As cost of living bites, gyms are fighting to keep members paying

As cost of living pressures bite and some former gym-goers continue an exercise routine learnt during lockdowns, fitness groups are having to work even harder to attract and keep members.

Shayne Lin owns several Plus Fitness gyms and says membership numbers have gone into rewind at his Sydney CBD branch. “I’ve got a few gyms and this one in particular in CBD has gone backwards big time,” he says.

Owner of several Plus Fitness gyms Shayne Lin says venues in the CBD have not returned to pre-COVID levels.Credit:Janie Barrett

And when they do come in, Lin says the equipment that people use has changed. “Mostly now, people are running outside instead of on the treadmill, and using weights in the gym.”

Lin believes many people have switched to a gym closer to home, a sentiment shared by chief executive of AUSactive Barrie Elvish.

“Gyms in Sydney and Melbourne’s inner city and CBD areas haven’t bounced back as quickly as their [suburban] counterparts because the workforce hasn’t come back five days a week,” Elvish says.

A May survey of 1200 Australians, conducted by personal finance group Finder, found that one-in-six were going to the gym less than pre-COVID. Only 7 per cent increased their gym attendance.

“It’s a sad reality that when we’re hit with financial stressors, people don’t often see their health and fitness as a priority.”

Even with pandemic concerns easing, cost of living pressures mean pricey gym memberships can be among the first things cut from people’s budgets.

Fees range, but it’s not unusual for more high-end gyms to cost more than $65 a week.

“For people going once or twice a week, I think it’s something they would look at cutting back before some other areas,” says Rebecca Pike, a money expert at Finder.

Health and wellness app Keep It Cleaner commissioned a survey of 1200 women and non-binary Australians, finding two-fifths of respondents aren’t exercising because they feel it’s too expensive.

“It’s a sad reality that when we’re hit with financial stressors, people don’t often see their health and fitness as a priority,” says Laura Henshaw, Keep it Cleaner chief executive.

The survey also finds only about 9 per cent of women are choosing to work out exclusively in a gym – down from 34 per cent pre-pandemic. Henshaw says some are leaning on cheaper online platforms, with her app’s member base increasing by 60 per cent in two years.

Elvish doesn’t think gym membership prices will decrease despite finances being a barrier for some people. “The price of gym memberships [relative to other price increases] hasn’t increased for about 10 years,” he says. “Ultimately, prices are probably going to have to go up.”

It means gyms are having to innovate to attract and keep members.

Director of fitness centre Flow Athletic Ben Lucas says his team in Sydney’s Paddington has “definitely had to work harder than we ever have for growth”.

That includes doubling down on fostering a community which can’t be replicated online. “I run a men’s group where men get together to exercise, chat and have a laugh,” he says. “We’re creating a sense of belonging and accountability.”

“Ultimately, prices are probably going to have to go up.”

Chief executive of Melbourne-founded Body Fit Training Cameron Falloon says its gyms recently launched a bespoke heart rate system. “We found that off-the-shelf heart rate monitors only rewarded people for working hard all the time and that’s not necessarily the best thing for you,” he says.

The new technology rewards users for various types of training that may not raise an individual’s heart rate but is still beneficial, such as resistance training.

Sydney’s Fitness Playground co-founder Justin Ashley notes that more people are joining gyms to “feel better” rather than to simply look good. “For the first time ever over the last two years, more members have selected that they want to feel better as their main reason for joining,” Ashley says.

To suit this shift, Ashley has created a space at his Marrickville gym where people can sit and relax, even creating their own scent to enhance the atmosphere. “We’ve got tea, sparkling water, free Wi-Fi and seating for about 30 or 40 people so they can hang out,” he says.

While the gym’s virtual fitness offerings have become popular for yoga and Pilates, Ashley says customers still prefer a hybrid experience. “Things that involve lots of equipment are very hard to do at home and people prefer to do them at the gym.”

North Sydney-based gym Performance Playground’s owner James Ferguson says there’s been a broad shift towards individualised training and smaller classes. “People want a little bit more purpose in their training and a bit more personalisation,” he says.

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