Have you been to the gym this week? The answer is more likely to be “yes” than ever before. According to new research conducted by Leisure DB, we’re rapidly becoming a nation of gym-goers. The market intelligence company’s State of the UK Fitness Industry Report has found that the number of UK gym memberships has leapt by more than five per cent year on year to 9.7 million, meaning one in seven of us belongs to one of the 6,728 gyms in the UK (up from 6,435 last year.)
The biggest area of growth in the UK’s fitness industry has come in the form of the many low-cost gyms that are springing up all over the country. There are now more than 500 of them, with no long-term contracts, and fees of under £20 a month, so it’s little wonder that they now account for an estimated 35 per cent of all gym memberships.
These gyms have overturned our expectations of fitness clubs. “Years ago, if you wanted to join a gym you had to go down there in person, go through the membership options and sign up to a year-long contract that committed you to spending several hundred pounds to go to a gym that wasn’t necessarily open when you actually had time to go,” explains David Minton, CEO of Leisure DB. “Now you can sign up online for just a month for a low price, get a pin code that gives you access and you’re ready to go.” So how have the budget gyms done it? How can they charge a fraction of what the traditional clubs do and still make a profit?
Humphrey Cobbold, CEO of the UK’s largest low-cost gym chain, PureGym, explains: “Our model is very simple. When you compare one of our gyms with an equivalent ‘traditional’ facility, we offer services to double the membership at about half the price. And the way that we do that is to remove high-profile, lightly used facilities – such as Turkish baths, saunas, cafés and reception areas – and use that space for equipment. We’ve slimmed down changing rooms, and expect people to bring their own shower gels and towels. We’ve also extended the hours – typically our gyms are open 24 hours a day. Not many people are working out at 3am, but between 9.30pm and midnight and 4.30am and 7am – times when traditional gyms aren’t open, you will find a surprising number of people in there.”
The result, Cobbold points out, is that joining a gym has become a £20 decision rather than a £400 or £500 one. And this democratisation of fitness is a model that seems to be working. He estimates over a third of PureGym users have never been a member of a gym in the past.
According to Helen Fricker, senior leisure analyst with market intelligence company Mintel, budget gyms are not only attracting newbies, but are enticing established gym-goers from mid-market chains such as LA Fitness and Virgin Active. The result is that the gym market is becoming polarised, with low-cost gyms at one end and the super-swanky ones, such as US import Equinox (equinox.com) at the other – the middle market, which traditionally dominated, is being squeezed out.
“Low-cost gyms have huge growth plans,” Fricker says, “so the likes of David Lloyd and Virgin Active are counteracting that by re-investing in their properties. Virgin is selling off a lot of its gyms and focusing on its higher-end Collection clubs, while David Lloyd has refurbished and rebranded during the past year. The middle guys that are neither very cheap nor particularly exclusive are going to struggle, and I think we’re going to see them disappear.”
But what are you actually getting when you join a low-cost gym? Is it like easyJet or Ryanair where every little thing costs extra so by the time you’ve added it all up you might as well have bought the more expensive option?
Apparently not. While it varies from chain to chain and club to club, most gyms offer a number of classes included with membership – although some specialist classes may be extra – and, as with the conventional gyms, if you want multi-club membership you have to pay more. But, on the whole, if you’re happy to take your own towel, toiletries and padlock for the lockers, what you see is what you get. And, perhaps because of the low cost and the flexibility to leave whenever you want, most of the low-cost gym-goers I’ve spoken to are very happy. There are a few quibbles about small studios, less-experienced class teachers and classes booking up very quickly, but on the whole, users considered their gyms fit for purpose; a pleasingly small price to pay for a healthy lifestyle.