Gender at the Gym: How Workout Preferences Vary by Sex, Age

By: Alia Hoyt
CrossFit gym
People take part in CrossFit training in a gym in Paris on Jan. 16, 2015. Surveys show men and women equally participate in niche activities like this, lessening the gender divide in workouts. BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Although the stereotyped image of a fitness club is a room crowded with people walking treadmills and using weight machines, that picture is as stale as, maybe, your exercise routine. In late December 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that many traditional health clubs were scaling back on exercise machines and beefing up their group fitness class offerings, in response to consumer demand.

Which got us thinking: Which groups prefer fitness classes as opposed to using equipment? A 2017 study by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that more than 57 million Americans belonged to at least one health club, and while gym memberships were split almost evenly between males and females, the two groups prioritized their gym activities very differently.


"Males tend to be equipment-oriented, engaging more in using free weights (dumbbells, hand weights and barbells), weight/resistance machines, rowers and stationary cycles," says Melissa Rodriguez, senior research manager for the IHRSA in an email interview. "Women prefer to participate in group exercise programs, such as Pilates, dance, step, and other choreographed exercise to music, yoga and barre."

Obviously, there are men who enjoy classes and women who lift weights, but in general it has not been the norm. "This is a combination of social dynamics, men tending to be more solo and women tending to gravitate towards the community, and men thinking the classes themselves are geared towards women and their goals," says Doug Holt with Fitness Professionals Online.

But this dynamic could also be changing. The same study found that men and women had almost the same levels of participation in "fitness-only and personal or small group training (P/SGT) studios" (think CrossFit or kickboxing studios). This trend is likely to continue as Millennials and Generation Z (those under 18) tend to favor these types of workouts, along with HIIT, barre, yoga and group cycling. IHRSA reported that the average age of a studio member is 30, and nearly half of all health club members are 18-44.

"Because functional training continues to grow in popularity, there's less of a need for specific age groups, and/or genders to be reliant on machines," says Josh Leve, founder of the Association of Fitness Studios in an email. "Bodyweight training is very popular and ensuring that you can move well into your 60s and 70s is high on the list of areas trainers, studios and health facilities tend to focus on."

But equipment (ellipticals, free weights and treadmills) is still the primary workout for Gen Xers, with boot camp being the only non-equipment-based activity listed as a favorite with this age group. Not surprisingly, Boomers and members of the Silent Generation (typically those born between 1925-45) prefer the gentler routines like water aerobics, Tai Chi and stretching, though they also favor weight machines.


The Changing Face of Fitness

Eric Malzone, with the Fitness Marketing Alliance, owned a CrossFit gym in Santa Barbara, California, until recently. Female business started off slowly, but he recalls a significant shift once the benefits were realized. "A lot of women were very hesitant to join a gym with a lot of weightlifting," he says, adding that they were afraid of getting bulky. "Women started to really enjoy being strong. That love of the actual fitness part of it really started to overtake. It became a larger motivator with women to come in and get strong and hit certain numbers on their lists."

Malzone is quick to point out that age and gender aren't everything, particularly for hard-core fitness boutiques. "The demographic wasn't as important as the psychographic of people who very much wanted to challenge themselves," he says, noting that ex-athletes in particular tend to gravitate in that direction because they miss the coaching and team-based environment.


Although the IHRSA reports that independent use of equipment like resistance weights and cardio machines continues to decline in favor of group exercise classes, 44 percent of survey respondents had used a treadmill over the past year — showing it is still popular. Resistance machines and free weights/dumbbells rank second and third. Among group exercises, yoga was most popular, with 36 percent of survey respondents reporting participation, followed by stretching and calisthenics.

But no matter what your age or gender, when it comes to going to a gym, one point remains constant, according to Leve of the Association of Fitness Studios. "The best thing for a consumer is to find what they enjoy so it doesn't become a chore."