Two years, so far, of a global pandemic that has predominately had the worst outcomes for people with vulnerable health and ‘co-morbidities’, has focused even more attention on the importance of healthy lifestyles. However, lockdowns and other pandemic measures such as social distancing and masking have seriously curbed people’s abilities to routinely go to gym, and to participate in the sports and leisure activities that keep them physically active on a regular basis.
Across the world, people responded similarly to the disruption of their fitness regimes and the associated industries felt the same impact. Gym memberships crashed and there were widespread gym closures and fitness industry job losses. Sales of home gym equipment rocketed. Locked down, some took up online fitness training and classes; but many more changed their exercise routines in a simpler way – they walked more.
BrandMapp, the country’s largest, most comprehensive survey of middle-income South Africans has uniquely captured the COVID-era routines and opinions of South Africans living in households with a R10 000+ monthly income. Brandon de Kock, BrandMapp Director of storytelling says, “Since we started measuring the lifestyle of middle-class-and-up South Africans, gym has always played a significant role in the nation’s pursuit of healthier living. Pre-pandemic, around 1 in 5 middle-income South Africans have been actively going to gym as a way to keep in shape.
In 2019, we measured 31% of adults being ‘interested in gym’ with 22% actually partaking in gym activity. We also found that 31% of people didn’t do any exercise. At the beginning of 2021, we found 26% of adults said they were ‘interested in gym’ with just 19% actually taking part. However, the percentage of adults who say they do not do any exercise dropped to 26%. So, what we can say is that in the COVID-era, there’s been a 5% increase in the number of people actually exercising, but a 3% drop in the number of people doing gym training.”
While this is not a massive drop in gym training, the 5% increase in exercising despite the COVID restrictions is interesting. De Kock continues, “This data defines a ‘COVID moment’ where we wanted to stay fit and exercise in some way. We can’t ignore that the country was already in an economic downturn when COVID hit and made that worse. Many mid-income South Africans have taken an ever-increasing economic hammering. It stands to reason that a monthly gym subscription would be easy to cut when it came to paring down the household budget, and that we would then turn more to embracing free physical activities, such as walking out our front door into the sunshine or hiking on the nearby mountain.”
BrandMapp’s trended view of the active sports undertaken in 2021, shows clearly how walking and hiking leapt in popularity. De Kock says, “Gym training had already taken a bit of a knock two years ago and certainly didn’t bounce back up. We also know that home gym equipment sold like hotcakes during lockdown, so there’s a good chance that working out solo at home rose sharply over the past three years. It’s fun to see that golf, which allows for more social distancing and a smaller gathering than say soccer, has been on the rise during COVID. We know from recorded rounds that the sport got a bit of an unexpected lift when courses were opened during the lockdown. This is another indication that mid-income South Africans were open to what was available during COVID in order to maintain their physical activity.”
Many South Africans with active lifestyles are interested in, and commonly participate in a number of sports and fitness activities. De Kock points out that while 19% of mid-income South Africans go to gym, it is particularly the runners, swimmers, cyclists and those involved in combat sports who additionally have performance-enhancing gym routines. He says, “This shows our gym industry’s reliance on there being a robust sporting culture and unfettered sporting environment in the country.”
Drilling down into the details of gym membership over 2021, we can see that despite the fact that Virgin Active has reported severely leaking members across its worldwide markets during the COVD-era, it remains the leading gym brand in the country, claiming 34% of gym memberships. “However,” de Kock says, “It should be noted that together, the independent and private gym operators dominate with a combined 42% of the market.”
De Kock says: “The age continuum of South African gym-goers is interesting because it looks like gym training takes a pre- and post-millennial shape. No doubt relying on the physical advantages of youth, and also hampered by lower incomes, our youngest generation is less likely to be found in the gym than their ageing Gen X and Boomer counterparts!”
Taking into consideration the wide survey of personal statements provided by the BrandMapp respondents, de Kock also looks at the COVID-era impacts on our self-image, or sense of self. He says, “We saw a 10% increase in people saying that they believe that being fit and leading a healthy lifestyle is important, and a 7% increase in agreement with the statement that it is important to dress well and look good. These statements also play into the exercise trend. So why, the spikes in these particular opinions during COVID? Possibly, this is due to the way that the pandemic has offered up many more opportunities for us to reflect on being better human beings.
Our lives have been fundamentally disrupted and forever changed. We’ve had a unique time of more introspection about what’s important to us in life, and what it means to live ‘the good life’; and it’s clear that being fit and healthy is more important to us. It is arguable that this will change post-pandemic, and this is not just relevant to the fitness industry, but to the wide range of interconnected industries such as government, non-government and corporate health sectors, health insurance, sports, sports nutrition, sporting goods and apparel. While the pandemic has been an exceptional blow to the health of our nation, it has perhaps also triggered a greater individual appreciation of the value of good health.”