Commentary / Japan

The elderly are dominating Japan’s fitness clubs

by Takamitsu Sawa

Going to a fitness club for physical exercises is my favorite pastime. I go to a gym in Kyoto about three times a week and spend around two hours there each time, doing muscle training and fast walking.

When I was a visiting professor at the University of Illinois in the United States for three years from 1975, I frequented its swimming pool. That university was fully equipped with physical exercise facilities, like other American universities.

After returning to Japan late in 1978, I found a newly opened fitness club in Kyoto. I registered with it as a member and started swimming there once or twice a week. After new training facilities were added, my exercise shifted from swimming to muscle training and fast walking.

It was in my late 30s that I started going to the gym. In those days, the average age of gym members was around 30 and there were virtually no elderly members, apparently because gyms were thought to be a place for the young to improve their physical strength. Since I retired from my full-time job in 2016, I have been able to go to the gym three times a week — not only on weekends but also in the daytime on weekdays. I have discovered a number of things through this new experience.

First, eight or nine out of every 10 people doing muscle training and fast walking are over 60. Their average age appears to be around 65. Second, these fitness buffs carry themselves more youthfully than the average Japanese men and women of middle to advanced ages, and many of them can walk fast on the machine — at more than 6 km per hour — for nearly an hour.

Third, a fairly large number of them come to the gym almost every day. Most of those who come to the gym during the daytime must be over 65 because nowadays many people who have reached the traditional retirement age of 60 are re-employed until they become 65. The gym’s monthly dues are about ¥10,000. These gym members spend about three hours in a leisurely manner — 2½ hours doing muscle training and fast walking and another half an hour bathing. Repeating this schedule every day is not boring and the fee at the daily rate of ¥300 is quite reasonable.

Fourth, even on weekends and during the late hours of weekdays, the average age of those at the gym falls just by 10 years to around 55 and those in their 20s and 30s are rarely seen. Presumably the younger generations are not seriously concerned about metabolic or locomotive syndromes and would rather do things other than spending two or three hours at a gym on their way home from work.

Fifth, gyms have become arenas for socializing for elderly people. Many retired elderly members can be seen chatting with each other after finishing exercises.

To sum all this up, fitness clubs are almost totally monopolized by people of middle and advanced ages, especially those over 65, and have become indispensable arenas for their socializing. I have checked my observations against statistics. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has conducted a survey tracing changes in the memberships and gross sales of fitness clubs since 2000. In 2000, there were 1.42 million members, which rose sharply to 2.07 million in 2006 — representing an average annual increase of 6.6 percent. This was followed by two consecutive years of decline. The number hit the bottom of 2.01 million in 2008 and thereafter started climbing again to reach 2.51 million in 2016 — at an average annual increase of 2.8 percent.

The combined gross proceeds of all fitness clubs rose at an average annual rate of 3.2 percent from ¥187.4 billion in 2000 to ¥328.2 billion in 2016. They employ 4,810 workers, but only 18 percent of them are full time. The steep rise in membership between 2000 and 2006 presumably coincided with growing enthusiasm among the elderly about performing physical exercise to prevent metabolic syndrome and lifestyle-related illnesses.

Although Japan is said to be in a fitness club boom, the number of gym members and full-time employees and gross proceeds are small, contrary to expectations. The size of the entire industry is no more than that of a medium-size company listed on the first section of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Let us explore why Japan’s gym industry is so small in scale.

Comparisons with the U.S. show staggering differences. In Japan, a mere 3.3 percent of adults are members of a privately run fitness club. The corresponding figure for the U.S. is 17.6 percent. In the U.S., the number of privately run fitness gyms in urban areas is overwhelmingly large. In addition, many U.S. universities and businesses have their own fitness centers.

Furthermore, Japanese and Americans have different attitudes toward sports. Both young and elderly Japanese are fond of golf, tennis and skiing. These sports have three things in common: They are not physically hard, they are good for socializing and they are suited for competing in fashion.

At a gym, on the other hand, there hardly is any need to chat with other members. Days and time for exercising can be chosen freely and fashion is of little importance. Muscle training, fast walking and swimming at gyms — all are fairly hard.

The most popular sport among young American gym rats is probably squash, followed by jogging, swimming and muscle training. They like intensive sports that can be done alone without taking much time. The high medical fees in the U.S. may also be one of the reasons why one out of every six American adults go to gyms. Another possible reason is that they tend to lack exercise in daily life because many of them drive cars.

What future lies ahead for the fitness club industry in Japan? Today, Japan’s postwar baby boomers are around 70. It would be no exaggeration to say that they constitute at least 20 percent of all gym members. The average age of gym members is expected to rise for the foreseeable future. It would also be safe to say that Japan’s fitness club business is supported by health-conscious elderly people. The monthly dues of about ¥10,000 may be too expensive for salaried workers under 60 or young mothers busy raising children, both of whom can only manage to go to the gym once or twice a week.

At least on the surface, many gym members appear to be free from metabolic or locomotive syndromes. This is a good sign that gyms are contributing to reducing the nation’s medical expenditures and promoting public health and longevity. For this very reason, fitness clubs in Japan will remain outside the interest of the younger generations.

A longtime contributor to The Japan Times, Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.