Assessing American Values Towards Health & Fitness and What This Means For Us

In this blog post, we’ll explore the core values of Americans in regards to physical fitness and how these values influence their beliefs and behaviors which in turn helps clue us in to what we need to pay attention to for our future success as an industry.

According to a 2001 study by the IHRSA, health and fitness is one of the most important  values for Americans, coming in third place under family life and spouses. However, they expressed that health contributed less to their overall happiness than did their families, spouses and financial well-being. 

Conclusions of these studies found that while Americans say they deeply value their health, they don’t necessarily value the act of actual exercise nearly as much. Women are more apt than men to really get the importance of health and fitness while men are typically more happy than women with their overall appearance as well as their health. Given this, men have less of a burning desire to do the work of exercise than women. 

According to the 2001 IHRSA report, Americans say the reasons they exercise are as follows:

  • 70% of women and 63% of men exercise to stay fit

  • 45 % of women and 57% of men exercise for the fun of it

  • 54% of women and 27% of men exercise to keep their weight down

  • 21% of women and 33% of men exercise due to a medical condition of some sort

  • 29% of women and 16% of men exercise for the challenge it provides

  • 42% of women and 30% of men exercise for disease prevention

  • 9% of women and 27% of men exercise for the healthy competition 

(Pay attention to the disparities between men and women as this is important when developing group activities and classes as a force for gaining members as well as retaining them.) 

In a 2003 study conducted by American Sports Data, there are 4 classifications of fitness consciousness among Americans. They are:

  • Non-believers

  • Indifferent

  • Uninitiated believers

  • Hard-core participants

Non-believers make up 2% of the population and shouldn’t even be considered as a group to be targeted as potential gym-goers because of their beliefs and attitudes towards physical fitness. Indifferent people make up 16% of the population and fall into the same category as non-believers for health clubs - no need to try and win them over. Hard-core participants make up 17% of the population which corresponds to the average percentage of gym-goers in the U.S., so this group of people is already part of the tribe. It’s the group of uninitiated believers, making up 63% of the population, who needs to be targeted. Strategies to attract this group are in need of development. 

The 2001 IHRSA study also classified those who exercised and those who did not, into 6 different categories according to personality. You can think about the following characteristics of each when developing programs and services tailored to each group.

  • “Balanced Holistics” made up 13% of the population and were characterized by those tho view exercise as a necessary ingredient for both emotional and physical well-being. This group is one of your regularly exercising club members, most likely to be a well-educated married woman with a healthy income.

  • “Conscientious Preventors” consisted of 8% of the population and viewed exercise a means of preventative medicine as well as health maintenance. This group was likely to be older well-educated women with a healthy income.

  • “Social Competitors” made up 20% of the population and represented those who like social activities that were both competitive in nature and highly-engaging. This group was likely to include single males with an average income and education.

  • “Abracadabras” consisted of 14% of the population and had very little interest in exercise. Most “abracadabras” were stay-at-home moms with less motivation and energy than the average American.

  • “Woulda Shouldas” made up 12% of the population and were people who exercised inconsistently. The group consisted of largely married women with an average income and less degree of education that the average American. 

But what were Americans actually doing in terms of exercise?

In 2002, American Sports Data conducted a study which concluded that the statistics of Americans who regularly participated in physical fitness increased from 42 million in 1987 to almost 51 million in 2002. Most of those people were involved with fitness activities such as yoga, pilates, aerobic, aquatics and free weights. Sports-related activities were a little less popular and outdoor pursuits such as hiking, rock climbing and skiing were the least popular form of physical fitness. This research also revealed that among those people who already exercise regularly, they continue to be more interested in fitness-oriented pursuits. Women make up a greater number of core participants than men, however men prefer outdoor activity while women like indoor pursuits. Those over the age of 55 make up the greatest percentage of core exercisers and 34% of the college educated are active while 13% of people without college degrees are physically active. We also see a decline in club-based activity that includes: aerobics, stairclimbing and stationary cycling. The growing activities include: yoga, pilates, and the use of the elliptical machine and free weights.

In conclusion, we see that while 80% of us understand and value physical fitness, only about 20% actually put those values into practice. There’s a great disparity between what we think and understand to be good for us intellectually and the actual action behind those beliefs. The educated baby boomers are by far the largest group of gym enthusiasts. As we think about the growth and retention of gym membership in the future, we may wish to consider streamlining promotional packages according to personality. For example, packaging for an “uninitiated holistic” would be different than that of an “uninitiated abracabra.” It’s also necessary to note all the factors we have touched upon, such as age, gender, education level, and social status and income level.

Join us next week to explore the world of consumer attitudes towards gym membership!


  1. Fitness Management by Stephen J. Tharrett and James A. Peterson
  2. IHRSA's 2001 Global Report on the State of the Health Club