It’s amazing to consider that most people in this country actually spend 90% of their lives indoors. Even considering the significant proportion of the average person’s life that is spent sleeping or in the office, that is still an absolutely staggering statistic. 

However, and particularly with reference to the health and fitness industry, it’s often statistics like these – ones that reveal the habits and ways of modern life – that can highlight untapped commercial opportunities. Put simply, fitness professionals should be able to see that the vast majority of people need, in the most literal sense, to get out more!

Over the past few years demand has risen steadily for outdoor fitness classes. Perhaps in a world of tightened belts, double (triple?) dip recessions and increasingly long hours, people are finding that they would rather exercise in the open air than the sometimes stifling environment of the gym. Perhaps people simply want to change-up; to experience the excitement of something new to re-boot their motivation to exercise. Whatever the reasons actually are, the bottom line is that the market for outdoor exercise is growing nationwide, so both PTs and operators would be wise to wake up and smell the coffee (or should that be freshly mown grass?) Indeed, as I will go on to later, many of them already have.

From the point of view of the consumer, outdoor fitness is a relatively easy sell, with a substantial dollop of scientific evidence on hand to back up the simple pleasures and novelty of the open air. For example, outdoor exercise not only boosts serotonin levels in the body (helping exercisers feel calm, alert and capable), but it also causes higher levels of endorphins. Scientists have also found that the high content of negative ions in fresh air may well result in an improved sense of well-being, increased alertness, decreased anxiety and a lower resting heart rate. Furthermore, most people are familiar with the benefits of Vitamin D and sunlight.

And yet, outdoor exercise is more than simply the latest consumer commercial furrow for the industry to plough; it can also offer a number of practical benefits. Primary among these is the fact that, by its very nature, outdoor fitness allows all the revenue opportunities that a new class/workout might, but without the additional burden on an operator’s facilities or internal operations. Indeed, by utilising outdoor space, parks and community areas for training, space can be freed up to allow for further internal activities. Clearly, this makes good financial sense.

That said, operators do need to address certain issues before they go ahead and set up their outdoor fitness provision. Risk assessment is top of that list, and all potential locations need to be assessed in relation to the activity planned – those variables that wouldn’t be found indoors (traffic, lighting, uneven surfaces etc.) require careful consideration. Fortunately, in response to these challenges, UK Active has created an Outdoor Code of Practice – which offers a matrix against which health and safety can be measured for outdoor activities.

Here is a check-list of other things that any outdoor fitness class would need to consider:

  • Ensure you have the correct insurance cover for outdoor activities
  • Ensure all staff are suitably qualified to instruct the specific type of activity
  • Ensure all participants are advised to dress appropriately for the outdoor activity
  • Ensure a first aid kit is at hand
  • Ensure all outdoor equipment is checked
  • Ensure the area is free from dangerous obstacles or dog fouling
  • Seek permission from the park’s authority/district/parish council before using open space

As I mentioned before, although outdoor exercise is yet to be fully explored by the industry as a whole, there are some companies that have really taken advantage of the consumer demand for the great ideas. Perhaps one of the most prominent is British Military Fitness (BMF) which not only allows members to exercise in the fresh air, but make a real virtue of the elemental exercise conditions that this can sometimes create. In this context, the wind, rain and mud that could put some off is transformed into a badge of honour and pride; ultimately increasing the intensity of the endorphin rush that outdoor exercise is so adept at creating.

Similarly many public sector operators and local authorities have started to offer training away from the orthodox gym environment. Walking clubs, military style or boot camp style circuit training classes are springing up with increasing frequency across the country.

However, for many private health and fitness clubs, underlying all of this, and indeed the growing popularity of outdoor training, is the fear that it is a trend that could potentially draw people away from the gym and away from clubs in general – to the extent that it could have a really damaging effect on the all important bottom line. While this is an understandable fear, the only proactive reaction is to offer members a variation that really taps into the outdoor exercise Zeitgeist.

With a considered strategy, and a thorough understanding of the factors that drive people out of the gym, there’s absolutely no reason why this particular trend should be solely the domain of public sector operators and local authorities. Indeed, clever planning could well find a way to link the outdoor activity with the indoor activity – thus helping the club promote and emphasise the variety of its offering.

 

However it is approached, the combination of scientific and social factors that has driven the popularity of outdoor exercise means that it will, I believe, continue to be something that both clubs and PTs should take extremely seriously. Along with technology, and the much publicised health-related issues facing the UK population, it might well prove one of the factors that shapes the future evolutions of the fitness industry

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