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COVID lockdowns and their impact on Japan’s already struggling fitness industry

COVID lockdowns and their impact on Japan’s already struggling fitness industry
February 17, 2021

With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Suga announcing that the country would be extending its state of emergency by one month, ending on 7th March, as it handles country's third wave of COVID-19 cases, which began to spike late last year, residents are encouraged to avoid unnecessary activity as possible. 

With this including travel - while bars, clubs, and restaurants must close by 8 pm - how will this latest set of restrictions affect Japan's already struggling fitness industry?

Gyms and fitness centres are currently limited to shorter hours, including numbers of members present at one time. Although Japan has the fifth largest fitness industry globally, the country's membership penetration rate is on the lower end of the Asian market at 3.3%. 

Looking forward, Japan’s handling of the third wave of COVID-19 could be crucial for its fitness industry growth. 

Japan’s fitness industry: pre COVID
Asia's membership penetration rates 4.28% overall while Japan rates at 3.3%, which mainly points towards the Japanese lifestyle and cultural taboos. With the excessive work rate of Japanese salarymen, time spent at the gym is limited. 

Japan's primary target market points towards the elderly demographic (65 years and above) as retirees have more time to attend fitness classes and join health clubs. 

Large chain franchises, which make up 58% of the overall market, tend to cater to older members, sacrificing a younger audience. Cultural taboos may also cause large-scale gyms to attract a younger client as more senior members, particularly women, may not wish to workout around more youthful men. 

In a previous article, John Holsinger, Asia-Pacific Director at the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), wrote about the cultural taboos with Japan's fitness industry, explaining “female-only clubs are taking hold, but again many with older populations. 

“Cultural taboos mean older women do not wish to work out with males nor see themselves in the mirror when working out.”

The growth of younger members falls with lower scales gyms as new trends are more comfortable to develop. Japan's COVID-19 outbreak caused much distress to many industries, including the fitness industry. As smaller gyms would have less financial backing, closing their doors or limited hours caused severe hardship to obtain a steady income to keep the business alive.

The impact of COVID
Upon Japan's first Coronavirus state of emergency back in April of last year, major fitness chains like Anytime Fitness, Gold's Gym and Joyfit temporarily shut their doors. 

Gold's Gym subsequently filing for bankruptcy due to COVID-19 related shutdowns caused shock among fitness enthusiasts in Japan for, as one of the leading fitness franchises in Japan, the fall of the gym whose brand strength commenced with Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron, showed the pandemic’s impact on the fitness industry.

It also impacted smaller and lesser-known gyms across Japan. 

With COVID-19 identified as affecting the elderly more than most other age groups, and Japan’s fitness market focused on that demographic, the fear of gyms as a location for passing bacteria saw many of these elderly members avoiding them.

Health issues were also a concern regarding whether members would return once gym restrictions lifted. 

For gyms in the USA, Holsinger advised "gyms that have reopened are experiencing a 65-80% member return."

When discussing gyms in Japan, Holsinger added "Japan is almost at a 100%" of membership return as the country came out of their second wave of COVID-19 cases late last year. With case numbers currently declining, it's optimistic to think gym member returns will follow a similar route. 

Going Online
A common pre-COVID alternative for fitness has been online classes over zoom. Many franchises worldwide have adapted to a digital replacement and, in some countries, have thrived.

When discussing an online transition, Holsinger notes "the industry will return to normal, but a different normal", explaining that gyms worldwide will have to "accommodate a digital presentation or incorporate a homework concept along with their in-club workout and find a balance between the two.”

Japan may struggle with this transition as older members, which make up most of the market, are not tech-savvy. 

Japan is known for using 90s technology like fax machines, PCs, Windows 95, and even physical stamps known as Hanko, which mainly points towards a greying population. The reluctant digital transition was highlighted when Japan introduced covid-19 restrictions last year. Many of the older population struggled to work from home as they used outdated software for work. 

Yukio Noguchi, a Japanese economist and author of several books about the Japanese economy, states, "Japan is behind the world by at least 20 years. The country needs to escape using paper and physical stamps as soon as it can," therefore adapting to modern software systems. 
The hands-on approach in the future
It's clear to see, the future of many industries depends on the handling of COVID-19. For a healthy transition, members, gym owners, and the media all have to pull together to keep the fitness industry alive. 

As members can be easily influenced by what they read online, having appropriate information published is critical to gain momentum for a steady membership return.

As Holsinger states "the biggest challenge is to get the media to report accurately and fairly on the (COVID) date they receive." 

According to Prime Minister Suga, 310 million vaccine shots are expected to be secured. It aims to have all residents vaccinated by June, preparing the country for this year's Tokyo Olympics held in July. 

With a strong membership, positive news will be a crucial development period for Japan's fitness industry and will reinforce the nation’s move to hosting this year's summer Olympics in July. 

Reinforcing this, Holsinger suggests “clubs that are successful (pre COVID) are those who over-communicate with its members." 

Keeping members updated with COVID restrictions, health issues, and making each member feel a part of a community, therefore "earning their trust," Holsinger notes is key for gyms to move forward during these difficult times.

About the author

Richard Young

Freelance writer, copywriter, and editor

Richard Young is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Originally from Ireland, he moved overseas in 2015 and began his writing journey.

From travelling and living overseas, cultural, and social differences are a go-to topic, as well as the social changes throughout multi-cultural countries.

He has found cultural diversity a fascinating avenue to explore and continues to develop new angles of interest.

Contact inquiries welcome via

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