Richard Florida is a co-founder and editor at large of CityLab and a senior editor at The Atlantic. He is a university professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Cities and Rotman School of Management, and a distinguished fellow at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.
Gym and fitness-studio chains tend to specialize in either urban or suburban areas. But overall, they skew toward rich neighborhoods with lots of graduates, renters, and white people.
This is the second of two posts that explore the geography of fitness. Read the first post here.
With our New Year’s celebrations now past, millions upon millions of Americans will be heading to gyms, health clubs, and fitness studios to pursue their resolutions. In the 1960s, it was mostly athletes and body-builders who used gyms; today, fitness is ingrained in American culture. Much of the recent Amy Schumer movie I Feel Pretty, for instance, takes place in a SoulCycle studio.
While cities of the 1970s and ’80s were known for their grime and grit, music scenes, and nightlife, those same neighborhoods are now filled with spinning studios and boutique gyms. But it’s not just wealthy urbanites who are headed back to the gym. The fitness revolution has spread across the country: where, exactly, has it taken place, and what groups (by class, income, education, and race) are most likely to pursue it?
Earlier this week, I discussed how access to fitness is another dimension of America’s great divide along class and geographic lines. Today, I take a closer look at America’s fitness landscape, tracking its major fitness brands across urban, suburban, and rural zip codes, and how they line up with factors such as income, education, class, and race.
My colleague at the University of Toronto School of Cities, Patrick Adler, and I analyzed the locations of 17 fitness chains: Equinox, LA Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, the Athletic Club Network, Town Sports Clubs, and Gold’s Gym (full-service gyms), along with SoulCycle, Flywheel, Barry’s Boot Camp, Orange Theory, The Bar Method, Pure Barre, Blink, CKO Kickboxing, UFC Gym, and CrossFit (boutique studios). All told, we looked at more than 10,000 gyms and fitness studios across nearly 5,000 zip codes.
We classified fitness studios as urban, suburban, or rural using the density-based thresholds originally developed by economist Jed Kolko. Urban zip codes have a density of more than 2,213 households per square mile; suburban zip codes, 102 to 2,213 per square mile; and rural zip codes, fewer than 102 households per square mile.
First off: fitness studios tend to follow urban and suburban population, but are sorely underrepresented in rural areas. Urban zip codes, with 22 percent of the U.S. population, host 24 percent of gym locations. Suburban zip codes, with 57 percent of the population, have 63 percent of gyms. But rural areas, which are home to 21 percent of people in the U.S., have just 12 percent.
Fitness chains tend to specialize in urban or suburban areas, with some brands being more urban and others more suburban. Blink is the most urban brand of all, with 85 percent of its locations in urban zip codes. Three-quarters of Equinox and Barry’s Boot Camp locations are urban. And two-thirds to 70 percent of the locations of Flywheel, Athletic Club Network, SoulCycle, and Town Sports Club are urban.
Other brands are much more suburban: 85 percent of Lifetime Fitness locations are in the suburbs, about three-quarters of Orange Theory and Gold’s Gym locations are suburban, and 60 to 70 percent of Pure Barre, UFC Gym, The Bar Method, CKO Kickboxing, and 24-Hour Fitness outposts are in suburban zip codes. CrossFit is a bit of an outlier, with nearly a fifth of its locations in rural zip codes, 63 percent in the suburbs, and just 17 percent in urban areas.
The same basic pattern comes through when we look at the average density of locations by zip code. Six chains—Equinox, Flywheel, Town Sports Clubs, Blink, SoulCycle, and Barry’s Boot Camp—skew very urban, being located on average in zip codes with more than 10,000 households per square mile. The average locations for two others, the Athletic Club Network and CKO Kickboxing, have more than 5,000 households per square mile. And the average location for three more (24 Fitness, UFC Gyms, and Pure Barre) is roughly at the threshold of urban and suburban.
But five brands are more suburban: Orange Theory, LA Fitness, Lifetime Fitness, CrossFit, and Gold’s Gym. Generally speaking, it is the larger brands, those with more locations overall, that tend to be in the suburbs. There is a negative correlation between total locations a brand has and their average density (-.32). In addition to density, here’s how fitness-center locations correlate to a number of other factors:
Income: Exercise studios and gyms are located in affluent neighborhoods. The median household income of the average zip code with a gym or studio is $72,720, compared to $56,694 for all zip codes. In zip codes with Equinox, SoulCycle, The Bar Method, and Town Sports Clubs, it’s over $100,000. None of these 17 brands has an average location with an the income that is less than the national average.
The chart below shows the connection between median income and the average density of fitness-chain locations. Notice the cluster of Barry’s Boot Camp, Equinox, Flywheel, SoulCycle, Town Sports Clubs, and Blink in the upper-right-hand corner of the chart. These brands are in gentrified urban places. Looking to the left, across from them, you can see another cluster: The Bar Method, CKO Kickboxing, the Athletic Club Network, and Pure Barre. These are in close-in suburbs and less dense urban areas. Below them on the chart is a third cluster of brands that tend to locate in more traditional suburbs.
College grads: Fitness studios skew heavily toward neighborhoods with high concentrations of college graduates. On average, zip codes with fitness studios have a rate of college graduates near 43 percent, compared to 25 percent for the nation as a whole. More than two-thirds of adults hold degrees in zip codes where Equinox, SoulCycle, Flywheel, Barry’s Boot Camp, and The Bar Method are located. And again, not a single brand lags the national average for college grads. The graph below shows how the brands cluster with regard to college grads and density.
Creative class: Fitness studios also tend to cluster in creative-class neighborhoods. More than 40 percent of residents of zip codes with fitness studios are members of the creative class. In zip codes with Equinox, Flywheel, SoulCycle, and Barry’s Boot Camp locations, more than 60 percent of residents are members of the creative class.
Renters: Fitness centers and gyms also tend to locate in areas with more renters, even though renters on average are not as affluent or educated as homeowners. Roughly 38 percent of the residents of zip codes with fitness studios are renters, compared to 27-percent renter share across all zip codes. In zip codes with the Athletic Club Network, Blink, Flywheel, Barry’s Boot Camp, Equinox, and SoulCycle, more than half of all residents are renters.
Transit: Fitness centers are apt to choose more transit-served locations. Roughly 6 percent of residents of zip codes with fitness studios use transit, compared to less than 2 percent across all zip codes. More than 20 percent of commuters use transit in the average locations for six fitness brands, and between 10 and 20 percent do for four other brands.
Race: Boutique fitness, especially, has been criticized as having a diversity problem. Our analysis indicates that the average fitness-center location is slightly whiter and slightly less black than the nation as a whole. The average fitness-center zip code is 79 percent white and 9 percent black, in a country that is 72.4 percent white and 12.6 percent black. That said, the average location for three brands is more than 80 percent white (Pure Barre, CrossFit, and Barry’s Boot Camp). For nine others, it is between 75 and 80 percent white, and three more are in locations ranging between 70 and 75 percent white. Blink is an anomaly: its average location is 51.4 percent white and 23.1 percent black.
The main takeaway: In general, our analysis finds that fitness studios and gyms tend to be located in more upscale neighborhoods in both cities and suburbs—areas with higher incomes and higher levels of college grads, and where whites make up a larger share of the population. Fitness studios also gravitate to neighborhoods with more renters. And the more urban-oriented fitness brands, like boutique gyms and spinning studios, tend to serve even more upscale areas and populations. As I noted earlier this week, our access to fitness reflects the same basic divides of class and geography that increasingly define, and shape, our nation.
CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.