Why Spain’s low-cost gym sector is in particularly rude health

After a six-year slump, the business has picked up growth, according to a new survey

J. A. Aunión
Silvia García, 28, goes to the gym five times a week.
Silvia García, 28, goes to the gym five times a week.CARLOS ROSILLO

Silvia García, 28, says she feels irritable if she goes more than a few days without going to the gym. She started working out on a regular basis four years ago after a so-called “low-cost” gym opened in her Madrid neighborhood. It has since become an important part of her life, to which she dedicates at least seven hours a week spread out over five sessions. She pays €19 a month and can work out any time between 6am and midnight, seven days a week. Her favorite classes are zumba (dance exercises to music), and g-box (boxing training).

The low-cost gym model – which, like its airline counterparts, works on the basis of reducing operating costs to the minimum in order to attract large numbers of users – has allowed the fitness industry in Spain to ride out the crisis, not to mention a sales tax hike from 8% to 21%. After a six-year slump, the business has picked up growth in 2014 and 2015, according to a new survey by the DBK consultancy.

The low-cost gym model has allowed the fitness industry in Spain to ride out the crisis, not to mention a sales tax hike from 8% to 21%

The survey, commissioned by the EU fitness lobby Europe Active, says Spaniards are among Europe’s most fitness-conscious, with some 4.9 million people signed up to gyms. In France the figure is five million, the United Kingdom 8.3 million, and 9.1 million for Germany.

The sector is worth €2.13 billion a year in Spain, compared to €2.4 billion in France, €3.1 billion in Italy, €4.7 billion in Germany, and €5.1 billion in the United Kingdom. These five countries have a 65% share of the European market, according to the DBK report, which estimates that the 4,300 gyms in Spain, 1,300 of which are municipal, provide jobs for 59,000 people.

The low-cost model has its advantages, mainly that it attracts large numbers of people; the downside is that many customers complain that such gyms are overcrowded, and are prompted to leave them. A survey by sports equipment manufacturer Life Fitness says that 50% of people who sign up to gyms leave after six months.

Young people, urbanites and university graduates

More women: Some 16% of men and 19.2% of women aged 15 or over are signed up to a gym, according a survey of Spaniards' sporting habits for 2015.

From 15 to 34 years of age: 29.5% of 15- to 24-year-olds are also members of a gym, as are 26.6% of those aged between 25 and 34.

Big cities. Some 30% of university graduates and 20.5% of city dwellers are also signed up to a gym.

Ingesport is a Spanish company that specializes in managing gyms, among them the vast Vallehermoso complex in Madrid, one of the largest in the country. Alfonso Arroyo, Ingesport’s corporate director, says that this level of turnover is typical of the sector throughout Europe, and attributes it mainly to people losing interest in keeping fit rather than deficient service or overcrowding.

Jerónimo García, a fitness instructor, says that many people who join gyms have high expectations they expect to be met in a short time: “If you ask customers how often they go to the gym, they tend to exaggerate by one-and-a-half times, which means that their perception is that they aren’t achieving their objectives, and so they give up.”

Both García and Arroyo say the fitness sector still has considerable potential in Spain, a country where 46% of the population says it exercises regularly, but only 10% do so in a gym. García says there are encouraging signs: more and more municipal gyms are being contracted out to private companies, and people are spending more on fitness, reflecting greater concern about their image and health.

“I do spend money on sports clothing”

“At the physical level you obviously feel better. At the mental level, you turn up at the gym feeling stressed out, and when you leave you feel like new, you leave all your problems behind,” says Silvia García. It’s a way of life she says she’s not only prepared to spend time on: “I don’t spend much in the gym as such, but I do spend money on sports clothing: t-shirts, leggings, training shoes… I can spend around €120 a month on kit.” Sports equipment superstore Decathlon says fitness clothing makes up 15% of its turnover: €211 million in 2014, a figure it estimates will have risen by 7% for this year.

Aside from the kit required for specialist and new workouts such as crossfit or electrofitness (training with electrodes attached to the body), the fitness sector also include sports nutrition, as well as open-air and family activities. All in all, the sector is worth some €24 billion a year.

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