Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Fitness Center Sociology

Exercise, YMCAs, gyms, health clubs, rock climbing gyms (like the Sportrock chain here in the DC area) raise bunces of questions about culture, organizations, economics, relationships, and psychology. I think that I'll concentrate on raising some of the questions and suggesting ways that the questions could be researched.


How many gyms per 100,000 people are there in the United States? How does this fugure compare with the figures for Canada, Australia, Japan, and the European Union. I'm going to suggest that Europeans are less interested in the sorts of activities that a gym typically offers - aerobics classes, weight training, exercise bikes. You can't smoke and sip a coffee on an exercise bike (Just a joke people!). Anyway, Europeans tend to spend more time walking and bike riding because gas is very expensive and their cities tend to be less car-friendly. Owning a car also tends to be much, much more expensive! 


What percent of adults in the United States belong to a gym or health club? How does that figure compare with other rich industrialized nations? Is the trend up or down, or has the percentage stayed pretty stable? Why have things worked out that way? What social, cultural, and psychological factors are involved?


If you want to look at trends, what years offer good starting points and ending points?. As an endpoint 2005 makes sense because figures for the whole year are almost certainly available. But where do you begin? Maybe there is a year before which nobody was trying to collect membership data. You could always get estimates from some trade association. Just be sure to check the method that they used to make their estimates! Trade associations might inflate the figures to make the industry look more important than it really is.


Another critical question suggests itself: To what extent are these centers really contributing to health and fitness as opposed to pandering to our media-driven desire for a certain "sexy" body type? 


So, much for the "big" questions about fitness centers. Now, the process of using the facilities at your local gym is also sociological in many ways. Some of those ways are kinda boring, at least for me, so I'll skip right to the interesting part. How do the rules at a fitness center become rules anyway? Some rules are simple efforts to protect the equipment or to comply with local regulations. Some rules may be designed to protect the facility from lawsuits.


Some rules serve an obvious purpose, but it might be interesting to discover where they came from and how they became common. Two examples of these sorts of rules will make my point and maybe help you to think of other, similar rules. First, gym users are requested to wipe off the equipment after using it. Second, users of strength training machines are expected to take turns if someone is waiting.


Next time: The sociology of shopping malls! Bring your credit card and wear sensible shoes!


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