We study Gym Culture(s) in the 2020s

Updated: May 21, 2020

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

To many of us, the gym can be an intimidating place. Everything — from the sound of clanging metal to the sounds of formidable personal trainers talking to their students — feels scary.

Stereotypical gym culture has a bad reputation. Objectively speaking, the gym is a site of exercise, a place people visit to work out and improve their fitness. Subjectively speaking, the gym may be a site of socialising, of camaraderie and friendship-forming, of people motivating each other to reach their fitness goals.

It’s also perceived as a site of exclusivity, where only the very fit and very confident go, where members look like people off the #fitspo hashtag on instagram.

Towards a new exercise culture: exercise for all

In recent years, we see the emergence of a new gym culture. One that feels softer, more welcoming to the average Joe (and Jane). For us, the best case study that comes to mind would be the ClassPass model.

Subscription-based fitness membership programs like Classpass offers members access to different gyms and fitness classes, with everything from yoga to boxing, martial arts to indoor cycling.

Now, ordinarily, this should seem even more intimidating than a regular gym membership. As if facing the people in one gym wasn’t terrifying enough, this was a membership that offered you multiple gyms.

Instead, ClassPass has found fans in almost everyone and anyone, from the stay-at-home mom to the hardcore Gen Z fitness fanatic. Curious to understand what ClassPass was doing differently, we decided to compare its social media content against that of Pure Fitness, a well-known gym with outlets all across the world.

Given how Instagram is a site where brands maintain and grow follower bases through content that speaks to their audience, examining how the instagram accounts of these two brands differ would give us some interesting insights.

We ran 200 posts each from the official ClassPass and Pure Fitness Instagram accounts through our Cultural AI models.

Here’s what we found:

Looking at Exercise: Visual Analysis

Colorfully speaking, the Classpass feed uses softer, pastel colors in various shades — from green to blue to yellow to red, and many more in between. Visuals come across as playful, with cartoon infographics, cheery quotes and the occasional exercise picture interspersed in between.

Avoiding colours that are too bold or harsh, ClassPass manages to keep their feed mild and accessible to the hesitant fitness newbie. These present the Classpass Fitness experience as one that is inviting, light, and welcoming.

On the other hand, we found that images on the Pure Fitness feed were more serious. Images of toned, mostly unsmiling, muscled people mid-exercise fill the feed. The Pure Fitness feed also has a very uniform aesthetic of mostly black and white, creating a colder, distant, no-nonsense atmosphere.

Talking about Exercise: Adjective Analysis

In the word cloud of adjectives detected in PureFitness’s instagram captions above, we see words like “hard”, “cruel”, “explosive”, and “tough”, — words which frame exercising at PureFitness as a grueling experience.

Words like “intense” and “mental” also position a workout at PureFitness as something that is definitely not to be taken lightly. For the PureFitness gym goer, the painful nature of a gym session is likely something that keeps them going — they delight in the demanding, physically taxing nature of exercise.

In the word cloud of adjectives from the ClassPass instagram captions, we see that while in the PureFitness set, adjectives tended towards describing physical workouts, adjectives in the Classpass set tended towards the softer, emotional end of the spectrum.

In contrast to “cruel” and “explosive”, we see exercise being described as “cute”, “instagrammable”, and part of “selfcaresunday”. Classpass frames exercise to its viewing audience as something delightful, something worth posting about. Exercise is part of an end-of-week rest and recharge routine, not something dreadful and intimidating.

Additionally, the word “favourite” is used significantly more in the Classpass captions than the PureFitness captions, suggesting maybe how correlating exercise with likeability is more a priority for Classpass than PureFitness.

New Symbols of Prestige in the Exercise World

For conventional gym goers, symbols of progress and success had strong associations with pain, soreness, and overcoming these difficulties.

These were states of being that people wanted to experience and wanted to complain about — they were covert prestige symbols indicating that someone’s ‘street cred’ in the fitness realm.

With the ClassPass model, even though classes offered also included gruelling high-intensity or strength-training sessions, prestige markers were broadened and re-calibrated: symbols of workout success were restoration, wellness and enjoyment.

Why does ClassPass work so well? We believe it’s because the brand introduces an alternative definition of success in the fitness world.

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