COVID and the Next Generation of Fitness Consumers

Young adults—specifically, Gen Z—are the next generation of fitness consumers. Sarah Marion, Ph.D., director of syndicated research at Murphy Research, gives us insight into Gen Z’s approach to health and how fitness facilities should target this market.

The next generation of health, fitness, and wellness consumers is already here. Gen Z includes today’s tweens, teens, and young adults, with the oldest just getting into the swing of adult life at age 25. This age group is a large cohort, and they are diverse, highly educated, and highly connected.

Because so much of Gen Z’s lives already took place online, many assumed pandemic restrictions would be much less of a burden to them. Remote classes, online workouts, Zoom hangouts, group texts—Gen Z already had experience with these formats, so adapting to going virtual should have been much easier for them than for older generations.

We now know this hasn’t been the case at all. Instead of a seamless transition, Gen Z suffered in a unique way during the pandemic, with steep consequences to their physical and mental health. Adolescence and young adulthood are about finding your place beyond your family, and the pandemic held back a whole generation from this transition.

The lasting consequences of the pandemic on Gen Z should be of particular interest to the fitness industry because fitness is one area that has yet to recover fully.

The State of Our Health syndicated research program has been continuously collecting data on Americans’ fitness, food, and mindfulness approaches since 2018. In our topical report, Gen Z Post-Pandemic: Where Are They Now?, we checked in with teens and young adults to understand if and how well they’ve recovered. Let’s take a look.

Fitness is central to Gen Z’s overall approach to health.

While a high percentage of Gen Z participates in regular mindfulness practices, they are unique from other generations in how many focus on fitness to the exclusion of nutrition and mindfulness. This approach to health is typical of young people; with youth on their side, nutrition’s long-term benefits—and consequences—are less motivating than the tangible, shorter-term benefits of fitness.

Qualitatively, teens and young adults tell us that fitness is key to both physical and mental health. The importance is visible in the numbers, too. In addition to prioritizing athletic ability more than older generations, Gen Z is also more likely to use fitness to improve confidence and appearance, both key to self-esteem for this outwardly-focused life stage.

Fewer Gen Z’s are exercising weekly than pre-pandemic.

In Q1 2020, 65% of Gen Z reported exercising at least weekly. Exercise decreased to 58% in Q1 2021 and even further to 56% in Q1 2022. This decline is driven almost entirely by young adults dropping their exercise habits. In Q1 2022, only 45% of young adults exercised weekly, the lowest point since the inception of State of Our Health in 2018.

Covid and the Next Generation of Fitness Consumers SOOH Column Width

“Wait a minute,” you may be saying, “I thought gym and health club memberships were growing!” You would be right—more fitness-engaged Americans are joining gyms in 2022—but overall, there’s also a smaller Gen Z fitness market today because so many young adults left the fitness universe altogether during the pandemic. In the past two years, 5.1 million teens and, mainly, young adults stopped exercising regularly. Skipping out on the gym is a loss for Gen Z because young adulthood is when many establish foundational, life-long fitness habits. It is also a loss for the fitness industry because young adults are uniquely reliant on in-person fitness.

Young adults rely on gyms and health clubs.

If fewer Gen Z, especially young adults, are exercising, the young adult market for club memberships is smaller. Indeed, the number of young adults who workout at a gym or studio weekly is still lower than pre-pandemic—in Q1 2022, it was 29% compared to 35% in Q1 2020.

Pre-pandemic, young adults were the most likely age group to have a gym membership, and they are more reliant on gyms than other generations because they have fewer resources at home. It’s hard to build a home workout space when you live in a dorm or in a tiny apartment with roommates!

Moreover, fitness is social for Gen Z, much more so than for older generations. Fewer social fitness options translated into lower physical activity levels for Gen Z, especially for young adults. Online workouts have not bridged this gap either—after high rates of trials early in the pandemic, usage has fallen steadily among both teens and young adults.

How do we bring Gen Z back to fitness facilities?

Based on the report findings, we suggest that health clubs, gyms, and studios concentrate on three things to boost Gen Z attendance:

  1. Don’t focus on fitness

  2. Do address barriers

  3. Do improve inclusivity

Don’t focus on fitness. Bring Gen Z gently back to fitness through mental health. Even though fitness has faltered, Gen Z has grown more engaged with healthy eating and mindfulness. Fitness brands can build on this by creating spaces, programs, and resources that focus more on wellness, including:

  • stress and anxiety management,

  • breathwork, and

  • mindful movement.

Covid and the Next Generation of Fitness Consumers SOOH Column Width Listing Image

Do address barriers. Gen Z’s fitness motivations are social, but so are their barriers to fitness. Gen Z's lack of confidence in themselves, knowledge, and skills are more significant barriers than for older generations. Especially for those who may be new to exercise or returning after a long absence, feeling safe, comfortable, and unintimidated will be essential to trying new things and sticking with them.

Focusing on wellness, a more inclusive goal than “getting in shape,” should go hand in hand with addressing these barriers.

Do improve inclusivity. Closely related to the previous recommendations, inclusivity is essential to bringing young adults back to fitness. Inclusivity means catering to a broad spectrum of needs, including those new to exercise entirely. It means having supportive instructors who can relate to today’s young people and building a supportive community amid welcoming spaces.

Learn more in Miami Beach at IHRSA 2022!

Learn more about Gen Z, their approaches to fitness, and what the future holds at #IHRSA2022 in Miami Beach, happening June 22-24. I’ll be speaking on Wednesday, June 22, at 1 p.m. during the Spark: Big Ideas—Powerful Talks! session. I’d love to connect with you there!

About State of Our Health

State of Our Health (SOOH) isthe standard reference point for uncovering the underlying truths and trends that propel fitness and food attitudes and behaviors. It is the largest and most comprehensive U.S. fitness and food tracker, offering an unparalleled depth and breadth of data informing exceptionally clear insights into almost every facet of American health and wellness. Due to SOOH’s comprehensive and longitudinal design, it can answer almost any question about fitness, food, mindfulness, or how they interrelate, and can do so more accurately than can be achieved by looking at these topics in isolation or during a snapshot in time. The data can also be cut by key consumer subgroups of interest as needed. You can learn about SOOH, including the benefits of subscribing, by emailing Sarah Marion at

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Sarah Marion, Ph.D. @MurphyResearch

Sarah Marion has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and has been the Director of Syndicated Research at Murphy Research since 2020. In this role, she leads Murphy Research’s syndicated offerings, including the State of Our Health syndicated tracker, overseeing topic development, study design, execution, analysis, and storytelling. Prior to joining Murphy Research, she led The Hartman Group’s syndicated research program, where she oversaw research on health and wellness trends.