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International Comparisons: ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends

Kercher, Vanessa M. Ph.D., SSC, M.Ed., BESS

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 11/12 2018 - Volume 22 - Issue 6 - p 24-29
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000431
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For the past 12 years, the editors of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® (FIT) have administered an electronic survey to thousands of professionals around the world to determine health and fitness trends. The survey helps guide health fitness programming efforts by annually predicting trends in a systematic way using a consistent methodology. Although the number of participating countries in ACSM’s fitness trend survey has ranged from 10 to 36 depending on the year (1–4), in 2017, both China and Spain independently sought to use ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends to investigate their own fitness sectors (5,6). Even though we could assume that many trends identified in ACSM’s worldwide survey also may be trends specific to other countries, it is interesting to have specific data for Spain and China to verify to what extent the international trends are reproduced in different countries. In this article, we will identify the top 20 fitness trends collected in 2017 for respondents from the United States (U.S.) and explore similarities and differences to China and Spain. We congratulate both China and Spain for being the first national studies to replicate the methodology of ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends in an effort to provide information relative to their country.

The Survey

The survey is designed to confirm or introduce new trends (not fads) that have a perceived positive impact on the industry according to the international respondents (1). For this reason, respondents were asked to understand the distinction between a trend and a fad before beginning the survey in the the U.S., China, and Spain.

Trend: “a general development or change in a situation or in the way that people are behaving” (

Fad: “a fashion that is taken up with great enthusiasm for a brief period” (

The U.S. Survey

There were 40 possible trends in the survey; the top 25 trends from the previous years (2) and 15 potentially emerging trends identified by the editors of FIT (see Table 1). In the survey, potential trends were presented with a short explanation that offered the respondent a basic definition. The survey was designed to be completed in 15 minutes or less.

Fitness Trend Survey Methodology Comparisons

Using SurveyMonkey (, the online survey was sent electronically to a list of 114,455 health fitness professionals. The list included member organizations (ACE, NCSF), certified fitness professionals, ACSM Alliance members, ACSM professional members with a FIT subscription, nonmember FIT subscribers, FIT associate editors, and FIT Editorial Board members. In addition, the survey was posted on the ACSM and FIT journal web sites, as well as their associated social media accounts (1).

A total of 4,133 responses were received with a response rate of 4%, which was less than previous years (1). Responses included the countries of Mexico, Chile, Columbia, Venezuela, Portugal, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Serbia, Japan, United Arab Emirates, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Taiwan, Switzerland, Jamaica, South Africa, Bermuda, Greece, Ireland, Finland, Kenya, New Zealand, China, Barbados, Romania, Singapore, South Korea, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. For the purpose of this article, a separate statistical analysis was performed on ACSM's Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends to include only the U.S. respondents to compare the top 20 fitness trends with China and Spain (see Table 1).

Demographics of the U.S. survey respondents included 57% females across a broad range of ages (see Figure 1) with 40% having more than 10 years of experience in the industry (see Figure 2). The most frequent respondent occupation (26.7%) was as a full- or part-time personal trainer.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Age (in years) of survey respondents.
Figure 2
Figure 2:
Years of experience in the industry reported by the survey respondents.

China Survey

There were 50 possible trends in the China survey. Working in conjunction with FIT, the top 40 trends from the previous year’s U.S. survey were translated into Chinese (6)’s. In addition, a panel of 12 experts in the Chinese fitness industry identified 10 potentially emerging trends within China that were slightly different from the U.S. These included 1) bicycle sharing, 2) middle- and old-aged health management, 3) square dancing, 4) sports nutrition guidance, 5) health/fitness behavior, 6) Tai Chi, 7) campus football, 8) training monitoring, 9) brisk walking, and 10) youth sports.

The same methodology of the U.S. survey was used for China (see Table 1). Star Platform ( was used to create the online survey, which was made accessible through media (e.g., WeChat, Weibo) and online forums to domestic fitness, training, education, and medical practitioners. Respondents from Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Guangdong, and Jiangsu accounted for 52.2% of the total responses (6). Other responding provinces and cites included Henan, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Hebei, Shaananxi, Anhui, Fuijian, Lianoning, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Neimenggu, Tianjing, Foreign, Heilongjiang, Chongquing, Guizhou, Gansu, Guangxi, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Hunan, Hainan, Hubei, Qinghai, and Hong Kong.

Survey respondents were primarily male (72%), differing from the U.S. survey where 57% were female. In addition, 60.8% were 22 to 34 years of age with 51% having less than 3 years of experience and 14.9% having more than 10 years of experience in the industry (see Figures 1 and 2). University affiliates (professors, teachers, graduate students, and undergraduates) accounted for 80.4% of the respondents, whereas part-time or full-time personal trainers accounted for 33.9%, followed by health fitness experts, and other health professionals (6).

Spain Survey

There were 40 possible trends in the Spain survey. The top 20 trends in the past decade were reviewed for a total of 30 different trends, and 10 potentially emerging trends were proposed by a panel of Spanish experts based on their knowledge of the fitness sector (5). Somewhat different from the U.S, the 10 potential trends included 1) Crossfit, 2) whole-body electrical stimulation, 3) training for running obstacle courses, 4) FIT Boxing, 5) Interactive virtual fitness (virtual reality glasses, immersive fitness), 6) posture correction and prevention of and recovery from injuries, 7) exercise programs for the ill, 8) pre- and post-partum exercise programs, 9) toning work with musical support (body pump and similar), and 10) hypopressive abdominal exercise.

Most, but not all, of the methodology from the U.S. survey was used by Spain (see Table 1). Using Survio (, the online survey was sent electronically to a list of professionals in the fitness sector, private sector, public sector, and freelance professionals.

The majority of responses (53.8%) came from the regions of Madrid, Catalonia, and Andalusia for a total of 53.8%. Other regions with responders included Valencia, Canary Islands, Aragon, Asturias, Balearic Islands, Cantabria, Castile-La Mancha, Castile and Leon, Navarra, Extremadura, Galicia, La Rioja, Basque Country, Murcia, Ceuta, and Melilla (6). Similar to China, survey respondents were primarily male (69%). In addition, 49.3% were 22 to 34 years of age and 45.7% reported more than 10 years of experience in the fitness sector. Most prominently, 36.2% were part-time or full-time personal trainers.

Survey Results

Using only U.S. respondents from ACSM’s Worldwide Survey resulted in three top 20 trend ranking changes. First, taking over the top spot from HIIT (#1 in the worldwide survey) was group training, which was reported as the #1 trend for U.S. respondents. The second difference was body weight training (#4 in the worldwide survey) traded places with strength training, which was ranked as the #4 trend by U.S. respondents. Lastly, dropping out of the top 20 was sport-specific training (#20 in the worldwide survey), which was replaced by indoor cycling in U.S.-only analysis (see Table 2 for U.S.-only rankings).

Top 20 International Comparisons of Fitness Trends

Similar to the U.S. survey, both the China and Spain analyses collated the responses and then ranked them from highest (most popular trend) to lowest (least popular trend) for each potential trend option and then sorted from the highest to the lowest ranking to identify the top 20 fitness trends. Only the top 20 are listed in this report (see Table 2).

Comparing with the top 20 U.S. trends, 11 trends identified for China and 12 trends identified for Spain matched (see Table 2). Both China and Spain proposed 10 new potential trends relevant to their fitness sectors. For Spain, five of the new trends ranked in the top 20 and include CrossFit, running and obstacle courses, posture correction, injury prevention, and exercise programs for the ill. For China, four of the new trends made the top 20 trends and include sports nutrition guidance, youth sports, physical education and medical education, and walking and jogging (see Table 2).

Top 10 Thought-Provoking Takeaways

After reviewing and comparing the data, we chose to highlight 10 interesting findings among the countless possibilities depending on how one interprets the data.

1. High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT). HIIT was identified as the #2 trend in the U.S. survey and the #2 trend in Spain, but not for China where it ranked #39. The research group in China suggested this finding may be related to the scientific popularization of HIIT training in the U.S. HIIT typically involves short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a short period of rest or recovery and typically takes less than 30 minutes to perform (although some programs can be much longer or shorter in duration). Many of the U.S. survey respondents claimed that clients liked HIIT for a short time then were looking for something else, whereas others warned that it was popular but were concerned with a potentially high injury rate.

2. Childhood Obesity. Exercise programs focused on youth and childhood obesity were ranked highly as a trend in both Spain (#15) and China (#14) compared with the U.S. survey, which placed this trend as #31. Exercise programs specifically aimed at children and weight loss demonstrated the biggest decline in the U.S. survey, dropping from the top five in every survey between 2007 and 2013 (7–10). This has been somewhat surprising as childhood and adolescent obesity continues to be a major health issue in the U.S and many developing nations and is important because it is associated with other medical issues such as diabetes and hypertension. In contrast, both Spain and China identified exercise programs for the prevention of childhood obesity in the top 20 trends. More specifically, China identified two positions related to youth sports (trends #3 and #14), suggesting that the fitness industry may have a high degree of concern for physical health of young people.

3. Educated, Certified, and Experienced Fitness Professionals. Educated, certified, and experienced fitness professionals seem to be an important international trend as it was ranked in the top 10 for Spain (#1), U.S (#6), and China (#9). These results confirm the importance of trained professionals with qualifications, education, and experience in the fitness industry internationally. In addition, China identified “physical education and medical education” as a trend (#8), which has a similar description to Exercise is Medicine® in ACSM. The research group in China believes that Exercise is Medicine® may become a more acceptable trend in the Chinese fitness industry in the future.

4. Body Weight Training. Body weight training ranked #4 for both China and Spain and was #5 in the U.S. survey, suggesting this trend is strongly associated in the fitness sector internationally. Reasons for this may be related to the minimal equipment requirements that make it an inexpensive and convenient way to effectively exercise no matter where you live. The creativity involved in the development of body weight training programs seems to have made it popular around the world. Similarly, strength training continues to remain ranked high at #4 in the U.S. survey, #1 in China, and #11 in Spain.

5. Walking and jogging. Interestingly, walking and jogging were identified as trend #10 for China but were not found to be a trend in either of the other surveys. More specifically, walking/running/jogging clubs ranked as #35 of the 40 fitness trends for the U.S. Walking and jogging are two of our most foundational fitness activities, so it is intriguing to find them on the China results but not on the others.

6. Technology. Wearable technology ranked as a more prominent trend in the China (#2) and the U.S. surveys (#3) compared with Spain (#18). In addition, China also identified smartphone exercise apps as a trend (#13), which is not identified in the U.S. or Spain surveys. The Spain investigators suggest all portable wearable technology that can help improve or monitor fitness, including heart rate monitors, smart watches, and fitness and activity monitoring devices (such as Misfit, Garmin, Jawbone, Fitbit, etc.) as a trend is still emerging, and therefore not quite as important (5). Interestingly, smartphone exercise apps seem to be showing a downward trend from the previous year's (#17) survey compared with 2017 (#26) in the U.S. survey. Reasons for this may be related to the popularity of exercise apps with younger gym members and people who regularly exercise outdoors or wish to track their physical activity.

7. Wellness Coaching. Wellness coaching (#18) was an identified trend in the U.S. survey but not a trend in Spain or China. Wellness coaching is the integration of behavioral change science with health promotion, disease prevention, and rehabilitation. Wellness coaching often uses a one-on-one approach similar to a personal trainer, with the coach providing support, guidance, and encouragement while short- and long-term goals are pursued. Personal trainers and other health and fitness professionals may have started adopting wellness coaching strategies and techniques of behavior change that focus on the client's values, needs, and vision during exercise sessions, which may be a potential reason for not being identified as a trend in China or Spain.

8. Sports Nutrition Guidance. Sports nutrition guidance was only an identified trend in China (#16) and refers to the guidance of nutrition intake before, during, and after exercise. The research investigators for the China survey (6) believe this trend to be related to new requirements on how to combine sports nutrition intake when training. These findings support that the Chinese fitness industry recognizes the role of nutrition in exercise.

9. Market Niches and Social Integration. The search for new market niches and fitness social clubs were trends identified in Spain (#9) and China (#18). Marketing niches seek new groups of clients who may be attracted to the fitness sector through the creation of new products and services geared toward covering their specific needs. Fitness social clubs are described as social-integration and community-building activities using fitness activities and exercise workouts followed by some social time. Several exercise products and national chain fitness programs used these fitness social clubs to promote their products and programs. Neither of these trends were identified in the top 20 U.S. survey. More specifically, “fitness social clubs” ranked as the lowest fitness trend in the U.S survey (#40).

10. Flexibility and Prevention of Injury. Flexibility and mobility rollers were identified as a trend (#15) for the U.S. survey, but not in China or Spain. Interestingly, both China and the U.S. survey identified Yoga as a trend (#15 and #7, respectively) but not in Spain. Instead, posture correction and prevention of and recovery from injuries (#13) was identified as a trend, which was proposed as a possible new trend by Spain experts. The trend refers to programs geared at preventing injuries and functional re-adoption and re-training post-injury after the recovery phase.


Through the translation and utilization of ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends, both China and Spain were able to investigate similarities and differences as well as identify national fitness industry trends compared with the U.S. The results show that there is a considerable match between the U.S. fitness sector and those identified in Spain and China, albeit with a few particular differences. In addition to reviewing trends from the U.S. survey, learning more about specific trends in China and Spain provides additional information from which one can extract programming guidance that may enhance the integrated approach to developing and delivering relevant programs for individuals, groups, and communities. We encourage Spain, China, and other countries to continue to study ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends annually and we look forward to learning about trends from within their countries in the years to come.


ACSM’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends helps the health and fitness industry make critical programming decisions. The results are applicable to commercial, clinical, corporate, and community fitness programs. Although no one has been able to accurately predict the future, this survey and continued administration in Spain and China will help to track trends in the field that will help health and fitness professionals make important business decisions locally. The effort put forth by China and Spain is worthy of further attention and will make a good foundation for future work.


The authors thank Editor-in-Chief Brad Roy, Ph.D., FACSM, ACSM's immediate past president Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, and managing editor Lori Tish for considering this project important enough to recognize and compare the fitness trends identified in the U.S., China, and Spain. Thank you Kyle Kercher, M.S., for your insightful comments and suggestions while writing this article. Thank you to Dr. Yongming Li and the research group in China: Yang Liu, Jia Han, LV Miao, Xiaotian Li, and the others that helped implement the survey. Thank you to Oscar L. Veiga and his research group in Spain: Manel Valcarce Torrente, Adrian King Clavero, and the other team members for using the survey and exploring it in Spain.


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