On Thursday 9th May, EMD UK, the national governing body for group exercise, published their white paper at the Elevate conference 2019. The white paper entitled Sweating Your Assets: The value of group exercise highlights the growth of this popular activity and demonstrates how it has moved inactive people into a regular physical activity habit.
Sweating Your Assets, the first white paper to be released by EMD UK, showcases the work group exercise has done in creating a healthier nation through exercise, but notes that the activity is widely undervalued as a gateway to activity, not just by the public but also by the fitness industry.
Group exercise, or group fitness classes as they are also known, are a familiar sight in gyms, leisure centres, studios, and village and community halls. Currently 4.86 million people take part every week and this number is growing rapidly with over one million more weekly participants since 2016. With a range of classes to choose from, such as Pilates, dance fitness and boot camps, group exercise provides an accessible activity for those looking to start a regular exercise routine; one reason why it has featured heavily in Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign.
A large problem currently facing the UK is that of inactivity. The Chief Medical Officer’s physical activity guidelines state that adults should participate in 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week. To be classed as inactive, a person is doing 30 minutes or less activity every week. In 2017, a study by the British Heart Foundation found that more than 20 million people in the UK were physically inactive. With inactivity thought to be more deadly than smoking, more needs to be done to get people healthier. Group exercise has been proven as a gateway to physical activity. In fact, 29% of current group exercise participants were inactive before starting in classes and 55% of those had been inactive for three years or longer.
Aside from the physical health benefits, group exercise promotes a wealth of mental and social benefits. There has been widespread coverage about the UK’s current loneliness epidemic and it’s not just the elderly who are prone to feelings of isolation or being alone.
Figures published in April 2018 from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) revealed that more than 5% of adults in England felt lonely “often” or “always” between 2016 and 2017 (that’s one in every 20 adults), with 16% enduring feelings of loneliness sometimes, and 24% occasionally. Group exercise classes are more than just loud music, fast movements, and shouts of encouragement from an instructor at the front of a class. They also offer fantastic social inclusion opportunities, health benefits, and psychological support – all of which are imperative for combatting the feelings and consequences of loneliness.
The group setting really helps people develop a sense of community. Participants truly feel like they are a part of something by being surrounded by like-minded, encouraging people, many of whom will have similar ambitions and reasons for joining as their own.
Despite the merits of group exercise and the growing number of people participating, EMD UK argue more needs to be done to promote the value of group exercise to wider society, and that health club operators have a key role to play.
Group exercise is often an afterthought in leisure centre membership promotions, where the marketing line “free classes included” frequently and instantly undervalues the activity. Many leisure and fitness operators are under pressure to reduce costs and offer cheaper services. Cuts to local authority budgets, the rise of the budget gym chains and growing competition for leisure spend mean the fitness market place is as competitive as it’s ever been. However, group exercise can strengthen a gym’s membership retention. A 2013 study by The Retention People found that people who attend group exercise classes are 26% less likely to cancel their gym membership. For this reason, and others outlined in Sweating Your Assets, health club operators and leisure providers must do more to promote the value of group exercise to their local communities to create healthier, more active people. With the advent of social prescribing becoming more and more prevalent in order to lessen the burden on the NHS, leisure facilities can welcome more new customers through their doors. As an alternative solution for medical rehabilitation, these new participants have a genuine interest in attending the exercise classes on a regular basis.
Investment in group exercise and its workforce is key to promoting positive activity changes in society. EMD UK, the national governing body behind the report, have identified that the group exercise workforce is also endemically undervalued. Instructors are the second biggest influencer on group exercise attendance and the face of the activity. Despite their work in helping people to get active, many instructors have not had a pay rise in over 10 years. Investing in instructor pay, continued professional development and understanding the value group exercise brings to their business all ways that health club operators can raise the profile of group exercise for the good of the nation.
Emma Forward, Chief Operating Officer of EMD UK and author of the white paper, said “As an activity, the benefits of group exercise are far-reaching. It is not just the individual participants who profit from better physical health, but wider society; increased mental welfare, lower stress, the opportunity to meet new people, fewer sick days, a reason to leave the house – all of these culminate in a healthier, more active society who are less dependent on social care.
“As the national governing body for group exercise, we are calling on the public, local authorities, health club operators, the workforce and the industry to recognise the value of group exercise. With one million more people participating since 2016, many more inactive people will convert to a regular physical activity habit. With a whole-system approach, we can achieve a healthier nation through exercise and Sweating Your Assets marks the start of this challenge for EMD UK.”