One development in leisure and fitness that you can’t failed to have noticed over the last couple of years is the move from indoors to out. Yes, gyms are still as popular as ever, with budget gyms attracting more reluctant, and less cash-rich people to join up, but rising in popularity are outdoor exercise clubs and facilities.
Buy why are they so popular, and what does it mean for those that work in fitness and leisure?
Let’s start with Parkrun. Parkrun UK is an organisation that runs weekly timed 5k runs in parks up and down the UK. They are open to all, and free to join in. You have to register on their website, with revenue being made through local corporate sponsorship of the weekly events. The local Parkrun co-ordinators are volunteers and there is a real sense of community about it. You can compare your time not only with others on the same run, but nationally.
The appeal of Parkrun is simple – organised, friendly meet-ups with no pressure to perform, but with the support if you want to push yourself. With free membership, it’s hard to see how gyms can compete, but gyms are a different offering. In theory, people would shift from a paid gym membership to a free exercise club. In reality, Parkrun is a way to share the fun of exercise with your family and friends, and a free and easy way of getting yourself timed if you want to progress. It’s something you can do alongside solitary, vigourous training at the gym, or is appealing to those who wouldn’t have been interested in the gym in the first place. Parkrun is massive, and growing, but it’s not a suitable replacement for those who enjoy the gym. Not all exercise is equal.
Another appealing outdoor exercise, if you like that sort of thing, are the extreme fitness events, such as Tough Mudder. These are a series of events which can be done individually or as a team. They are massive. They cost quite a lot of money to enter – in excess of £100 per person is not unusual – and you can also buy extras such as camping, and make a weekend of it. They are hugely popular, and it’s not hard to see why.
The challenge to fitness professionals then is to make exercise more fun. No-one’s ever gotten any glory beating a PB on the treadmill with no one around to watch, but pulling Pete from accounts out of a mud-pit and leading your team to glory? Fantastic fun! While some outdoor assault course companies make more money from training events prior to main thing, or by selling you their merchandise, others don’t. Established fitness companies are now getting in on the act. Xercise4Less have recently done a deal with Total Warrior to be their official training company, creating a win/win for both companies.
Then there’s the outdoor gyms that have been popping up in public parks. Designed as a way for adults to use training equipment for free, they have had a mixed story, with some being underused and left to vandals, or being used as an extension of the nearby play park by unruly tots. Others however, have thrived, with some even having their own fitness instructor ready to help clueless partakers learn how to use the equipment, and how to exercise. Read this case study from the Great Outdoor Gym Company.
Outdoor gyms are almost ubiquitous, with the Great Outdoor Gym Company alone having installed over 400 gyms around the UK. Are they a serious threat to traditional gyms? A little maybe, but not much. Again, they’re not quite the same. They might encourage people who don’t go to the gym to give it a go, or be a welcome extra for someone out on a run, but I don’t think they’re going to tempt serious gym-bods to give up their gym membership just yet.
This back to basics approach to exercise is proving to be a huge hit. With gym membership costs only being driven down by the growth of budget gyms, people are catching on to this low-cost, no-obligation business model, whether as a substitute for more expensive indoor gyms, or to complement their existing exercise regime. It’s even encouraging a few people, put off by the cost, or by misapprehensions of the gym environment, to come and give things a try and see that they are not so scary.
The question is do fitness professionals need to adapt to the changing scene? Yes and no. We think that professionals just need to be aware of, and be prepared for the coming changes. It may be that working in an air-conditioned environment with all the mod cons becomes a thing of the past, and tomorrow’s fitness instructors need to be good team leaders, resourceful, and prepared for all weathers. The options for self-employment for the more entrepreneurial professionals will increase as start-up costs for an outdoor venture can be minimal compared to a fully-equipped gym with an expensive lease.
The industry will still need skilled and inspiring role models, who have knowledge of people, exercise, and fitness. It will still need people to market the offering, and perhaps to sell membership, albeit in a way which is innovative to us at the present time, in a way in which the internet was once a ‘new thing’.
Whether outdoor fitness is a passing fad, or here to stay for the long term, only time will tell. For now, we can see huge potential in getting more people interested in exercise, which can only be a good thing.