Moving Past the Pandemic: How Fitness Habits Have Changed

It’s no surprise exercise habits have changed. Sarah Marion, Ph.D., director of syndicated research at Murphy Research, notes that gyms and health clubs should leverage what makes their facility unique and worth visiting.

As we begin another year, it’s helpful to remember how different things are now than they were at the start of 2022. Last January began with masks, social distancing, and widespread illness as the Omicron COVID-19 variant surged around the world.

However, 2022 ended as the most normal holiday season in three years, with travel, spending, and socializing at near pre-pandemic levels. But even though life in the U.S. seems much more normal now, that normal is not the same as in 2019, so expecting consumers to revert to their pre-pandemic habits is unrealistic.

SInce 2018, the State of Our Health research program has tracked these changes and their impact on Americans’ health, fitness, and eating habits. State of Our Health is the largest and most comprehensive information source on food, fitness, and mindfulness in the U.S., drawing on objective quantitative and qualitative research and data.

The good news is that Americans are as engaged with exercise as ever, in some ways even more so. The challenge for the fitness industry, however, will be maintaining stability as consumers are still experimenting with an abundance of options. Let’s take a look.

What’s Different for Fitness Consumers Now

Fitness engagement, which we define as the number of Americans who report exercising or tracking their fitness at least once a week, is much more dynamic now than pre-pandemic. More people are moving in and out of the category, which comes with picking up and dropping habits quite frequently. Before the pandemic, fitness engagement was steady, with some seasonal patterns but none of the volatility we’ve seen in the past few years.

Volatility isn’t surprising—our lives have changed a lot since the start of the pandemic. The continuing ups and downs in exercise suggest that Americans are still experimenting with fitness habits and trying to find what works best for their lives now. However, when it comes to gyms, studios, and health clubs, consumer experimentation creates more unpredictability for memberships and gym usage.

Consumers have a lot more options today than they did in 2019. They created home workout spaces and routines, discovered apps and equipment that allow them to break a sweat wherever, and joined organized sports leagues in large numbers. Gym members have also embraced new workout locations. The result is significantly more gym members exercising at community fitness centers, sports facilities, and school/university facilities.

Expecting consumers to return to their 2019 habits is unrealistic when where, how, and who they work out with has changed so dramatically, often in ways that make consumers happy. It also means that the value equation around gyms, studios, and health clubs changed for many members.

Home Exercise vs Gym Workouts

Home workouts are the fitness industry’s key competition, which was the case before the pandemic, but more consumers started working out from home and doing more of their workouts from home during the pandemic. This change has stuck.

Many gym members told us that while the gym was the center of their fitness lives pre-COVID, this isn’t the case any longer. Members that had never even considered exercising at home before COVID now have dedicated spaces and equipment for home workouts and routines that work for them. Once they had these things, it became more convenient to exercise at home and save the gym for days when they have a bit more time. So, while many of these consumers have returned to the gym, they’re not there as often as pre-pandemic.

Workout Locations How Fitness Habits Have Changed Column Width

The shift toward exercising at home and at other types of workout facilities means that consumers are coming to the gym for different needs today than they were pre-pandemic. Yes, most are still there for the cardio and strength equipment, but with more cardio and strength options elsewhere, there are fewer gym members who do those activities at the gym today than in 2019.

In contrast, more members are now coming to the gym for group fitness classes or personal training than did pre-pandemic—experiences they can’t get elsewhere.

Recognizing home workouts as major competition can help all fitness facilities best differentiate themselves and highlight what they offer that consumers can’t get at home. The challenge for gyms now is to convince members that an hour spent working out at the gym is worth more than an hour spent exercising at home. The more important the gym is to members’ fitness routines, the less likely they will lapse on their memberships.

Different Exercise Habits, Different Needs

Gyms can also retain and attract members by understanding what consumers look for in a gym. And, again, those things are different than they were in 2019, speaking to a new value equation around gyms.

A convenient location, the right equipment, and cleanliness are consumers’ most important criteria—but they’re all about equal in terms of importance. These responses mean that location and equipment have declined in importance since pre-pandemic. Even more striking, low fees—which used to be consumers’ second most important consideration—isn’t even in the top three anymore. The result is that today’s gym members are more willing to pay if a club provides what they’re looking for.

Gym Criteria How Fitness Habits Have Changed Column Width

The considerations that have gained in importance also reflect aspects of the gym that distinguish it from other exercise spaces. Members are more likely to look for specific classes, a particular trainer, and good digital experiences. These shifts also reflect a younger member base, another difference from pre-pandemic times.

Gen Z (ages 13-26), who tend to be more socially motivated than older consumers, and Millennials (ages 27-42), who are dedicated fitness consumers, are the majority of gym members today. Men are also more likely than women to prioritize the considerations mentioned above. Since men tend to hang on to their gym memberships at higher rates than women, it makes sense to give them what they’re looking for!

Will 2023 bring stability to health clubs?

We certainly hope so! And in fact, the data are trending in that direction.

The past few months have seen less fluctuating exercise and fitness engagement than early 2022 or 2021. We believe as consumers continue to settle into their post-pandemic routines, their fitness habits will stabilize. To solidify their place in those routines, gyms and health clubs should leverage what makes their facility unique and worth visiting—social camaraderie and competition, equipment for a truly comprehensive workout, and in-demand classes and trainers.

Related Articles & Publications

  • Bring Back Your Health Club & Gym Members

  • The 2022 IHRSA Global Report

  • COVID and the Next Generation of Fitness Consumers

Author avatar

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.