Feature Story

The gym generation

It’s the mid-2000s and you’ve decided to sign up at your local gym. Having just turned 18, you consider a membership at one you believe is the most affordable and the closest to home. On arrival you see dumbbells, squat racks and exercise machines lined up on the black-matted floor. But your excitement turns to frustration when you discover you have to sit down with a membership consultant before being allowed access to anything.

They explain the different packages on offer, and perform a medical check on you before handing you the registration form. Some of the facilities such as the pool, spa and sauna are not even of interest to you, but you have to pay for the right to use them anyway. Then there’s a $150 joining fee and it is a 12-month lock-in contract. Begrudgingly you agree, but soon after you change your mind and try to cancel. The consultant asks why and tries to sell you more offers including a discounted membership. Disappointed and angry, you leave with your hopes of getting in shape diminished.

Fast forward to 2023, it seems the tables have completely turned with the subject of gym culture growing more popular among those under 25. What has changed is the business model gym’s are employing to get people in the door and on the floor.

According to Fitness Australia, in 2011-12, 28.9 per cent of people aged between 18-24 participated in fitness/gym activities. Since then, according to Statista, this number has jumped as approximately 49.1 per cent of 18–24-year-olds in Australia attend the gym in the 2022 financial year.

Infographic: Alex Govan.

Ibis World says the number of gyms and fitness centres in Australia has increased on average by 1.6 per cent per year over the last five years, despite a slump in membership numbers during the pandemic. Curtin University exercise physiologist Dr Peter Edwards says greater competition in the fitness industry between new businesses is part of the reason for an increase in memberships, with more on offer than ever before.

“I think back in 2011 there was the community rec centres, Fitness First and Goodlife, and now we’ve had the introduction of Snap Fitness, Revo and Anytime Fitness,” he says over a morning phone call.

With greater competition in the industry, different gym companies have had to apply new strategies to lure people into their fitness hubs. This includes 24/7 accessibility at some gyms, as well as the removal of sign-up fees and lock-in contracts to encourage new clients.

Dr Edwards says in the past gyms were more focused solely on profit rather than customer experience and satisfaction.

“It was pretty much predicated on marketing science rather than actual value for money.”

Dr Peter Edwards

With the removal of these barriers, social fitness classes have been thriving, encouraging more people to attend with friends and to also meet new people. Personal trainer Jayden Finlay works at Revo Fitness and runs his business both through the gym and online. At a morning meeting in a café, he says the creation of group fitness has given those who are anxious about the gym more confidence to start working out.

Jayden Finlay training at the gym. Photo: Supplied.

 “F-45, FitStop, Body Fit Training, you know there are heaps of those now. Every corner’s got a group class thing. So, I think that is another way it makes it more accessible and community-focused. It’s less scary,” he says, setting his coffee down on the table. He has just finished his morning classes with clients.

Although gyms have clearly made a lot of changes in recent years to encourage new members, another significant factor influencing those aged 18-24 is social media engagement and marketing.

According to Statista, 21.5 per cent of TikTok’s audience are females aged 18-24, while males make up 17 per cent in the same age range. Meanwhile, according to Social Media Perth, Instagram boasts similar statistics with 31 per cent of its users globally aged 18-24. Both apps are popular platforms for users to post workout videos, tips and tricks, resulting in the coining of the term #Gymtok as users engage with the TikTok algorithm to show gym videos.

Dr Edwards says when mobile phones first became popular a decade ago, people were taking photos of themselves out at the pub or with friends. However, in the digital age, people are now more concerned with their online image looking smart and healthy:  “They’re trying to provide an image of themselves which shows that they’re healthy and they’re fit rather than going out on weekends and getting blind.”

Finlay says sharing gym content online creates a domino effect, encouraging others to follow suit. He added that posting about going to the gym also kept social media users feeling obligated to go back to exercise, as they create images they need to then maintain.

The Gymtok algorithm. Screen Capture: Alex Govan.

Brands, such as Revo Fitness, use social media marketing tactics to target the 18-24 age range. Dr Edwards says:  “Revo does it very well. Their social media strategy is on point. You’ve got 18-24-year-olds posting images of themselves online and Revo just share it.”

A Revo Fitness gym. Photo: Alex Govan.

Many personal trainers use social media platforms as the backbone of their business and brand marketing. Many use Instagram to showcase their training, specialisations and to share tutorial videos. Posting photos and videos of themselves and clients online gives viewers the opportunity to see what they can sign up for.

Online coaching has also become popular for young people. Trainers can charge a lower fee to administer a gym program to new clients over text message or an app, making it easier for them to understand exercise routines. Finlay says social media and technology have made it easier than ever before for people to get started.

So, if all these changes have been made and more young people are attending the gym, what are they getting out of it?

Dr Edwards says young people mainly workout to improve their appearance: “I think 18-24, it’s very much exercise to lose weight and look good. This is what I tell my students, I say the three main reasons you exercise is that you wanna look your best, you wanna feel your best and you wanna get better at something.”

Abhinav Saini training at his local gym. Photo: Alex Govan.

Abhinav Saini is 20 years old and has been attending the gym for nearly two years, beginning with the goal of improving his fitness levels so he could play sports better. He now aims to visit the gym five times per week for 90-minute sessions and, since joining, has noticed many benefits. 

“I used to exercise at home just general fitness and stuff. Initially, it was mainly for cricket but after that, I just enjoyed working out,” he says.

He is buff, wearing a black gym t-shirt and is about to begin working chest exercises: “It definitely helps get my mind off anything because when I go to the gym, I just flick off completely. I don’t think about my uni, I don’t think of anything going on anywhere else like any conflicts. It’s just going to the gym, pushing big circles, that’s pretty much it.”

Saini also found the gym has taught him to better value his diet and sleeping habits. It has also become a place to socialise with friends, as he often works out with a cricket teammate. On top of this, the gym has better allowed him to create a structure during his day.

It’s now 2023 and you are entering the gym for the first time. A young man hands you a registration form and in an instant, you’re signed up. It is $10 per week, with no lock-in contract and no joining fee. All around you people are using treadmills, squat racks and dumbbells working up a sweat. You check in with a trainer on social media to see how to use the first of them and within minutes you’re finding your gym groove.

Categories: Feature Story, General, Sport, Youth

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