Group exercise has been through quite a transformation over the past 30 years. Originating as dance classes and/or the trademarked Jazzercise in the early facilities of the 1970s following the birth of the modern health club industry around 1975, the movement — referred to then as “aerobics” — matured in the 1980s due to the efforts of pioneers like Jackie Sorenson and Judy Sheppard Missett. Accompanying this phenomenon were the early certifying agencies — the American Council on Exercise and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America as well as the founding of Peter and Kathie Davis' IDEA Health and Fitness Association, a San Diego-based membership organization of health and fitness professionals with more than 19,000 members in more than 80 countries.

What happened? Well, the old-boy environment of the city athletic clubs and the large urban-suburban tennis clubs could not sustain reliable growth as the 1970s progressed. Sociologically, the feminist movement had hit full stride; women were quickly becoming as much a part of the consumer economy as men, and around 1980, clubs realized they must cater to women if they were to grow their membership numbers.

Since cardio equipment as we know it had not yet been invented and few clubs had pieces of what did exist, operators discovered that they needed classes that would accommodate women and women's movement patterns. And they did — some of them anyway.

Initially, clubs charged for aerobics classes. Bear in mind that these were the days prior to one-monthly-fee-pays-for-all bundled memberships (remember this term; it will play a big part in a later section of this column series). If you wanted a class membership, you paid a certain fee. If you wanted a racquetball membership, you paid a certain fee. If you wanted a fitness-only membership, you paid a certain fee. Usually, these fees were prepaid or at least billed out on a quarterly basis. Electronic funds transfer monthly-payment memberships had not yet taken hold.

Aerobics and club management developed hand-in-hand, not by design, but by happenstance. As club operators became enamored with the bundled membership concept, more classes and a greater variety of them came into being in the average health club. That should have been our first sign: that which had previously been measurable (after all, we knew what kind of fees we were bringing in for this activity — how many people had signed up and how many classes we were delivering) now was harder to analyze. How many class participants were also using our weight room or our pool or our racquetball courts?

Group exercise classes brought energy into our fitness facilities. Certainly, the early instructor certifying agencies must be credited with creating the movement that professionalized fitness delivery in the industry. Concurrently, health clubs became somewhat softer places: décor became more pleasant, programming became more varied and we enjoyed a wider demographic range of potential customers for the first time. Group exercise classes were packed. It was not uncommon for one out of every three member visits to be for participation in a group class. All was well, and we were enjoying the first phase of the fitness boom. That was the 1980s.

The 1990s welcomed a mini-recession and the beginning of the competitive era. Fitness was beginning to mainstream. Aerobics was starting to plateau. Modern cardiovascular equipment hit clubs in a big way. Parallel to that, women who had previously only used classes now were using cardio as well or had left classes to get their cardiovascular benefit from equipment. Things had changed.

Simultaneously, group payroll had increased substantially ahead of class attendance. Clubs were paying higher class/hour wages for instruction of fewer people. The average club was carrying a schedule of 50, 60, 70 or more classes per week, and visit-percentage had dropped generally below 20 percent. Group classes were usually high-impact and not appealing to the new influx of older female members. Men had all but been obliterated from classes due to predominant female-movement choreography.

As early as the mid-1990s, club development and aerobics were headed in opposite directions, but nobody realized it.

Next month's column will discuss where group exercise is now and how it's affecting the average health club's business.


Michael Scott Scudder is a 30-year veteran of the fitness industry. He is a personal business trainer operating Fitness Focus, a consulting company that offers private workshops on pertinent fitness business matters. Questions and comments are welcomed by Michael at 505-690-5974 or mss@michaelscottscudder.com.