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Why are there more women in group exercise?

With 48 percent of club members male, one would think that participation in group exercise classes would also be split down the middle.

Surprisingly, according to the latest IHRSA Health Club Consumer Report, only 38% of group exercise participants are men. And, seeing options like yoga and spinning can often see numbers closer to a 50-50 split, other options like Zumba, P90X, Tabata and others have 3-to-1 or even 4-to-1 women-to-men ratios.

So, why the discrepancy? And, does it really even matter?

A big part of it may just be what men think they know about group fitness classes. The advent of classes, in the 1970s and 1980s, probably makes men and women alike shudder: big hair, bad music, outdated outfits and complicated choreography.

“I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what group fitness is. There is a lack of education and understand of what is currently in the marketplace,” said Jesica Matthews, assistant professor of Exercise Science at Miramar College in San Diego, and former exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. “Men hear ‘group fitness’ and think about things like aerobics, leg warmers and step aerobics. 

“This is a topic I talk a lot about (in my classes). I feel like group fitness still has a misconception, lack of understand and preconceived notions. That is why I think a lot people steer clear of it. They might not realize the great class options that are out there.”

Other explanations for the uneven split include:

  • Titles and descriptions of the offerings: words like “booty,” “toning” or “sculpt” are just not enticing to men. 
  • Instructors: it is predominantly women who teach, so that may be off-putting to men. And, with the majority of class attendees women, words of encouragement like “come on ladies” may come out without the instructor realizing it, thus souring men from joining.
  • Group dynamic: women tend to like to work out together and feel like they are part of a community, while men, at the club at least, are more apt to go in, do their thing, and leave, often not engaging with others.
  • Music: men may shy away if they think the class is set to a Katy Perry or Ariana Grande soundtrack.

“Over the course of the 15 years I have been teaching, when I ask men to come I get one of two comments: ‘I couldn’t get through that hour’, or ‘yeah, maybe’,” said Laura Wilson, Fitness director at Commonwealth Sports Club in Boston, Mass. “Once they realize the class will challenge them they tend to come back. I think they originally feel like the class won’t hard enough or they couldn’t do it.”

Wilson noted that Commonwealth sees 85%-95% females in its group fitness classes. 

BodyBusiness Health Club & Spa., in Austin, Texas, doesn’t see numbers as low as Commonwealth, but probably hover in the 25%-30% range – still below the 38% calculated in the Health Club Consumer Report.

Michele Melkerson-Granryd, general manager and instructor at BodyBusiness, said she tries to incorporate ideas that will appeal to men. One class, Recess, which has a 50-50 split, has dodge ball with stress balls and tag with pool noodles, and when they take it outside the monkey bars and other apparatus is used. Another, Group Power, obviously has a title the might endear men. And, one of the more muscular male instructors teaches it.

“I do think there is a certain need for male instructors if you want men to take part,” Melkerson-Granryd said. “If you make the class more sport-oriented than dance-oriented, it is more likely you will get guys in there.”

Matthews added that in addition to what is offered and titles as good ways to change men’s ideas of what happens in a class, educating them is important, too. She suggested approaching male members and inviting them to a class, explaining what the class entails and how it can help them. For example, yoga aids in range of motion, balance and certain areas increasing in strength. For Tabata or P90X, aerobic and anaerobic capacity increases, and fat loss are major benefits.

“Invite men to participate in order to let them know what you have to offer,” Matthews said. “If male members never thought group fitness would appeal to them then they won’t think about looking at posters (promoting the class) or the website. Let them know how classes can complement what they are working on.”

While it is not imperative for clubs to have an even mix of men and women in classes, it provides a nice variety and doesn’t limit to half of the membership. Of course, giving a member choices is good for them and the club.

“We know if members are engaged … they are more likely to stay at the facility,” Melkerson-Granryd said. “If they are just jumping on a piece of equip, there is nothing keeping them there. They could go across the street where (another club) has new equipment.”

Reader Comments (3)

More women tend to like the motivation of each other to keep them going. Men like to see who has more muscles with each other. There is a dominance that happens with males. I think that it is important for both male and female to do whatever is best for each other to stay healthy. I really hope everyone stays healthy and live a happy life.
March 24, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Jorden
I think it's only rational for females to be more enticed in group fitness classes than males do. I have been telling my younger brother to join our group fitness class but he always refuses because it's not "very manly" for him to do. I don't know why, maybe it's just a guy thing.
April 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVidivir Esplanada
Well, late to this article, but here goes. Group fitness centers are dominated by dominating women who must have their level of fitness and won't tolerate a split-level of hardcore fitness routines for men and moderate for women. The modern feminist ego simply won't tolerate a male outperforming a female, so they pressure the instructors/management to have fitness a one level only: the female level. There are 80% female instructors at my local premier hospital fitness center. The management staff is 70% female. Females get reduced class costs and exclusive women-only classes. Young females are especially racist and sexist toward older white males who may actually outperform them. The feminist ego is larger than any male ego could achieve. Why should a male enter a hostile, hate-filled environment when they can exercise at home without feminist haters and forced low effort routines? Truth really hurts, doesn't it?

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