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The Popularity of Fitness Classes – Trends and Demographics

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Popularity of Fitness Classes shows no signs of slowing down. And if you’re an instructor, fitness fanatic or newbie you can benefit from fitness classes.

Fitness classes are here to stay. The popularity of fitness classes first became apparent in the 1970s. It’s now nearly 2020 and they are as popular as they have ever been.

This article was inspired by our new book Methods of Group Exercise Instruction.

Evolution of Group Exercise

The general consensus is that aerobic dance – and the first real fitness class was born in 1969 when Jacki Sorenson was asked to launch an exercise programme for the wives of U.S. Air Force male personnel. While preparing, she studied the famed Air Force aerobics programme, which was developed by Dr. Cooper.

Sorensen took Dr. Cooper’s 12-minute running test, which evaluates a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness based on how far a person can jog or run in 12 minutes. When she scored well on the test, even though she had never run before, Sorensen was enlightened to learn that her lifetime of dancing had kept her heart and lungs in good shape. This realisation gave her the idea of combining dance with aerobic exercise. This was the birth of aerobics the first mainstream popular fitness class.

Now fitness classes have moved on a long way since 1969. The popularity of fitness classes really started to grow in the early 1980s.

Popular But Dangerous Aerobics In The 80s

Aerobic dance provided an outlet for many people, especially women, to exercise in a group. The aerobic dance movement brought intentional exercise to the forefront. Aerobic dance became a pop culture phenomenon—in 1982, Jane Fonda’s Workout Book (Fonda 1981) topped the bestseller list and was followed by her successful high-impact workout video.

Jane Fonda’s fitness class in the 80s

The Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) created the first standards and guidelines for group exercise in 1983. In 1984, the National Sporting Goods Association reported that 24.4 million Americans participated in aerobics (IDEA 2007). The popularity of fitness classes was also increasing globally, including in Europe.

However, enthusiasm for this new exercise modality diminished when its injury rates began increasing. Injuries to the shins, feet and knees were particularly common in high-impact aerobics (Mutoh et al. 1988; Richie et al. 1985). DuToit and Smith (2001) also noted the high injury rate in instructors. Their survey of instructors in 18 fitness centres in Australia determined that 77% of instructors were experiencing lower-extremity injuries. Clearly, the activity of aerobic dance was fun but potentially not sustainable. Garrick, Gillien and Whiteside (1986), however, noted that injuries were most common in those participants who lacked prior involvement in other fitness activities. The injury rate may, in fact, have been due to many beginning exercisers (particularly female participants) gravitating toward aerobic dance as their first fitness experience. Progression and regression of exercises were not terms utilised in the 1980s to individualise group movement experiences.

Poor form and perhaps a lack of knowledge from instructors also most likely contributed to these injuries.

Low Impact Aerobics

Many variations of aerobic dance, such as low-impact aerobics, were developed to provide more variety and promote a safer way to exercise to music. One study (Brown and O’Neill 1990) found that 66% of participants in high-impact aerobics experienced injuries compared with only 9% of people in low-impact aerobics. Low-impact aerobics became the craze of the late 1980s and some experts believed it to be a better option than high-impact aerobic dance (Koszuta 1986).

Another low-impact format created during this time was step aerobics. Step aerobics uses gravity to overload the body. It reduces the injury risk because it allows the whole body to work against gravity without subjecting the lower body to the impact forces of high- or low-impact aerobics. Plus, it is a functional movement because participants go up and down stairs on a regular basis. It also required less room, therefore, instructors could get more people in a class.

popular fitness class in the 1908s
Step aerobics – A popular fitness class which came about in the late 80s.

The Evolution Of Fitness Classes In The 1990s

The step movement of the 1990s led to the development and popularity of many other forms of group exercise. Water exercise, spinning classes (stationary indoor cycling), yoga and many other kinds of group activities surfaced. People seemed to become more health-conscious as awareness grew in the 90s. Who can forget Mr Motivitor shouting at us every morning while waiting for Power Rangers to come on TV!?

Many of the group classes developed in the 1990s did not require dance skills or even rhythm. Therefore, the term aerobic dance was replaced by ‘group exercise’ to better describe the broad scope of activities that had emerged. Eller (1996) noticed that many health clubs had dropped the word dance from their schedules. Thus, this predominantly female activity broadened and changed to be more inclusive. As different group exercise formats arose, the range of participants became more diverse and the demographics started to shift from mostly just young women. For example, many males attended spin cycling, boot camp and core-strengthening classes. Hence, the name aerobic dance did not fit the activity that is currently referred to as group exercise.

Post 90’s Fitness Classes

Since the 1990s, group exercise has grown into a diverse offering, providing options for almost every ability and preference. Fusion classes are also more the norm, with combination cardio-strength designs such as cycle–strength or cardio–core class formats. CrossFit has become very popular which is the extreme of these types of group classes.

These formats offer split time between cardio options and muscular strength and conditioning. Most fitness businesses have strength and conditioning areas, but group exercise participation also includes an element of entertainment and socialisation. This is something Greg Brown spoke about in How to make money and grow your personal trainer business.

Many instructors have been motivated and encouraged to develop innovative movement experiences. Zumba or Latin dancing, for example, these can introduce dance movements to copy in social dance situations. Teaching functional movement options can lend a sense of purpose to group exercise and helps participants mainstream exercise moves into daily activities.

The Most Popular Fitness Classes Now

Which Fitness Class Gets the Most Internet Searches?

These results come from Google searches over the last couple of years.

  1. Yoga class
  2. Spinning class
  3. Pilates class
  4. Zumba class
  5. Step class
  6. HIIT class – this could include CrossFit and F45, however, HIIT class gets more searches than branded HIIT classes. Would be higher if included all the branded classes.
  7. Bootcamp class
  8. Aerobics class (again the general search term is higher than any branded class)
  9. Kettlebell class
  10. CrossFit class
  11. Circuits class
  12. Aqua class

These are just fitness classes, there are of course sport-specific classes such as ‘dance classes’, ‘gymnastics classes’, ‘boxing classes’ which are also often adapted fitness classes but for this research sport-specific classes weren’t included.

Many companies brand their classes, such as Les Mills who own products such as Body Pump and CX Works. Despite being fairly popular these get much less search volume than generic keywords.

What Fitness Classes are the Most Attended?

The 2018 National Fitness Survey revealed that these are the most popular classes in terms of participation in the UK.

  1. Yoga 1.285m
  2. Pilates 887k
  3. Spinning® / indoor cycling / RPM 745k
  4. Circuits711k
  5. Zumba® 607k
  6. Aerobics 586k
  7. Body conditioning 585k
  8. BODYPUMP™ 314k
  9. Core stability 357k
  10. Aqua Aerobics 336k

Yoga is by far the most popular fitness class and it has been for the last 10 years.

popular fitness class yoga
The popularity of Yoga shows no sign of slowing down.

A recent report from UKActive – Moving Communities: Active Leisure Trends 2018 which is based on data from over 150 million individual visits across 396 leisure centres stated that in leisure centres spin cycling has actually taken over Yoga as the most popular activity. Yoga is still more popular as a whole though as classes are often run by self-employed yoga teachers who will rent a space (church, school, photography studio etc). Spin classes are more popular in gyms now technology evolves.

Virtual reality has helped increase the popularity of indoor cycling classes.

The popularity of some classes depends on the time of the year. For example, Zumba is one of the most searched classes in January. Whereas HIIT seems to be popular all year round, although it does still have a small spike in January too.

The search term ‘HIIT class’ has shown the biggest growth, back in 2004 it was hardly getting any search volume. The popularity started in 2011 and it has grown year on year. ‘Aerobics class’ has shown the biggest decline. The graph below compares search volume for aerobics Vs HIIT. As you can see HIIT started to overtake aerobics in 2015. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and group training were also identified as the top two trends in the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends (ACSM, 2018). To read more on how elite Rugby players use HIIT in their training check out Rugby HIIT Training: 5 ‘Weapons’ For Effective Workouts.

When you purchase Methods of Group Exercise Instruction you’ll also get 62 videos. These include everything from sample yoga classes to exercise motivation techniques.

The Most Popular Class for our Twitter Followers

We recently ran a quick poll on our Twitter page. We asked which class was the favourite for our Twitter followers. As you can see, HIIT won.

An overview of the Most Popular Fitness Classes


Yoga is practised by young and old, athletes, newbies and some extremely flexible individuals from all over the world. There are many types of yoga; Yin, Power, Bikram, Anusara, Vinyasa, to name a few. All of these are popular fitness classes.

Yoga Anatomy is actually our best selling book! So we know as well as anyone the popularity of Yoga. You can even do yoga through pregnancy as Desi Bartlett explains with these 24 poses.


Like yoga, many approaches to the pilates system has evolved. Most forms of Pilates in fitness classes focus on the physical aspect. However, some do focus on the mind-body angle of Pilates. In its original form, as expressed emphatically by Joseph Pilates it was a system designed to be integrated into everyday life.

Apparently Pilates can make you taller too, as Pilates expert Portia Page explaines in our post The Best Fitness Facts.

Spinning/ Studio Cycling

Spinning has evolved a lot over the last decade or so. Many spinning classes have a high-intensity approach, focusing on metabolic intervals with varying levels of resistance. With the introduction of virtual reality you can now cycle anywhere from the outbacks of Mongolia to the Great Ocean Road in Australia. No airfare, no expensive bike to buy and maintain, no rain, no wind and back in time for dinner. You can see why they are so popular. Visit our cycling store.

Which Fitness Class Will Burn the Most Calories?

It obviously depends on how hard you work. Generally, the one you can work the hardest at will burn the most calories. HIIT classes are probably the best if you can work hard in them. However, if you’re an accomplished cyclist then spin cycling might be better at burning calories for you, especially if it has HIIT throughout the class. Yoga is one of the most popular fitness classes but if you’re looking to burn calories its one of the worst. It’s estimated that you only burn 185 calories in a 60-minute class. Pilates isn’t much better at 221 calories. Walking burns more calories than both of these classes at approx 244 calories in an hour on average. All these are based on a 70kg person, a heavier person would probably burn more calories (the average weight for a European female adult is approx 68kg, for a male, it’s approx 82kg). Sports such as squash (886), rugby (738) and swimming (591) are all good calorie burners, according to Live Rugby Tickets. Again I’d argue that this wouldn’t always be the case. For example, if you’ve never played squash before and can’t hold a rally then you won’t burn too many calories by just hitting the ball once then picking it back up again.

Popularity of Fitness Classes - squash for burning calories
Students at Leeds Beckett University playing squash.

Trends in Group Exercise

When group exercise first emerged, many people considered it to be a fad, but it is clear that group exercise is here to stay.

Group exercise classes are the lifelines of many fitness programmes. They generate enthusiasm and create the connectedness needed to keep people coming back. The reality of our current health status is potentially getting worse. Life expectancy in the UK at birth has recently declined by 0.19 years for women and 0.26 years for men (NHS). Life expectancy in the United States at birth has declined from 78.9 years to 78.8 years (Xu et al. 2015). This is while global life expectancy has risen.

As recently covered in How to make money and grow your personal trainer business different countries and cultures view fitness differently. For example in Sweden 33% of the population are gym members, 18% of people in the UK are a member of a fitness or health centre.

Movement Is Key

A CDC (2018) U.S. scientific report, put together by researchers tasked with modifying the 2008 Physical Activity guidelines, emphasised the power of movement—any movement—for improving the health and wellness of individuals.

Evidence suggests that traditional facility-based fitness programming may not be as inclusive as once thought. While traditional fitness programming delivery methods may be a productive option for individuals who can afford a health club membership and who are intrinsically motivated to exercise, the issue arises concerning capturing the other 75% to 80% of the population not engaged in fitness experiences. For example, those participants who run outside may achieve health benefits from running that are similar to a fitness centre group exercise class. It might be time to rethink the delivery of fitness programming that will naturally move more participants toward a small-group experience, particularly participants who are beginners and are inactive in their daily living activities.

We believe that neighbourhood walking groups, groups training for couch-to-5k walking or running events and senior sit-and-fit offerings in assisted living care are also a part of the new group exercise movement of the future.

Increase Reach

Currently, personal training is popular, but in the same hour a personal trainer spends with one client, a group fitness instructor may reach 40 to 50 participants. Personal trainers who are also group exercise instructors may have many more opportunities to find clients due to their visibility as group instructors.

Fitness Business Demographics

From 2000 to 2030, the worldwide population aged 65 years or older is projected to increase by approximately 550 million to 973 million. That’s a population increase of 6.9% to 12.0% worldwide (15.5% to 24.3% in Europe).

The needs of this age group are largely responsible for the term functional training. This segment is growing and we will need to adapt our group exercise experiences to their needs. On the other hand, the echo boomers (children of baby boomers in the 1970s) have grown up in a different era. Echo boomers tend to appreciate outdoor, real-life fitness opportunities—hence, the stationary indoor cycling, boot camp era that began in the late 1990s (Tharrett, 2017).

Fitness Centre Membership Demographics

According to Tharrett, O’Rourke and Peterson (2011), facility demographics include the following:

  • 10% are under 18 years of age
  • 31% are 18 to 34 years old
  • 37% are 35 to 54 years old
  • 22% are 55 and over.

More recently The National Fitness Survey in 2018 stated that people over the age of 45 now make up 64% of all participants. What’s more the biggest overall growth in participants came from people aged 45-54, with 1.1 million more people from this age bracket now taking part.

The future of group exercise needs to be changed both in format and offerings to cater to such a vast age spectrum and the diverse interests within the participant age groups. Recent findings from UK Active found that swimming is the most popular fitness activity for the elderly. Swimming makes up 39% of visits for people aged 75 and over, compared to just 8% for those aged 16 to 24.

Fitness classes are still more popular with women than men. 74% of group exercise participants are women.

Adapted from:

Methods of Group Exercise Instruction, 4th Edition

Mary Yoke & Carol Armbruster

Header photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This entry was posted in: Fitness & Health


Hi, I'm Ryan, the Marketing Manager and chief blogger here at Human Kinetics Europe Ltd. As somewhat of a washed-up athlete I've always had a passion for health, fitness and sport science. I now find myself working at the world’s biggest independent publisher of sport, health, dance and fitness resources. This means I get unrestricted access to all the best, most interesting, scientifically-proven writing on sports science. Of course I'm going to share this with you!

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