BOSTON — Americans are stressed out and overweight and the health club industry is benefiting from that due to the increasing awareness that the benefits of exercise have on stress and obesity.

According to a recent IHRSA report, the total number of health and sports clubs in the United States grew by little more than 2 percent during the first six months of 2002, reaching 18,203 facilities in July. The number of health clubs and gyms in the United States has increased consistently over the past five years, up 39 percent from 13,097 businesses in 1997, according to the association. This news follows the announcement that consumer demand for health clubs remained strong in 2001, growing by approximately 3 percent to 33.8 million U.S. members as of January of this year.

IHRSA, in its annual survey of North American health and sports clubs, found that the clubs surveyed grew their total revenues by 5.8 percent (median) in 2001, and remained profitable last year. The survey of 244 clubs found that median club earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization improved slightly to 17.8 percent of total revenues, compared to 16.9 percent for 2000.

This is a positive indicator for the health club industry on the heels of recent economic news from the Commerce Department that the U.S. economy slowed in the second quarter of 2002 compared to the first quarter. Consumer spending was also down with growth of 1.9 percent vs. 3.1 percent in the first quarter.

Furthermore, according to a June 2002 report from analysts at BNP Paribas, the health club industry continues to perform well, outperforming other sectors and has proven to be resilient.

IHRSA attributed the industry growth and profitability through 2001 and into 2002 to a combination of contributing factors — specifically Americans' struggle to deal with stress, as well as heightened concerns about the serious health risks of weight gain.

Prior consumer research has established that, for many Americans, remaining fit and active plays an important role in achieving emotional balance and dealing effectively with stress. Plus, the benefits of physical fitness are even more relevant considering the costs associated with stress.

“There is an abundance of research that has confirmed the positive impact exercise has on one's emotional well-being,” says John McCarthy, IHRSA's executive director. “Logically, millions of Americans have turned to their health club and exercise as a means for dealing with the stress they experience in their daily lives.”

Americans' heightened awareness of the negative impact of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle has also contributed to the continued growth in health clubs. Recent announcements by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Surgeon General have confirmed that obesity now accounts for more than 300,000 deaths annually.

“The president, the durgeon heneral and the CDC have all made clear the personal and social costs of a sedentary lifestyle and of being overweight,” observes McCarthy. “Because of their convenience and range of facilities and programs, health clubs are a natural choice for Americans interested in being active and enjoying both the physical and psychological benefits of exercise.”