Business of fitness: how the UAE’s exercise industry is going from strength to strength


Business of fitness: how the UAE’s exercise industry is going from strength to strength

Ahead of Dubai Active Show, Trevor Brennan, regional CEO of fitness brand Les Mills International, examines the huge growth opportunities throughout the UAE’s burgeoning exercise industry

​The global fitness industry, like many other industries, is going through a period of change. It’s being disrupted.
In the UAE, there are 800 fitness clubs with 523,000 members – that’s 6 per cent penetration, or 6 per cent of the population who belong to a gym. Take the more mature UK market, which enjoys 15 per cent penetration, and you can see that the UAE market has huge potential for growth.
In my opinion, this growth will come from segmentation of the market. I don’t expect significant net growth in the number of clubs but instead the emergence of boutique clubs, which offer specific workout types such as boxing, indoor cycling or group fitness classes, and from low-cost concepts, which will squeeze the mid-market. To survive, clubs in this bracket need to rethink the way they operate.
Fitness First, for example, stays relevant by reinventing products and designing clubs to meet the expectations of today’s consumer. They strategically reposition themselves regularly, while clubs that have closed, simply haven’t moved with the times.
In terms of pricing, we can also expect change. The average UAE gym membership is AED 440 per month, which is high, and I suspect that will go down, particularly with the emergence of more affordable gym memberships. Low-cost club Gym Nation was AED 99 per month before it’s official launch in April, but it’s now AED 199. At that price, it’s not true low cost, but that will come eventually.
As membership prices decrease, there will be a further segmentation of the market into premium, boutique and low cost. Globally, low-cost has been shown to increase gym membership as it becomes more affordable for more people.
In 2016, the UAE fitness market was worth AED 1.3 billion. By 2022, it’s forecast to hit AED 3 billion. That’s more than double in six years. The reason? The disruptors, companies that shake up the industry and challenge the normal way of doing things, and the aggregators, who bring together a range of services, mostly through an app.
Disruptors, such as Gym Nation with their low-cost, big facilities, will dramatically increase penetration. Aggregators, such as ClassPass, which offers classes in more than 140 gyms across the city for a set monthly fee, have been highly successful in other markets and is one of the world’s largest fitness aggregators.
Then you’ve got extremely smart initiatives such as the Dubai Fitness Challenge, which spurs people into action. When you see the huge take-up of the annual 30-day event – it attracted one million participants – you know the market is ready. The challenge for the UAE’s gym industry now is to open itself up and attract the population’s 94 per cent who are not yet gym members.

Fitness for all

According to the World Health Organization, 70 per cent of males over the age of 15 in the UAE and 67 per cent of females are obese, so there is work to be done to bring those figures down.
Health and fitness starts with education at a very young age as part of a lifestyle. That’s why we’ve created our ‘Born to Move’ programmes for kids from two to 16 years. We all know the benefits of physical activity and sport, both individual and team based, and having that ingrained from a young age, over time will improve health and, from a business perspective, increase penetration.
For many people, time is seen as a barrier to fitness, but the industry is addressing this through 24-hour gyms and shorter classes. Technology is also playing a part in making fitness more accessible with virtual classes available in clubs all day long. Such developments mean there’s enough variety in the market for people to get their workout fix.

Motivated to move

Globally, the average number of visits per week for gym members is 1.4 but, in some UAE clubs, it’s less than one. We’ve put a lot of research into what drives people to exercise and what motivates them to continue to do so. Many people forget that fitness can be fun and think it’s this thing they have to do.
We know that if you have an extrinsic motivator for fitness and you do it because you have to, you won’t keep doing it. On the other hand, if you have an intrinsic motivator, you do it because you want to and you’ll keep coming back. All of our workouts are linked towards motivating people to want to do them, even down to the words our instructors use. We have a global research team who look not just at musculoskeletal movement but the music and words that are used, the psychology. We want fitness to be fun.
We know that many people like to vary their workouts and the places where they exercise. They may exercise at home or in boutique clubs, but these aren’t the only places they work out. In the UK, it’s not uncommon for people to have two or three gym memberships and we’re finding that here also. The class studios, like GFX in Business Bay, attract a lot of people who are members of other clubs, yet they’ll go to GFX for a specific workout, like Les Mills THE TRIP.
That’s where the low-cost disruptors and the aggregators come in. People aren’t necessarily reducing the overall amount they spend on fitness, they’re just spending it in other ways. Perhaps they’re doing their strength training at a low-cost club and classes at a boutique club, or using their ClassPass membership to access a certain type of workout.

Social influence

Social media has also had an impact on the fitness industry in ways both good and bad. It has increased awareness of health and fitness, especially through Instagram ‘stars’ pictured at the gym or eating healthy foods, and that’s good.
Unfortunately, particularly for young children and teenagers, it can create an unattainable aspiration and discourage people from even starting their health and fitness journey. Adults are more realistic about the authenticity of images, but teenagers are most likely to be affected.
This is where brand marketing has a part to play. Sportswear brands and gym brands need to ensure the message they send is real

World’s healthiest city

Dubai plans to become the world’s healthiest city, but this will take a huge, combined effort and a lot of time. Reducing obesity, heart disease and cancers doesn’t happen overnight.
Education is key, but moves by the government, such as the sugar tax, are also positive. It should be difficult for fast food companies and confectioners to be successful in business, but it’s not. Likewise, it should be difficult for fast food outlets to scale quickly and it should be easy for people to access organic, home-based food.
Until the food industry catches up and aligns with the fitness industry, there’s always going to be that challenge.
The reason most of us work in the fitness industry is because we firmly believe in what it does. It’s not the highest paid industry in the world, but it works and we’re passionate about it.
Survival of the fittest is the most apt play on words, but it’s also survival of the purest. You need to be pure and have an authentic reason for why you do what you do. Here at Les Mills, we are audacious enough to create a fitter planet – that’s all we want to do.
Les Mills Live, one of the biggest fitness classes in the Middle East, will be held on December 8 at the Dubai Active Show. Co-located with the Dubai Muscle Show, the event is held at Dubai World Trade Centre.


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