SILVER SPRINGS, MD -- For the first time in 20 years, overall sales in the fitness equipment industry declined, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association’s (SGMA) “Tracking the Fitness Movement(2009 edition)” report. However, fitness participation rates were stronger in some activities, according to analysis of the report.

The wholesale size of the fitness industry was $4.2 billion in 2008—which represents gear and equipment sold for use in the home, clubs, and institutions, such as schools, colleges, hospitals and hotels. That was down from $4.7 billion in 2007, but still better than the $4.2 billion in 2004 and $3.9 billion in 2000. A slowdown in housing starts and the overall sluggish economy are to blame for 2008’s decline in sales, according to SGMA.

Sales in institutional exercise equipment dropped from $1.15 billion in 2007 to $1.04 billion in 2008. For 2009, that number is expected to decrease even further to $938 million.

“The fitness industry was not immune to the side effects of the tough economy,” SGMA President Tom Cove said in a release. “But because people are aware of the importance of a regular physical fitness regimen, we expect the fitness industry to regain strength as the economy heals and home starts improve.”

Treadmills and elliptical machines still generate the most sales at $870 million and $687 million respectively.

Sales of fitness accessories, hand weights and exercise mats increased in 2008, which coincides with an increase in participation from 2007 to 2008 in 17 of the 28 aerobic, conditioning and strength activities listed in the report.

The five most popular fitness activities in the United States are walking for fitness, treadmills, hand weights, running/jogging and weight/resistance machines.

The fitness activity with the biggest percentage one-year increase in participation (2007 vs. 2008) is step aerobics—a 21 percent increase (from 8.5 million participants in 2007 to 10.3 million participants in 2008).

Among “core” participants (those who participate in exercise 50 days or more a year), nearly 30 percent were 55 years old or older.

Aquatic exercise and Tai Chi have more participants in the 65-plus age group than any other age group.

The home fitness market is roughly three times as big as the institutional market. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, 45.4 million people were members of health clubs in the United States in 2008.