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Free Minds & Free Markets

America's Fitness Boom Is a Free Market Success Story

America has added about 100,000 yoga instructors, personal trainers, and spin class teachers in the past 14 years or so. That's supply meeting demand.

A recent report in Inside Higher Ed shows "exercise science" as the fastest growing academic field, with religion and history most rapidly shrinking.

It's the latest in a series of data points suggesting that organized exercise is challenging the humanities and traditional religion as a place where people seek community, meaning, and discipline.

The students making choices about college majors may be making rational decisions about their employment prospects.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics counted about 280,080 fitness trainers and instructors in 2017, up from 241,000 in 2014 and from 182,280 in 2004.

Compare that to clergy: 49,850 jobs in 2017, according to the BLS, up from 46,510 in 2014 and from 35,790 in 2004.

In other words, if the federal statistics are accurate, America has added about 100,000 yoga instructors, personal trainers, and spin class teachers in the past 14 years or so, but only about 14,000 ministers, rabbis, priests and imams.

A federal time use survey offers some additional supporting data. If the federal government is going to spend taxpayer dollars studying this sort of thing based on probably nonexistent constitutional authority, after all, we might as well make some productive use of the information. In 2017, among the civilian noninstitutional population aged 15 and older, average time spent each day in "participating in sports, exercise, and recreation" was 0.28 hours, while 0.13 hours were spent on "religious and spiritual activities."

These pursuits don't have to be mutually exclusive. Plenty of religious people exercise, too, and plenty of people who exercise also go to church or synagogue or mosque. Some of the people working out are doing so at YMCA or YWCA facilities in which the "C" stands for Christian, at least nominally.

This trend is visible in rural America, where small towns now routinely seem to have a yoga studio alongside the local hardware store and tractor dealer. And it's visible in prosperous suburbs such as Newton, Mass.; Ardmore, Pa., and St. Louis Park, Minn., where vast Life Time health clubs also offer homework help for children and even, in some cases, co-working space for people who want their office to be at the gym.

The juxtaposition seems particularly noticeable in December, when holiday parties and the temptations of eating and drinking to excess are followed by New Year's resolutions aimed at diet and exercise. In some cases, the talk at the Chanukah or Christmas parties revolves around which gym participants will go to the next day to work off the calories.

We have a long way to go before finding out whether SoulCycle, the spin-class provider founded in 2006, can serve souls in as enduring a way as ancient faith traditions.

Some will be tempted to read into this a tale of American decline, a story about how the humility of worshipping a higher power and of seeing oneself as a small part of a long story has been replaced with cult gyms that are less about health and fitness than they are about status and appearance.

But that risks being too pessimistic. What both the gyms and the churches and synagogues seem to realize is that there's something powerful in getting together, face-to-face, with other people in a physical place. It means putting down our cellphones and getting out of our cars and committing to something that may become a regular habit. Particularly in a season when daylight is scarce and the weather, at least in the Northeast, can be grim, it can help keep people happy.

So if the market for exercise science degrees is booming, maybe it's a sign of not only of physical health but of market health—a capitalist success of supply meeting demand. Capitalist abundance is often blamed for obesity. Let it also get some credit for the exercise boom. If and when all these newly fit instructors and their students live long enough to start wondering what they are doing on earth in the first place and what if anything will happen to them once they leave, they may yet have the strength to explore other disciplines.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.

Photo Credit: Henn Photography Cultura/Newscom

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  • posmoo||

    "That's supply meeting demand."

    That's supply creating demand, actually. I doubt millions of people realized they wanted to do akward poses while breathing deeply until they heard about it.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    That reminds me, tell you mom I said, "Hi."

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    And yet everywhere I go, I still see fat pathetic slobs who look like Dipshit Dave Weigel.

  • DiegoF||

    I am rather surprised that the "Home Economics" major is on the positive growth side. I didn't even know there were classes for this beyond high school. This major sounds like something from fifty years ago for colleges that were just places for wealthy young women to park themselves while they tried to catch the attention of a young man from a good enough family.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>with religion and history most rapidly shrinking.

    god wants you sculpted.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    And then thrown into the volcano.

  • Paloma||

    I seem to know a lot of young people, particularly young men, who chose majors preparing them to be physical fitness/ personal trainers/ sports trainers and multiple variations of that who cannot find work in that field, or can't make ends meet financially even if they are in that field, and are working in construction, sales, marketing, etc.

  • DiegoF||

    I got my certification (CSCS, by far the best one to have) studying on the side as I attended college for an unrelated field. I could be wrong (I didn't end up going much of anywhere with it, since it is indeed tough out there), but I don't think this is a good use of a four-year degree to put it mildly. Advanced work in the field is good but I doubt a bachelors is setting you up for anything that is worth it. Basically if you are not cut out for a "real" STEM degree for whatever reason you should probably stay out of four-year college. Someone thinking of exercise science (or whatever; my college did not offer it) should see if they are interested and capable enough to become a dietician, athletic trainer, physical therapist, or something else legitimately in health care itself. Personal training is not healthcare, which makes all the difference in its future for you. You are not even really a professional of any kind. And your career probably won't go in anything close to the direction you'd envisioned. It sucked even before this apparent glut of "exercise science" grads. Beware, kids!

  • sharmota4zeb||

    and are working in construction, sales, marketing, etc.

    These are field that require strength and/or physical attractiveness. This seems to be a result of pressure for everyone to go to college. Young men who don't really need the degree to pursue their ideal careers get to spend 4 years working out and having fun and looking hot. So basically, physical fitness/ personal trainer/ sports trainer is the male version of home economics.

  • Tony||

    It's a success of the marketing industry, at any rate. We're not getting any fitter as a society. An even more astounding success of marketing--the sugar industry, which is what made you all into fat slobs in the first place while confusing us for decades as to the cause.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Because people 40 years ago didn't realize that eating sweets and sitting around on your ass was a way to gain weight? Or because people are powerless to resist the power of TV ads?

  • Tony||

    Because they lied to us and told us fat was the problem (you know, because dietary fat has the same name as the stuff your man tits are made of--logic!) So they replaced it in all our processed foods with sugar so that it would remain edible.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    In other words, if the federal statistics are accurate, America has added about 100,000 yoga instructors, personal trainers, and spin class teachers in the past 14 years or so, but only about 14,000 ministers, rabbis, priests and imams.

    Somewhere in the Himalayas, a Yogi is crying over that sentence.

  • Blargrifth||

    I require neither church nor yoga studio to withstand my grim and frostbitten kingdoms.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    "Some will be tempted to read into this a tale of American decline, a story about how the humility of worshipping a higher power and of seeing oneself as a small part of a long story has been replaced with cult gyms that are less about health and fitness than they are about status and appearance."

    So just a teensy bit narcissistic?

  • Rob Misek||

    And to what do we owe American obesity and addiction to fast food?

  • Sevo||

    Here's a hint:
    When I was going to the Y gym, the trainer there suggested I take a break starting 1/1/X until about 2/1/X; everyone who made a 'resolution' will show up for a month or so, and then you can find parking again.
    So the Y operates on the same 'stated preference' economic model as all the other gyms: sign up, pay, brag about your membership, go there once every whatever and all's good. They're not selling 'fitness'; they're selling bragging rights.
    The charge on your card is automatic (and I wish I could figure a way for my company to charge for those bragging rights with no associated costs).

  • Tony||

    The Y is for having anonymous sex in the steam room.

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