Scared of the Recession? Seek out Solid Tactics and Hard Data

With a stormy sky above, a yellow roadside reads "economic uncertainty ahead."

Are people at your gym for physical or emotional reasons?

According to recently released statistics, the answer is at least partially influenced by financial status.

Weird, I know. Really weird.

A head shot of writer Mike Warkentin and the column name "Pressing It Out."

On July 4, FitBizWeekly presented “Are Gyms Recession-Proof? They Can Be” by Mo Dezyanian, a marketing professor and entrepreneur.

The bad news: We’re dealing with inflation and a recession.

The good news from Dezyanian, who is reporting on research conducted by Empathy Inc. (his company) and Vividata: “The majority of respondents (53%) say the pandemic has increased their desire to spend money/time on physical fitness. Notably, it is more true for those who have identified themselves as being financially precarious (66% vs. 47% of those who say they are comfortable in their finances).”

It’s not surprising that the pandemic forced people to think about fitness and health. But it is surprising that people in tough financial spots seem more inclined to invest money or time on fitness.

I think the key to that odd stat is the “slash”: money/time.

Money and time are not the same thing at all, and that fact makes me question the value of the data for gym owners. So does the term “desire.” I desire lots of stuff, but that doesn’t mean I’m taking any action to acquire those things.

The stats just feel weird. I’d be thrilled if I saw data like this instead: “Research reveals 60 percent of survey respondents are actively planning to spend money on fitness in the next 30 days despite current economic conditions.”

“Desire” and “money/time”? They’re vague and imprecise terms.


Good Advice or Guesswork?


The phrasing in the article makes me question subsequent stats and recommendations:

“Our research shows that people who feel unsecure about their finances—especially as the economy turns around—indicate fulfilling their emotional needs as the top priority to be fit (31% vs. 17%). Conversely folks who feel secure about their finances prioritize physical reasons to get to the gym (64% vs. 48%).”

Again, I have to question the wording: “being fit” is not the same thing as actually “getting to the gym” or spending money on fitness. And what’s an “emotional need”? What if I derive self-confidence from looking jacked? Is that an emotional or physical need?

Finally, I don’t buy this advice, which is based on the stats quoted above: “Gyms targeting a wealthier clientele would do better to empathize how fitness improves your physique. Conversely, gyms looking to be financially accessible can empathize with stress and sleep management benefits of fitness.”

Personally, I think that’s a mistake. I wouldn’t focus my marketing like that. Despite the data presented in the article, I just don’t think it’s wise to assume wealthy people want to look good and people of modest means want stress relief. I don’t have any stats to back that up—but I do have common sense and 13 years of experience running a fitness business.

My experience suggests just about everyone who thinks about fitness has one of three goals—or a combination of these three:

  • Look better (fat loss, weight loss, muscle gain).
  • Feel better (general fitness, including more energy, greater strength, improved flexibility, increased vitality and improved metrics in the doctor’s office).
  • Perform better (in life or sports, including functional fitness competitions).


If I were going to market a fitness coaching business, I’d focus on telling everyone how I can help them look better, feel better and perform better. If I were to boil that down further, I’d simply tell people that I can help them accomplish any personal goal related to fitness. If I cast that net into the ocean, I’d get a lot of fish.

I wouldn’t assume the high-value clients I desire only want to look better. Some of my most affluent clients were much more interested in feeling better. And others really wanted to crush the competition on the field of play.

And I wouldn’t assume less-rich clients want to sleep better or de-stress. That one doesn’t even pass the common-sense test. No client has ever told me sleep management is the No. 1 reason they come to the gym. And it certainly wasn’t a clearly stated priority for people who were concerned about finances when considering joining my gym.

If anything, it was the affluent CEOs who were more likely to want to blow off some steam with me in the gym. And the college kids with two jobs were more likely to want rippling abs or a spot on top of the podium at the WODafit Gauntlet Ultra-Throwdown Comp.

Overall, it’s really not a great plan to guess what prospective clients want.

So solve the big problems—look better, feel better, perform better—for everyone and don’t project budgets onto your audience. Then, when people come to your gym, actually ask them what their goals are. Don’t assume anything. Ask. Then give them the best plan to accomplish those goals.

That’s a solid course of action in times of financial stress and in times of plenty.


Real Recession-Beating Tactics


I’m not trying to dim the light of hope Dezyanian and FitBizWeekly are shining for stressed gym owners. I’m just pointing out a few oddities that suggest you might want to seek additional advice if you want your gym business to weather current economic conditions and even thrive in spite of them.

Here’s a starting point. Everything in this video is actionable and based on the best practices of hundreds of the best gyms in the world. If you’re a gym owner who’s worried about inflation and the recession, start here:

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