June 2, 2023

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Thompson, Walter R. Ph.D., FACSM
Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM,is a recently retired associate dean for Graduate Studies and Research in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University and a regents’ professor emeritus in the Department of Kinesiology and Health, the Department of Nutrition, the Department of Physical Therapy, and the School of Public Health. He is also the executive director emeritus of After-School All-Stars Atlanta, a comprehensive after-school program for at risk middle school-aged children. He is a former president of ACSM.
From this article, the reader should understand the following concepts:
• Explain the differences between a fad and a trend
• Use the worldwide fitness trends in the commercial, corporate, clinical (including medical fitness), and community health fitness industry to further promote physical activity
• Study expert opinions about identified fitness trends for 2021
The year 2020 is the most memorable in many of our lives, especially those of us in the fitness industry. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Even as you read this, health clubs are closing, or at the very best restructuring their services. For that reason, this 15th annual survey of fitness trends will have the most impact it has ever had on the industry. For example, new to this year’s survey was the inclusion of potential new trends such as online training and virtual training. From the 2020 survey, virtual/online training was redefined as the more specific online training (and was the no. 1 trend for 2021). Virtual training became a defined trend on its own (and was the no. 6 trend for 2021). The results of this annual survey will help the health and fitness industry make some critical business decisions for future growth and development. These investments can be based on emerging trends that have been identified by health fitness professionals all over the world and not on the latest exercise innovation marketed during late night infomercials on television or the next hottest celebrity endorsing a product.
For the last 15 years, the editors of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® (FIT) have circulated an electronic survey to thousands of professionals around the world to determine health and fitness trends for the following year. This survey guides health and fitness programming efforts for 2021 and beyond. The first survey (1), conducted in 2006 (for predictions in 2007), introduced a systematic way to forecast health and fitness trends, and these surveys have been conducted annually since that time (2–14) using the same methodology. As this is a survey of trends (and not fads), respondents were asked to first make the very important distinction between a “fad” and a “trend.”
These annual ACSM surveys of fitness trends can be used in the commercial (usually for-profit companies), clinical (including medical fitness programs), community (not-for-profit), and corporate divisions of the industry. They not only continue to confirm previously identified trends but also recognize some new emerging trends and trends that appear for the first time due to the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. The fitness trends survey does not attempt to evaluate products, services, equipment, gym apparatus, hardware, software, tools, or other exercise machines that may appear in clubs or recreation centers or show up in television infomercials. The survey was designed to confirm or to introduce new trends (not fads) that will have a perceived positive impact on the industry according to the international respondents. Some of the trends identified in earlier surveys could predictably appear for several years, whereas fads may appear but will expectedly drop off the list in subsequent years (some as short as 1 year). The potential market impact of new equipment, an exercise device, or program is not evaluated by this annual survey. The information provided in this survey is left entirely up to the readers to determine if it fits their own business model and how to best use the information for potential market expansion.
Commercial health clubs (those that are for-profit and the largest sector of the industry) can use these results for the establishment (or maybe the justification) of potential new markets, which may result in increased and more sustainable revenue drivers. Corporate wellness programs and medical fitness centers will find these results useful through potential increases in service to their members and to their patients. Community-based programs (typically not-for-profit organizations) can use these results to justify investments in their markets by providing expanded programs typically serving families and children. The health and fitness industry should carefully consider and thoughtfully apply this information to its own unique setting.
Every attempt was made to replicate the survey delivery as in the past 15 years. For the 2021 survey, there were 41 possible trends. The top 25 trends from previous years were included in the survey, as were some potentially emerging trends identified by the editors of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal®. The editors represent all four sectors of the health fitness industry (corporate, clinical, community, and commercial) as well as from academia. In the survey, potential trends were identified followed by a short explanation to offer the respondent a few details without inconveniencing them with too much reading, analysis, or interpretation. The survey was designed to be completed in 15 minutes or less. As an incentive to complete the survey, the editors made available to 10 random winners fitness-related books published by Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins and Human Kinetics and a $100 MasterCard gift card. These incentives were designed to help increase participation in the survey.
As in all previous years, the survey was constructed using a Likert-type scale ranging from a low score of 1 (least likely to be a trend) to a high score of 10 (most likely to be a trend). After each scoring opportunity, space was allowed for additional comments. At the survey conclusion, more space was left for the respondent to include comments or potential fitness trends left off the list to be considered for future surveys as well as some demographic information. The next step was to send the survey electronically to a defined list of health and fitness professionals. Using SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com), the online survey was initially sent to 75,383 people (a 40% increase from last year’s record of 56,746), including ACSM certified professionals, those who registered to attend the 2020 ACSM’s International Health & Fitness Summit, the ACSM Certification e-mail opt-in list, ACSM Alliance members, ACSM professional members who have added a FIT subscription, nonmember FIT subscribers, FIT Associate Editors, and FIT Editorial Board members. A link also was shared on the FIT web site and on various social media sites, including the FIT Twitter page, the ACSM Journal’s Facebook page, and ACSM’s Instagram page. This year, the online/social link solicited 648 responses more than doubling the 300 responses from last year. Out of the 75,383 invitations, 791 bounced back as undeliverable and 781 opted out. The survey response total was 4,377, which is an increase of more than 44% from last year’s 3,037 responses. The response rate was 6%, which is comparable with previous years.
Responses were received from just about every continent, including the countries of Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, India, Italy, Russia, Singapore, Serbia, United Kingdom, and the United States, among many others. Demographics of the survey respondents included 63% females (37% males) across a wide variability in ages (Figure 1), 53% having more than 10 years of experience in the industry (Figure 2), and 27% with more than 20 years of experience. More than 37% of the survey respondents earned an annual salary of more than $50,000, which included more than 6% who earned more than $100,000 a year (Figure 3). Respondents were asked to identify their occupations (Table 1), with 20% indicating that they were full-time or part-time personal trainers. When asked if they worked full-time or part-time, 63% indicated full-time and 27% part-time (less than 20 hours per week). Figure 4 indicates where respondents work. Survey respondents were asked about their career choices, with 35% indicating they were in their first job and 32% indicating they were in their second career. Figure 5 indicates the broad range of certifications held by the survey respondents. New to this year’s survey (Figure 6) is a question regarding whether the reported occupation was a first job, a second job, or a career change.
The top 20 fitness trends for 2021 are described in this report. For a comparison of the top 10 trends from the past 15 years’ surveys (1–14), please see the comprehensive comparison table available online (available at https://links.lww.com/FIT/A156). The 2021 survey results (Table 2) reveal potential trends as defined in the survey. It is not unusual for potential trends to drop out of the top 20 and later to be labeled as a fad. New to the top 20 trends identified for 2021 include a new no. 1, online training (which was no. 26 in 2020), virtual training (no. 6), and mobile exercise apps (no. 12). Falling to no. 5 is high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and falling to no. 17 is group training. The top 20 for the year 2021 include circuit training (no. 17 for 2020; no. 26 for 2021), worksite health promotion and workplace well-being (no. 18 for 2020; no. 27 for 2021), and children and exercise (no. 20 for 2020; no. 28 for 2021).
Dropping out of the top 20 from 2020 were circuit training, worksite health promotion and workplace well-being, and children and exercise. Circuit training ranked no. 17 in 2018, dropped to no. 21 in 2019, no. 17 in 2020, and no. 26 for 2021. Worksite health promotion and workplace well-being has been ranked as high as no. 15 in 2019, dropped to no. 18 in 2020, and now is ranked at no. 27 for 2021. Children and exercise has been ranked as high as no. 1 in 2007 but has slowly lost ground in recent years. In 2020, children and exercise ranked in the top 20 (no. 20) but has fallen to no. 28 for 2021. Postpublication commentary on these results is always interesting, with one group or another arguing that their interest is a popular trend. Readers of this survey must understand that regional popularity does not always translate as an international trend.
Online training went from the no. 26 trend in 2020 to the no. 1 trend for 2021 probably because of the shift in the market from clubs to homes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearable technology took over the no. 1 spot in 2019 and 2020 after dropping to no. 3 in 2018 and is now no. 2 for 2021. HIIT, the no. 1 trend in 2014 and 2018, fell to no. 3 in 2019 and no. 2 in 2020 and is now the no. 5 trend. Group training made a significant return in 2017 as the no. 6 trend and had been the no. 2 trend in 2018 and 2019, no. 3 in 2020, and fell to the no. 17 trend for 2021. Training with free weights (which replaced barbell training in 2020) was the no. 4 trend in 2020 falling to no. 8 for 2021. Personal training is still in the top 10 but falling to no. 10 for 2021. Fitness programming aimed at older adults had regained some popularity after falling out of the top 10 trends in 2017, appeared as no. 9 in 2018, no. 4 in 2019, no. 8 in 2020, and is no. 9 for 2021. Body weight training first appeared as a fitness trend at no. 3 in 2013 and has been a top five fitness trend since that time realizing a peak as the no. 1 fitness trend in 2015. It was the no. 5 trend in 2019, the no. 7 trend in 2020, and now the no. 3 trend for 2021. Other trends to watch are outdoor activities (no. 4), virtual training (no. 6), and EIM (no. 7). Dropping out of the top 20 were circuit training, worksite health promotion and workplace well-being, and exercise programs specifically designed for children.
The 2021 worldwide survey of fitness trends is now in its 15th consecutive year with this being perhaps the most critical year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and shifting health club business models. It was designed to help and support the health fitness industry when making critical programming and business decisions to capture additional business into the future and maybe even to stay in business. These results are relevant to all four sectors of the health and fitness industry (commercial for-profit clubs, clinical or medical fitness programs, corporate wellness programs, and community-based not-for-profit fitness programs). Although no one can accurately predict the future of any industry, this survey helps to track trends that can assist owners, operators, program directors, and health fitness professionals with making their important business and program decisions.
The author thanks past editors-in-chief Ed Howley, Ph.D., FACSM, and Steven Keteyian, Ph.D., FACSM, for considering this project important enough to include in the year-end edition of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® more than a decade ago and to current editor-in-chief Brad Roy, Ph.D., FACSM, for continuing the tradition. The author also thanks the ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® editorial team, especially those who contributed to the original survey in 2006, Paul Couzelis, Ph.D.; John Jakicic, Ph.D., FACSM; Nico Pronk, Ph.D., FACSM; Mike Spezzano, M.S.; Neal Pire, M.A., FACSM; Jim Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM; Melinda Manore, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM; Cary Wing, Ed.D.; Reed Humphrey, Ph.D., P.T., FACSM; and Steve Tharrett, M.S., for their very important input into the construction of the original and subsequent surveys. The author also thanks the Fitness Trends Working Group of Vanessa Kercher, Kyle Kercher, Trevor Bennion, Brandon Yates, and Yuri Feito. Finally, the author is indebted to the ACSM staff who have supported this study by assisting in the construction, formatting, analysis, and delivery of it to thousands of fitness professionals around the world. In particular, the author recognizes the important contributions of Francis Neric, Kela Webster, Heather Drake, Katie Feltman, and especially Lori Tish, who has tirelessly worked on this survey since it first launched in 2006.
Commercial; Clinical; Corporate; Community; Expert Opinions; Future Programs
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