In Move to be Well: The Global Economy of Physical Activity, GWI estimated that physical activity is an $828.2 billion market, one of the largest sectors within the $4.5 trillion wellness economy. Consumers spent $367.7 billion on participating in various types of recreational physical activities in 2018 ($109 billion on fitness, $230 billion on sports and active recreation, and $29 billion on mindful movement). In particular, fitness innovations and new business models have generated significant consumer and media excitement, as well as new participants and competition in the fitness market. Health clubs and gyms alone have experienced tremendous global expansion over the last decade, with over 50% growth in revenues from 2007–2018 (according to IHRSA data).
And yet, physical inactivity, obesity and chronic disease have all continued to rise globally, even alongside the explosion of the fitness industry. According to The Lancet, one-quarter to one-third of adults around the world are not getting sufficient physical activity. GWI’s research found that only 35% of the world’s population engages in any kind of recreational physical activity on a regular basis.
What are the reasons for this gap? Although the commercial fitness sector is expanding its reach, these businesses are still primarily targeting those who are more able and likely to exercise—the educated, more affluent, younger demographics, and those living in major urban centers and wealthy suburban areas. Recent analysis of the “geography of fitness” by Richard Florida and CityLab found that the availability of fitness and recreational facilities across the United States tracks closely with key socioeconomic indicators (e.g., higher incomes, education levels, and “creative class” and high-tech occupations). If this kind of analysis could be conducted on a global level, the disparities would likely be even more stark. The reality is that participating in “fitness” remains a privilege that is not accessible for many people around the world.
While fitness businesses vie for market share by providing more choices to those who are able and can afford to exercise, there remains a massive swath of inactive population who have limited options, including seniors, women and girls, children and teens, people in poor health, and those living in rural and marginalized neighborhoods. To make good health equitable to all, it is necessary to broaden the focus from exercise and fitness to all types of physical activities for all people. The fitness industry is but one piece of this larger puzzle because people can engage in physical activities in many ways and places. Reversing the global trend of physical inactivity is a gargantuan task that will require concerted efforts by the public and nonprofit sectors in addition to private enterprise.
Physical activity spending versus participation: A closer look at the Asia-Pacific region
GWI’s research found that a high level of spending on recreational physical activities does not always equate to a higher level of participation in these activities (and vice versa). For example, in Asia-Pacific, the percent of the population participating in recreational physical activities is estimated at 33.2%, which is just below the global average of 35.5%. As a region, Asia-Pacific has a lower participation rate than Latin America-Caribbean, even though its per participant spending is quite a bit higher. Similarly, Asia-Pacific’s participation rate is just slightly higher than that of Sub-Saharan Africa, even though its per participant spending is more than seven times higher (see figure below).
Recreational Physical Activity Participation Rates and Average Spending Per Participant, by Region, 2018
Across Asia, participation in recreational physical activities varies widely, from a high of 84% in Australia and Taiwan to a low of 13–15% in India and Pakistan. Importantly, many people in Asia conduct their leisure-time physical activity in public places with little or no spending. In the lower-income countries, people participate in sports and other recreational activities in a variety of public and free venues (e.g., in public parks and plazas, in free sporting facilities such as neighborhood basketball courts or ball fields, in vacant lots, in the streets, and at home). Their out-of-pocket spending is lower (or zero) because private fitness and recreation businesses, facilities and infrastructure are less developed. For example, no-cost individual and group exercise in public outdoor gyms, plaza dancing, and tai chi in parks are very popular in China, especially among seniors. “Plaza dancing” (guangchang wu) has become a major exercise phenomenon, practiced by an estimated 100 million Chinese women (and some men)—who are mostly middle-aged and seniors—in public squares, parks, parking lots and other public venues.
Even in higher-income markets, many people pay nothing to participate in sports and other recreational physical activities. For example, national survey data show that 67% of adult participants in Japan, 25% in South Korea, and 41% in Australia spend no money on participating in these activities—and yet participation rates across all three nations are quite high. In addition to their well-developed private sector fitness markets, the governments in all three of these countries have invested in widespread publicly subsidized fitness and sports facilities and infrastructure, which allow their populations to participate with very low out-of-pocket expenditures.
Recognizing the growing public health crisis associated with inadequate levels of physical activity, a number of governments across Asia have committed to increasing participation rates through greater public investment in exercise and sports facilities and infrastructure. These kinds of investments are critical for reaching populations that are not being served by the commercial fitness sector and to close the physical inactivity gap.