It seems that all industries go through plateaus in their stages of growth. Often, at certain points in time, language changes with an industry's shift of emphasis.
In the club industry, the term “aerobics” has fallen out of favor for “group exercise.” The term “deconditioned” is being replaced by terms such as “fitness inactive” or “yet to be fit.” Even the term “workout,” which has often been thought of as a “hard” term, has disappeared from the sales and marketing language of most quality facilities.
The time may be coming for a new term for “fitness,” a word that has described our businesses and core practices for at least two decades. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of us in the then-novice fitness industry went out and sold “exercise.” We stood at commuter train station platforms and handed out guest passes to anybody who would take one. We volunteered to speak at the PTA and service organizations such as the Kiwanis, Elks, Lions and Eagles clubs — any fraternal orders that would invite us to a rubber-chicken lunch, just to get across our message of exercise. We regularly collared members to bring in their friends, family members and co-workers to try our club. We were advocates for exercise — some folks even called us missionaries.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, the exercise movement turned into the fitness movement, and that in turn quickly evolved into the membership movement. Advertising and sales efforts were geared to those people who were already interested in getting fit. Rather than create a wider market of potential users from a huge consumer base, we concentrated on carving up a smaller member market among an increasing number of facilities' offerings.
It's a practice that we still follow in the commercial club market sector of the health and exercise industry. It's a practice that is finally failing most of us. Club companies with lots of marketing money, along with facilities' “wow factors” and/or price divergence, are rapidly taking more and more market share from most operators.
A friend who happens to be one of the leaders of the hospital-based sector of the health and exercise industry professed that many of his associates in his segment are embracing a movement away from “fitness” and towards “wellness.” In fact, his staff is trained not to use the word “fitness” in any conversation, and there is no reference to “fitness” in his advertising and marketing. The medical sector is rapidly moving to a model of lifestyling, and total health and wellness. This model is often based on program sales and not on membership emphasis.
I've often thought that “fitness” is actually a segregating, rather than an integrating, word. You either are or you are not “fit.” There is no middle ground. When people think of the term “fitness,” other images may come to mind, such as “gym,” “hard bodies” or “trim people.” It is likely that the majority of present-day consumers tune out when they hear the word “fitness.” Could it be that our industry's emphasis on fitness has worked against us and has contributed to the fact that we've plateaued in the past few years at 14 percent of the population belonging to a club?
Maybe “fitness” has outlasted its usefulness and should be relegated to the scrap heap of terms that helped get us there but won't get us any further. Perhaps “exercise” or “activity” may be more applicable to a wider audience. Some would say that it is time for the word “wellness” to become the language of our industry. My own belief is that few fitness facilities are ready to move towards lifestyling and integrated practices of exercise programming and well-being. Ready or not, we need a new word to help launch us into new markets.
We are approaching a crossroads in the commercial sector of the club industry, a junction that has us seeing a lot of segmentation of markets and offerings, and an intersection where “what has been” will be dominated by the few with money, systems, and excellence of advertising and sales. The future is yet to be determined by entrepreneurs who step out of the morass of “same old, same old” and create the new health and exercise industry, an industry that will not be centered around “fitness.”
Michael Scott Scudder owns and operates MSS FitBiz Connection, an online-based club consulting and training service. Scudder can be reached at 505-690-5974 or firstname.lastname@example.org.