables, the findings were broad and gave some predictable results—like the most active age groups are 6-12 and 13-17, at 81.1 percent and 80.5 percent, while the 55-64 and 65+ segments came in at 35.1 percent and 38.6 percent, the latter totaling 73.7 percent—those “older adults” indicated by the ACSM study.

Activity level also seems to be influenced by income, as 83.1 percent of the most active earn $100,000 and over. Women and men are close as 70.8 percent of women are active, compared to 73.8 percent of men.

The most popular exercise is Walking, at 37.3 percent, followed by Treadmill, Running and Jogging, and Free Weights which each comprise about 14-17 percent while Stretching, Stationary Cycling and Weight Resistance Machines come in at approximately 12 percent. Though coming in last at 8.9 percent, after the 9.5 percent who use Elliptical Machines, Swimming for Fitness rose 4 percent. Is Walking for Fitness really growing, or is it just that everyone walks daily and now measures it, so it has become “exercise” rather than getting from point A to point B?

Most interesting were the top activities pursued by Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z age groups. Walking and Treadmill were the top 2-3 for all groups but the young Gen Z (6-15 years) has its top 4 as Bicycling, Bowling, Fishing and playing Basketball, with Walking for Fitness at the 5th spot, just ahead of Running/Jogging, Soccer and Baseball.

Bowling is enjoying a resurgence in the Gen X (36-50 years) and Gen Y (16-35 years) groups, coming in 4th, while for Boomers, it is second to last. It appears the sport skipped a generation as Stationary Cycling, Stretching and Hiking took precedence for the 51-70 year olds. Gen X and Gen Y continue to run, jog and hike and are working out with Free Weights and Weight Resistance Machines, but Stretching is lower on their lists. No kidding—the older generation is taking time to stretch their weary muscles and do yoga, while the younger people are out sweating and getting in a good workout—while not on their mobile devices. But at least a segment of each generation is moving and consuming sports apparel and gear.

Barre classes are on the rise with a 12 percent, 1-year change, and Cardio Cross Training is up by 6.7 percent followed by Tai Chi at 6 percent, Swimming at 4 percent and Cross Training and High Impact Aerobic Training at 3.9 percent and 3.6 percent respectively. Conversely, the survey reported that in the “Core” group, those who work out over 50 days per year, High Intensity workouts were down by -8 percent, Running & Jogging down by -6.7 percent and Boot Camp Training and Stair Climbing Machines down by -4.7 percent.  Trend or fad, people seem to be kicking it down a notch, but are still exploring new ways to move—or using older methods, re-packaged by health clubs and studios. As the bigger health clubs have large lap pools and many communities have YMCA or school pools that are made available to the public, people may be getting into the swim as a safer and more “Zen” cardio alternative to running and boot camps.

As retailers plan what to buy, and manufacturers plan what to make for the 72.3 percent of the active population, identified by the SFIA, they can be faced with a quandary, What do people want? And what about the 27.7 percent who do only activities with little or no physical exertion? They still wear yoga pants out shopping, to dinner and the movies and they still wear athletic shoes, even though they play no sports.

People are moving, though at varying speeds in various workouts. Fitness apparel and running/walking shoes for all ages are the most in demand items, while it seems that an increase in purchases of fitness swimming gear is in process. Swimmers will need suits created for fitness swimming and will also need transition gear—bags to carry wet suits and towels and a change of dry, comfortable clothes—especially if swimming before or after work or school.

Some other good news on the horizon, though retention of health club memberships continues to be a challenge, total gym memberships were up in 2015 from 2014 by about a million. At least we know people will buy more clothes to look good and be comfortable at the gym, rather than pulling on old sweats at home where no one will see. We can assume that the rise in Barre classes will necessitate more leggings and fitness tops, Cardio Cross Trainers will need moisture wicking shorts and tanks and Tai Chi will require yoga style and looser fitting apparel; but is it also time to create vintage looking bowling shirts?