Some insights from our fitness industry friends

Why indeed!  To mark Men’s Health Week, we wanted to find out more.

From our National Survey 2020, commissioned by YouGov, we found that the number of males participating in Group ex was 1,141,242 compared to 3,312,663 women.  The top three classes men had ever attended were circuits, Spinning®/indoor cycling/RPM and yoga.

Data from the Active Lives Survey Gender spotlight November 2015/16 showed that almost 3 million men had taken part in active gym sessions in the previous 28 days compared to 2,204,500 for females. Fitness classes showed a much more significant difference with 1,722,200 for men compared to 4,613,900 for women.

We needed to delve deeper to try and find out the reasons for this and approached some of our member organisations and fitness industry friends.

Born Barikor is the founder of OurParks – a free outdoor and online group exercise provider who targets inactive people from ethnically diverse communities.  Of the 220,000 Parkers users, 93% are women and girls.

Born has some possible answers as to why this is, and ideas on how they can attract more men to take part –

“In my opinion there are three male mindsets when returning to exercise.  When we look at these, we can tailor our approach into how and what will encourage them into group exercise.

  • Mindset 1 – The team sport mindset

Most likely not to participate in group exercise classes but highly likely to take part in group exercise as part of team activity with teammates or friends.  When it comes to signing up for a group exercise class on their own this is something that does not inspire them.

  • Mindset 2 – The individual sport (runners/swimmers etc) mindset

Second most likely to take part in a group exercise programme as they would be used to entering situations of training or performing in environments where they do not know many people or the outcome of the session.

  • Mindset 3 – Non sporty or low interest in sport mindset

This group is most likely to engage in group exercise as the non-competitive nature, or non-need to win, makes them the most likely to participate in a programme without an outcome base.

I believe the main reasons for non-participation are:

  • Group exercise classes are non-competitive
  • Classes will be too easy (not true)
  • There is no outcome eg winners or losers at the end of the class
  • Not enough men taking part
  • Fear of my partner showing me up by being fitter than me
  • Does not go with their male image eg the stereotype that men lift heavy weights
  • Not comfortable being led by a female

The reality is we need more men doing group exercise classes and raving about it to encourage more male participation.  Even if every session your partner is going to beast you, we all need to start somewhere.”

We next approached Jonathan Tustain of STARDIO.

“For multiple reasons, us guys leave the group ex sessions for the ladies.  We are either too scared about getting the choreography wrong, don’t feel they can give us the gains, fear being the only dude in the room or our egos shout ‘We don’t need group or instructor support!’.

I will stop using ‘we’ now because I am a huge group ex advocate.  I lost almost 30kg, maintained ‘athletic’ resting heart rate and have a 12% body fat percentage; results exclusively achieved through group ex. I also made new friends and feel socially nourished from the connections classes offer.  I want more men to enjoy the same benefits!  If men are happy on the gym floor that’s great!  But how many men, who will never set foot inside a gym, due to the perception that it is boring, could benefit from joining us? For them, group ex could be the perfect gateway to an active lifestyle, and with a WHO study suggesting 1 in 4 men are not getting enough physical activity, any increase can only be good for society.

I get frustrated with my male friends, both gym and non-gym goers, who won’t give classes a chance. I managed to ‘drag’ a friend to an intense BODYCOMBAT class.  Mid-jab he leant over and said ‘This is actually really fun’.  See!  If more men tried it, they might actually like it!

My local F45 franchisee estimates 35% of his members are male, but for regular choreographed classes it is rare that classes will consist of more than 20% male participants.  This creates a vicious circle.  As classes attract more women, less men feel it is for them, and less men join. Type ‘group ex’ into Google Images right now . . . how many men do you see?

It is the concept of ‘working out together’ that puts many men off; many don’t go for the social aspect, they switch off, focus and zone in on their personal goals.  Many other barriers are simply myths waiting to be smashed.

We need a nationwide campaign, sort of a male equivalent to the This Girl Can campaign, with male-focussed classes, forming progressive challenges with lots of variety, less choreography and with male instructor role models who can prove the amazing results classes can achieve.”

Will Brereton, founder of SH1FT Fitness, agrees and has an interesting take on the ‘classic’ group exercise class.

“The first thing to note is that men do participate in group exercise classes, such as CrossFit, functional training, circuits and performance cycling. Data from these modalities and membership rates at Strength and Conditioning Boxes that offer group classes show a much more even gender split. I think our industry suffers from its own biases, in that we immediately think of a “group exercise class” as something that is choreographed to music in a dedicated studio, which is frankly quite an outdated concept.

So, if we restrict the question to why do men not participate in the more ‘classic’ category of group exercise classes, I believe the answer has two broad strands.

  • The first is a hangover of the days of Jane Fonda aerobics and unitards. The cultural consciousness still considers group ex as a ‘female’ training style, which puts the average male off giving it a try. Given that “bring a friend” is our industry’s biggest way to get new people into facilities, and you get an unfortunate cycle where women bring other women and men continue to avoid classes they might otherwise try.
  • The second, which is probably the bigger barrier, is moving to music and choreography. It may be a stereotype, but men are less comfortable moving to the beat, and therefore are genuinely scared of coming to class and looking stupid – especially because the class is probably full of women!

Creating group exercise classes that are strength focussed, don’t move to the best of the music, and can be run outside the studio (eg outside, or functional zones) is the very simple first step to bringing more men into class.”

For more information, resources and the latest news, you can visit the Men’s Health Forum here

Note: The thoughts expressed in this blog are the opinions of the writers and not necessarily reflective of the opinions of EMD UK.