Fitness Gym Study: Innovative Biz

The following was delivered as an assignment for a design research class in December 2017 @ Carleton University. Credit to myself, Christel and Maham for being apart of this effort.


Our design intervention, the “Gourmet Gym”, explores the potential value contained in reconfiguring the experience of modern fitness clubs. By building on a new metaphor of experience, the restaurant, the “Gourmet Gym” concept facilitates transitioning existing users from a state of limited or infrequent gym attendance, to a regular gym membership. Though the innovative service structure remedies the primary pain points of gym experience through a number of key service features, it assumes a client goal of increasing gym attendance and membership. Though our research, we discovered that the contemporary fitness gym business model is, however, predicated on maximizing enrollment for memberships while simultaneously dissuading increased use. This contradiction, in which dissuading use negatively impacts client retention and creates high levels of ‘churn’, requires that a true innovation in the fitness gym market requires rethinking the fitness gym business model as is – not only the physical service provision. This concept therefore serves as a prompt for further discussion about innovating the fitness gym.


Our design intervention was largely informed and developed through three methodological practices: product research, user research, and ideation. For product research we conducted a desktop literature which informed the development of a Product Position Map and Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat (SWOT) Analysis. Our user research was based primarily on a combination of literature review, first-hand observations at three local gyms in Ottawa (shadowing), and self-reflection as gym users. This data collection was used to inform the development of a User Position Map, Personas, and User Experience Maps. The key findings and insights from these methods are explained below. Additionally, the findings and insights from these methods were explored using two methods of design ideation: Metaphor and Mandel Arts.

Product Research

Gyms, sometimes called health clubs or fitness clubs, are a huge global business. IHRSA’s 2017 Global Report estimates that industry revenues totaled $83.1 billion worldwide, and in 2016 more than 200,000 clubs served some 162 million members. 57.3 million Americans belonged to at least one of the 36,540 health clubs nationwide, according to IHRSA’s Health Club Media Report (IHRSA 2017).

The fitness industry itself can be traced back to the so-called “physical culture” of body building in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. This sub-culture of fitness related activity was viewed as almost exclusively male-centric largely up until the 1970s, where high-profile female personalities broke into mainstream popularity (Andreasson 2014). This change could be viewed as a starting point for the development of contemporary fitness culture, where the notion of the gym has gradually shifted from a typically masculine competitive activity into a mass leisure activity. Gyms reserved solely for hard-core bodybuilding still do exist, but they are becoming increasingly marginalized by the large number of premises that find a simple common ground in the idea of “fitness” (Sassatelli, 2010).

The interest in bodybuilding, workout techniques, aerobics, and fitness in general really exploded in the 1980s and specifically in the United States and Britain. A number of interpretations have tried to explain this boom: some, for example, have argued that the Reagan and Thatcher era brought a new focus on body through political stances on cancer research, abortion, drug abuse, sexuality and child-bearing, and AIDS, which pushed health further into mainstream consciousness (Andreasson 2014).

Although certain places and even specific gyms have played a central role in the history of gym culture, the body ideals, exercises, techniques, and the pedagogy of fitness have become an increasingly homogenous international enterprise. Since the 1990s, fitness as a leisure activity has taken hold across the world, and despite the widespread presence of fitness as a pastime into different cultural contexts, there has been an undeniable standardization of techniques and exercises used in the global arena of gym culture, which some have deemed a form of McDonaldization of gym culture (Ritzer, 2011).

In Canada, gyms largely fall into three categories: luxury, economy, and mid-range. Luxury gyms can be priced as high as $225 per month (for example, Equinox), while featuring amenities like rainfall showers, and organic beet juice refreshments. At the opposite end of the spectrum, gyms like Planet Fitness have become some of the most successful business models with a no-frills approach to working out. For the budget conscious consumer, however, this means losing out on features as basic as locker rooms or showers. Mid-range gyms were, for a long time, supposedly the best of both worlds but the saturation of the price point at this $30-50 range has seen over 300 gyms close their doors in Canada over the past few years (Nguyen 2015). Fig. 1 below provides a product position map, along with gym market segments.
Fig. 1. Product Position Map

Product position map

Since 2015, the level of saturation in mid-range health club market has become untenable. Over 250 mid-range gyms have either transformed into higher price luxury clubs, low-price budget clubs, or failed out of the market completely. Today in Canada, gyms and health clubs are available at huge price point variations, though they still all conform to the same generic business model (i.e. subscription fee per month) and conform to the same kinds of service offering (i.e. access to general fitness equipment and space, group classes at higher prices, spa-like amenities at the highest price ranges). According to the editor of Fitness Business Canada, the middle market is losing stamina against low cost and luxury competitors: “If they’re charging roughly $50 a month, they need to bring in new services similar to high-end clubs or slash their prices” (Nguyen 2015). In this context, mid-range gyms are faced with innovating in 1 of 3 ways:

  1. improve or change their existing services and maintain their current price point;
  2. increase their quality or quantity of services and increase their price point (i.e. move into the luxury gym market)
  3. decrease their quality or quantity of services and decrease their price point (i.e. move into the economy gym market)

One very important observation regarding current gym business models is that they are largely are built around people not showing up. Economy and Mid-range gyms have built their subscription business model knowing that only about 18% of people who sign up for gym memberships will continue to use them regularly – this is precisely how gyms, like Planet Fitness or Goodlife Fitness, can stay operational at low costs. This is actually what drives them to try their hardest to attract people who won’t end up coming anyways. However, this also leads to a significant amount of “churn”; frequent customer turnover. This business model, however, is less prevalent among luxury gyms, in part because the higher price tag of membership means a naturally smaller group of clients (Smith 2014). Fig. 2. Below provides a SWOT Analysis Chart of the Mid-Range business model.

Fig. 2. SWOT Analysis

Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats
·         Very large market of consumer clients

·         Longevity of machinery and equipment

·         Flexible use spaces

·         Competitive market segment

·         Growth in Mid-Range only possible through acquisition or merger

·         High customer turnover

·         Integration of digital technologies in the gym largely unexplored

·         Service structures largely the same at every gym

·         Subscription business model requires that only some people consistently use their membership

·         Luxury and economy gyms stealing customers


User Research

As we discovered in our literature review, gyms are targeted at everyone, and everyone can be a user. Our first-hand observations confirmed this idea, and we plotted our findings along a user position map featuring two axes: frequency of attending the gym, and desire versus need. We discovered that gym users can be typified based on these criteria. Fig. 3 below provides the visualization of the user map, while Fig. 4. Provides details of user group attributes.

Fig. 3. User Position Map

User Position Map

Fig. 4. User Group Attributes

User Group Axes Features Group Attributes
“Fit to Work” High Frequency & High Need – Uses the gym to improve physical fitness to excel in their occupation

– Concerned with fitness aspects of a gym rather than lifestyle aspects

– Gym attendance is consistent and highly regimented

– May also use a gym provided by their workplace or is provided gym membership by their workplace


“Fashionably Fit” High Frequency & High Desire – Fitness is related to lifestyle rather than for occupational excellence

– Concerned with “looking good” – gym-going is related to direct or indirect improvement of social status

– Gym attendance is routine, consistent and frequent

– Likely has a gym membership


“Fit for Life” Low Frequency & High Desire – Uses the gym to improve overall health for personal reasons (lose weight, stay active, etc.)

– Tends towards group class exercises, or going with a partner or using perks (e.g. tanning, sauna, pool, etc.)

– Gym attendance is infrequent, and user is more likely to abandon using the gym sooner

– Likely have a gym membership that they don’t use often or use a guest pass / day pass

“Fit for Recovery” Low Frequency & High Need – Uses the gym for medical reasons or for rehabilitation

– The gym is a means of physical recovery (to return to a previous quality of life)

– Gym attendance is frequent and consistent only for a short period of “recovery”

– Not likely to have a gym membership



The gym’s main users are found in the “Fit to Work” and “Fashionably Fit” groups. These are gym users who attend the gym frequently, and have a strong motivation to do so, either because of the demands of their jobs, or their desires attached to looking muscular and fit. The “Fit for Life” group is the group of users who are least likely to go to the gym, but whose gym fees make it possible to offer lower-priced subscriptions to the previous two groups. Largely unaddressed is the “Fit for Recovery” group.

The “Fit for Recovery” group is characterized by the need to use a gym or physiotherapy clinic for the purposes of rehabilitation or because of medical prescription. They use the gym as a means of recovering to a state of physical fitness they had previously lost, but tend to not return to the gym once their therapy is concluded. We determined that this group, however, has the potential to be migrated into another group of gym subscribers, so long as some intervention is made to attract them to become gym users. In order to explore the possible points of intervention, our group worked to conduct self-evaluative user experience maps complemented by literature we had read about the habits and motivations of “Fit for Recovery” users.

Our User Experience Maps revealed a number of pain points around the earliest stage of the experience, Attraction”. This was largely to do with a perceived lack of motivation to actually go to the gym and exercise, but also because the main reasons to attend the gym is a negative sense of self-image (i.e. looking unattractive, feeling lazy or lethargic, guilty about the lack of regular exercise). Another significant pain point was the lack of engagement inside the gym between exercises, where a lack of social contact or competition made it difficult to stay committed to the routine of exercises. Generally, the most enjoyable points of the experience were found during the actual exercises and afterwards. The act of exercising gives users a sense of accomplishment and the exertion stimulates positive chemical production in the brain and body. At the end of the gym experience, this positive feeling was often extended to whatever activities followed. Fig. 5 below shows the user experience through map visualization.

Fig. 5. User Experience Map

User Experience Map


Our team’s main ideation exercise was through metaphor, where we first established a metaphor that would closely approximate the experience of going to the gym as it currently exists, and contrast it with a new metaphor which might address the pain points established in our research.

We initially conceived of the gym as akin to cleaning our homes: much of the pain points were concentrated at the attraction stage. For example, keeping our homes clean was something our group was often inconsistent about, typically waiting for things to become exceptionally disorganized before realizing that cleaning should be done. In this context, cleaning up a messy home was something we were “pushed” into doing, rather than consistently motivated to do. Similarly, without a routine home cleaning, homes can easily become overwhelmingly messy or untidy, which only further decreases motivation to start cleaning up. Another serious pain point, that mirrored the gym experience, was the disorientation when that messiness gets to be too much – there is a clear sense of disorientation in the gym if one is not familiar with the equipment, the layout, or the techniques of exercise. Additionally, the pleasure points also lined up in this metaphor: much of the enjoyment of going to the gym, and cleaning up the home are consolidated within the end of the experience. In both activities, people find enjoyment in the repetitive mechanical act of exercise/cleaning, and people tend to feel great after they have finished.

With the knowledge from this exercise, and with the data gathered from our research, we explored how we might try to address these pain points with the goal of migrating users from states of infrequent and temporary use, into the regular gym membership category. We finally determined a new potential experience metaphor could be ‘the restaurant’.

We thought that the restaurant metaphor might address the common pain points of the typical gym experience by being an experience with a lot of positive experiences at the first attraction phase, and because some of its elements might be valuable for creating an atmosphere of motivation, feedback, and accountability (the common negative attitudes discovered in our research). In the restaurant scenario, users often arrive in groups, excited to eat and spend time with each other. They are oriented to the restaurant space by a host or hostess, and are oriented to the selection of food by a waiter. The customers only need the most minimal knowledge of food to understand their consumption options because they can access a menu of prepared items (which are sometimes in rotation based on season). Users are free to enjoy their food, but can always find a waiter who can help them if they have issues, making their time at the restaurant easier and more enjoyable. We also decided that it was fairly typical of us to go to a restaurant with not-so-great food if the social experience was excellent.

Using this metaphorical transformation, our group conducted a Mandel Arts exercise to develop concrete considerations for a gym with an experience like a restaurant. In doing so, we determined that the most significant aspects of a restaurant style gym would be, conceptually, the menu, the wait-staff, the chef, the space and equipment, and the social aspects.


Our design intervention, the Gourmet Gym, is an innovative service structure that reconfigures the experience of modern fitness clubs. By building on a new metaphor of experience, the restaurant, the Gourmet Gym facilitates transitioning existing users from a state of limited or infrequent gym attendance, to a regular gym membership. In the service structure, two features are most important, the ‘fitness menu’, and ‘the waitstaff’:

  1. Gym would provide their members with access to a fitness “menu” through their smartphones which features customized workout routines, audio guides to exercises and videos for extra help. While these types of apps already exist, they have so far not been implemented by gyms themselves. This means that these applications have already been developed, and can be acquired by the gym to attract members. The exercise, functionally, menu provides guidance and orientation to the gym space and equipment for clients.
  2. The gym should provide a kind of technical staff to serve as a waiter, whose primary function is to attend to the client during their workout and keep them engaged. This “waiter” could take the form of an actual person, or a feedback system built into the menu application. The overall function of the waitstaff (or Artificial Intelligence) is to provide clients with feedback through personable relationships to motivate them, to keep them engaged. In addition, the waitstaff experience could be a trigger to encourage clients of the gym to buy into personal trainers (currently, the price of personal trainers is a barrier to even trying it).

The technical implementation of this kind of system is already highly possible – apps which serve customized workout routines already exist, such as Sworkit or JEFIT. These can be licensed or acquired by gyms to make their service more attractive to amateur and would-be gym goers, or could be offered at an additional price point. While the waitstaff, in the form of an actual person, would increase costs for a gym, the need for mid-range gyms to transition into either luxury or economy options makes this investment an opportunity for them to move into a luxury gym market, or differentiate themselves along the upper bound of mid-range gym options. Given the right technological combination, it is possible that a waiter-type character could be created in the app itself.

The gym could also have a specialized system which, when registering, provides a customized workout based on the specific build of a client’s body. The use of a body scanner, might be a potential solution to creating a kind of physiological profile for each client, so that they can have proper knowledge and understanding of their own body and the kinds of exercises they can do. This kind of technology is already implemented in other sectors, for example, Levis used “The Intellifit System” which is a body scanning solution that captures your measurements to help their clients on getting a perfect fit in their jeans.


In order to understand the issues revolving around gym users, the following research methodologies were investigated: product research, user position map, user experience map, metaphors and mandal arts. Through our research process and personal gym experiences, we have found that very few of the people who have a membership at the gym, use their membership on a regular basis. Additionally, we discerned that based on our user group attributes from the user position map, “Fit to Work” and “Fashionably Fit” are gyms’ main users.

In order to find the hidden users and innovate the short-term gym attendance, we used “Fit for Recovery” group as a source of information and inspiration. The goal was to understand how these users would have the same motivation and attendance consistency. Through our User Experience Map we developed a new metaphor for the service and used Mandal Arts in order to generate concrete elements of the new service. The Gourmet Gym emphasizes this new metaphorical structure: the gym as a restaurant-like experience. It is intended to reconfigure the experience of modern fitness clubs by providing attention and proper guidance to the gym goers. The gym would provide a personalized customer experience to every person attending by implementing innovative services and new systems.

One of the most significant points moving forward on discussions of innovation in this sector is the issue that current gym business models depend on a certain percentage of users not attending. This is problematic both from an ethical perspective and from the perspective of a viable business structure. Should we devise marketing and product information to encourage gyms users to attend and pay for a gym when we expect that they would not use it? There remains substantial room in this industry to innovate in both implementation of new technologies, new service structures, and furthermore, new business models.


Andreasson, J. and T. Johansson. 2014. “The Fitness Revolution. Historical Transformations in the Global Gym and Fitness Culture”. Sport Science Review, 23 (3-4), pp. 91-112.

IHRSA. 2017. IHRSA Global Report. Accessed at URL:

Jefit App. Accessed at URL:

Levis’ Intellifit Program. Accessed at URL:

Malito, A. 2017. “Not even free money can make some people go to the gym”. Market Watch. Accessed at URL:

Nguyen, M. 2015. “Charting the rise of discount gyms in Canada”. Canadian Business. Accessed at URL:

Ritzer, G. 2011. The McDonaldization of Society. London: SAGE.

Sassatelli, R. 2010. Fitness Culture. Gyms and the Commercialisation of Discipline and Fun. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sworkit App. Accessed at URL:


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