Working out - gym habits and motivation by generation
January 18, 2020 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I've noticed that the 20-somethings I know are way more into going to the gym (whether a chain or boutique gym) than my peers when I was 20-something (I'm late Gen X). I assume this is a shift in North American cultural norms, but I'm curious a) what are some factors in this shift and why do people go to the gym regularly b) if I am making a false generalization based on my particular circumstances... or if this is true in other countries as well.

Did or do you or your peer group regularly go to the gym in your 20s? Why? Was it the norm? If you go (even if you aren't in your 20s), what is enjoyable about going the gym? Do you do cardio, lift weights, take classes, see a trainer, all of the above? Does the gym play a social role, a place to feel connected and be out in the world?

I'm super curious because some of my students have indicated that the gym is where they feel like they belong. And I couldn't think of a single person I knew in that era of my life who had such a regular habit and strong attachment to the gym. I think that body ideals have changed toward the more muscular for people of all genders, but especially for men (beefy biceps)?
posted by spamandkimchi to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I trained at expensive martial arts boutique gyms or crossfit type places for most of my 20s because that's how I made friends while moving from place to place and job to job. Not only did I work out harder in a group or class, I liked seeing the same people over and over and getting to know them with time. Also I was anxious and working out hard enabled me to fall asleep more easily.

One of the other things I liked about working out was that I would get results equal to the work and time I put into the activity, which wasn't the case with other things in my life like dating (luck is random) and work (nepotism and bureaucracy suck). So it definitely gave me a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Now I'm a bit older and feel those accomplishments from self employment so the gym kind of bores me. I would never be able to spend that many hours per week there like I did when I was younger.

Judging by social media it's much more common now for women to lift weights which I think is a big part of the 20 something gym obsession. The weightlifter's body or bodybuilding look is definitely strongly in fashion now for women...very different from the running/aerobic class vibe and long, lean undefined body types that were fashionable for women in previous decades.
posted by zdravo at 12:04 PM on January 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

I’m 39, and I share your experience. I think I went to my campus gym three or four times when I was in college. It never occurred to me. I still exercised, especially later in my 20s, but it was on my own: cycling (on the road, not a stationary bike), running at the track, calisthenics, and, on the rare occasions when I lifted, lifting dumbbells at home. This is what most people I knew did as well. Lots of dudes had ancient rusty weight benches in their garages or basements. I’ve joined a gym twice, and both times I left after a couple of months because I wasn’t using it enough to justify the cost.

I first noticed younger people going to the gym as a thing when I was 28 or 29. It seemed weird to me, but they were in college or grad school, so it was free. Didn’t really raise any flags at the time. But then they kept going....

I have a couple hypotheses. First, our generation was pretty notoriously apathetic in general, and specifically not into group belonging. Second, due to social media, the younger generation lives constantly in public view, and so there’s more pressure to look their best. Third, all generations in general have become a LOT more judgmental about health and specifically about weight. Being overweight or out of shape is a marker of low social status. Finally, a lot of the fitness stuff that exists now, didn’t back then. Crossfit, for example. Our options were a lot more limited, and it probably turned some of us away.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:10 PM on January 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

Gyms are also a “third space,” one of the few that exist beyond libraries, coffee shops and bars.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:13 PM on January 18, 2020 [24 favorites]

I'm an old millennial (born in 1980) and I have noticed a shift that there's more general awareness of what a healthy lifestyle is among my younger friends. I don't know if they necessarily believe the gym is where they fit in so much as it is just a part of their lives. (They also tend to eat better & drink less than I or my peers did in our 20s.)

I have thought about this a lot lately, but I think for a lot of the younger generation, there's less of a gap between "jock" and "nerd" demographics (if they even exist anymore). I know when I was in high school/college, the "cool" kids didn't work out and looked down on the people who did. I'm not saying that was right. That's just how it was. Now, all the young nerds I know work out (and also like sports).
posted by darksong at 12:20 PM on January 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

I was born in 1972. I went to the YMCA as a teen and young twenty-something. I participated in the step-aerobics craze and also rollerbladed and did aerobics and fitness stuff. I even took a class titled "aerobic dance" in college. It was nowhere near the level of participation of today.

I have no real knowledge about the issue but it's my observation that fitness and health is a norm and focus of young people more than ever because:

1. Social media. I think it's a thing to show off that you just hit the gym or yoga studio, and to show off your toned body.

2. More awareness and education around good nutrition and fitness. It's cool to be healthy. It's cool to be good stewards of the environment (plant-based diets). Cigarette smoking and eating fast food was much more common when I was a young person. If you're a young smoker today you might be committing social suicide.

3. They are children of Gen-Xers. Their parents may have modeled their fitness habits. Jogging, Jane Fonda, and exercising at gyms hit the mainstream when their Gen-X parents were young and fitness and the obsession with healthful eating has evolved and exploded from there.

I asked my 19-year-old son this questions and he said, "Are you serious? Instagram." I asked him some follow-up questions and he said, "Every generation wants to look good." "Eating healthfully is no longer fad-diets that are sold on commercials." "The internet has allowed people to see the hippies in California doing yoga and plant-based diets instead of just celebrities selling you a diet." (no offense to hippies, California, or plants, all of which we love.)
posted by loveandhappiness at 12:35 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Pure speculation but I wonder if fitness and general self care is something millennials can channel ambition and energy into, in an age where career stability, home ownership and child-rearing are increasingly inaccessible. Like our millennial obsession with plants.
posted by stray at 12:49 PM on January 18, 2020 [23 favorites]

I'm not persuaded that this is "generational." I think it's marketing and new technologies for absorbing marketing. Young people may be more vulnerable to this than old people, but the resulting behavior is not an expression of collective identity.
posted by mississippi at 12:52 PM on January 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

Also late Gen X. In my teens and 20s, I went to the gym sporadically, did home DVDs often. Took dance classes (and did one class in Muay Thai kickboxing). Capoeira and Ultimate Frisbee were popular with my friends, also dance. We’d go for hikes sometimes, skate, ski, go tobogganing the odd time. I don’t remember gym culture being as prevalent, at all.

I suspect the polarity of a) rising obesity rates and b) the intensification of body/self-presentation technologies (everything from wearing Kardashian-style stage makeup [effectively] to the grocery store to bum injections to labiaplasty) in the context of having a perpetual audience via social media (which itself comes with tools to further elaborate the self, like Photoshop filters etc). So beauty standards are increasingly complex and impossible at the same time that obesity and sedentarism rates are increasing. People, especially young people, want to feel a sense of control over how they present. Going to the gym is a way to do it.

And bro culture has reached the masses, which is a good and bad thing. (Yay to everyone building more muscle and bone, boo to people becoming orthorexic.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

I would add dating apps/online dating to the category of social media and public presentation. It seems to come up on a majority of the profiles that I see.

This is also the generation where, at least for some class strata, they were heavily scheduled for their childhood and teen years. Having a structured time and space for exercise fits with the way millennials were raised to think about their activities. It also makes sense in some communities to use a gym rather than a park or public space for exercise because of safety concerns, especially for women.
posted by arachnidette at 1:17 PM on January 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

Most young people I know today still live at home with their parents into their late 20s or beyond, in a way that was very rare when I was younger. This means getting out into a third space as raccoon409 mentions is super important, and the gym is a healthy, socially acceptable third space where you can meet with your friends or have some social contact without going to a bar or whatever.
posted by lollusc at 1:36 PM on January 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

To me the biggest difference is the % in each cohort who work out in any way (through whatever method). In my mid-thirties and it’s not uncommon for people slightly older than I am to not have a particular exercise routine, while that does seem uncommon in people younger than I am. People in the younger group with more money tend to do pay-per classes (spinning, yoga, etc) and organized runs (like holiday 10Ks), people with less are runners or use YouTube videos. It’s mostly my male friends who belong to a general-purpose gym.

Growing up in the 90s I did get a perception from TV (especially Seinfeld) that going to the gym was a routine part of adulthood. Only one person I know actually socializes at the gym and makes new friends/finds dates there, though (like Jerry).
posted by sallybrown at 1:39 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Im in my 30s and started going to the gym nearly the gym every day when I was 19/20 and trying to lose weight. Going to the gym that frequently was def not the norm among my classmates (although I did go to a tough engineering college so maybe we were outliers). I had relatively affluent classmates in undergrad and grad school yet do not recall CrossFit or orange theory-like intense classes being much of a thing among my peer group until maybe 5-10 years ago.

I agree that this is a social media-driven phenomenon, as is the ubiquity of intense diets like intermittent fasting, and scarier regimens like 30 day water fasts I see being promoted by young girls on popular YouTube channels. As a side note, I've noticed a parallel growth in obsessive skin care regimens among young people. I can only assume all of these seeming rapid changes in how young people allocate their time, and the burgeoning popularity on regimented, costly, time-intensive self-care (or perhaps "care") are related.
posted by shaademaan at 1:39 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Born 1975; grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs. I would attribute at least part of this to there being a lot more options for fitness facilities to join now than there were when I was growing up and that creating a combination of greater geographical convenience and lower relative prices. The growth of that industry over the past three decades has seemed pretty notable to me.

The county I lived in had a good rec center system. Beside that, there was a swim & racquet club, a country club, a weightlifting place, and various classes held at community centers. Looking at a map of the area, all of those still exist, but there are a lot more gym and fitness businesses in the same community now.

The first I recall encountering that non-rec, non-racquet/swim model was seeing Crunch Fitness around when I lived in NYC.

Looking at the county rec center prices now, adjusted for inflation they're less than I paid in the middle 1990s when I occasionally belonged (I mostly tended to do tapes at home or walk or run at one of the artificial lakes). I do remember noticing that among the people also using the machines, everyone else seemed to be older.
posted by jocelmeow at 2:12 PM on January 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

One aspect of this may be that many of us millennials grew up with more access to youth sports (especially for women) than previous generations. And yeah, I think we were the first generation to sort of grow up with social media and selfies etc. Gen Xers, as I understand it, were at least in their 20s when those things started to exist widely outside of niche communities.
posted by MadamM at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Also a reminder that if you say millennials you’re talking about people in their mid 20s-mid 30s- current early 20s and late teens are Gen Z I guess.
posted by MadamM at 2:16 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

One aspect of this may be that many of us millennials grew up with more access to youth sports (especially for women) than previous generations. And yeah, I think we were the first generation to sort of grow up with social media and selfies etc. Gen Xers, as I understand it, were at least in their 20s when those things started to exist widely outside of niche communities.

Uh, no. I'm solidly GenX and there were lots of opportunities for women athletes. More I'd say as people were generally more sporty than I see nowadays. I think the difference in gym going is either visibility on the internet and not real OR it's a function of younger people being much more urban and seeing gyms as the most convenient place to exercise and preferring to exercise alone and for body aesthetics, rather than doing sports for fun and socialization like we were inclined to do.

I went to the gym regularly in my teens and 20s and so did many of my friends but we also spent a lot more time outdoors: most people I knew had a bike or skateboard, played on fun teams, ran a few times a week outside, had animals or grew up in a rural area or on a farm or in a small town where athletics were a huge part of the social scene for young people. In general we had sports skills we could use to join team sports or groups wherever we went and so we did to make friends. I belonged to soooo many fun sports leagues in my 20s and 30s, I could passably play maybe 10 organized sports and belonged to a few running and swimming groups too plus I snowboarded, surfed, backpacked, rode horses, cross country skied and various other things. i could easily find people to do those things with any day. I still often socialize by calling a friend for a dog walk or bike ride.

Nowadays I think younger people are more inclined to just work out in gyms because they didn't learn as many sports skills as kids and/or have less access to facilities. It's also been really hard to keep those clubs and sports leagues going, as a lot of people don't know how to play anymore. Tennis and racquetball is dying out, neighborhood basketball courts and ice rinks are dying off, intramural soccer is being replace by low skills sports like pickleball etc. I taught three people in their late 20s how to ride bikes last year!

As an aside for the most part Millennials parents are boomers, GenX parents are the Silent Generation. My 70 and 80 something relatives all still exercise regularly.

I do think the selfie thing changed people's attitude towards fitness somewhat: in the 80s Janice from down the road would run errands in her jazzercise outfit to show off her toned butt but it was kind of a notable exception, most people didn't care what they looked like when exercising. However, the idea that people are MORE fit now than in the 70s through 90s is laughable, people back then were in much much better shape overall.
posted by fshgrl at 3:06 PM on January 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

As an "old millennial" myself I never went to the gym in college. I was woefully out of shape. What started me going to gyms had nothing whatsoever to do with Instagram (which didn't exist when I started going regularly anyway). Instagram also has nothing to do with why I still go regularly (I don't even have an account and if that makes me an old-millennial dinosaur, whatever). I go because I was fortunate enough to live in Europe for a time in my 20's. I walked everywhere. No problems with maintaining a healthy weight. I got back to the US and started using a car to get around. Boom, weight gain. I've been using gyms ever since.
posted by Crystal Fox at 6:20 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think that I've become more inclined to go to the gym (honestly, more inclined to do anything) because I can watch YouTube videos and read a bunch of instructional information beforehand to demystify things a little. I was terrified of going to the gym before because I had no idea what to do or what machines to use or what programs to follow; now I can just get easy access to things like Stronglifts 5x5 or Couch to 5K.
posted by thebots at 6:22 PM on January 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Peak millennial (born late 80s) woman. I went to the gym with friends throughout college and grad school (where it was free); I've gradually replaced that with running clubs. Some of my slightly older colleagues who are older millennials/Gen Xers also do the "go to gym" thing; we've all got subsidized gym memberships through our health insurance.

I can confirm that a certain subset of nerd in a certain type of place did do sports when I was growing up. You needed to look well-rounded for college, they said! So plenty of kids showed up at orchestra rehearsals in track uniforms, and at my school, they had to work out some scheduling issues with the start of the school play rehearsals overlapping with the end of the winter sports season. A good chunk of those high achieving kids are still routinely exercising in their 30s.
posted by damayanti at 6:30 PM on January 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

Hmm... born in 1980, went to the gym regularly throughout my twenties. Most of my friends went too; in fact the gym was filled with people my age. I stopped when I had kids, but I would like to get back to it.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:20 PM on January 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can confirm that a certain subset of nerd in a certain type of place did do sports when I was growing up.

Sports were mandatory in school when I was a kid all the way through high school. Only reason I can play and know the rules to things like badminton, tennis and non-beach indoor volleyball. We played simulacrums of those sports all the time in the summer too as kids, I think it gave us a common language.
posted by fshgrl at 7:45 PM on January 18, 2020

I was in 6th grade in 2001, and I distinctly remember my gym teacher telling us that when we were adults, we would be paying "big bucks" for the gym class experience. I think he was a late 20s, early 30s person at that time, so he was Gen-X presaging Gen-Y behavior??

I go to the gym semi-regularly. I get about two colds a year and each cold takes me out for a month (to fully recover; only the first week is really acute), and then I also get off-pattern due to travel or stress or whatever.

Anyway: my gym is free / provided by my employer. I go to the noontime HIIT fitness classes right now but occasionally work out on my own or go to yoga / dance fitness. It is a nice way to meet a cross-section of the workforce and get out of your tiny silo. Since everyone is still at work, people generally dress to be inconspicuous (I assume people who want to preen do that at gyms that they pay for).

I do sometimes use the gym as an outlet in that it's a finite achievable thing. So much of my work stretches on for quarters and quarters with no clear benefit to anyone, whereas if I go to a yoga class, I know I'm "good at it" (I know that is not a yogic mindset, but I also know that I have loose hamstrings) and can leave in an hour.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:29 AM on January 19, 2020

UK Gen Xer and current gym goer here: For people of my age the notion of what a gym is has transformed entirely in my lifetime. Scottish Twitter user Memorial Device recently posted this picture of a gym of the kind we had at school. Note those ropes leading to the ceiling that kids were expected to climb, fail to climb or fall off . It was a cruel, intolerant and confusing world for those who didn't have gymnastic capabilities. There was not much in the way of informed instruction and it was nothing to do with fashion in any way; attendance was mandatory, of course. Almost every element of exercise, apparatus or warm up that we took part in has now been deprecated on the grounds of its danger or ineffectiveness. Outside of school, you would be in a gym because you were in prison or the army or if you were in very dedicated training for a particular sport; it was very niche.

There are a number of people of my generation - and certainly those of older years - who have acquired too many scarring experiences of schools gyms to ever seek to attend such a place again.
posted by rongorongo at 5:16 AM on January 19, 2020 [11 favorites]

Gen X, American, female. I remember those ropes. I was well aware of sports existing in hs and college, and that I was someone who didn't do them. This wasn't good or bad, it just was a fact. I was aware of aerobics, pilates, etc, but those were not relevant to my life - I think I figured adults (or older adults, once I was in my 20s) did them. I was not aware of weight training of the sort I currently do in a gym.

I started going to a YMCA in my 30s, stopped for a few years, and went back (with some trepidation) in my late 40s to increase my strength and overall health. The weight/"fitness" room at my current Y has a nice mix of people of all ages, from teens to probably late 60s. It's probably more male but there are plenty of women. Most people seem to exercise without much socializing, but there are definitely social aspects for many people, including me. I feel like I belong there in that it is fine for me to be there, but not that I belong there as in it being a "home." Instagram/social media have nothing to do with why I go, though I confess that I have posted gym accomplishments occasionally in order to get praise from my friends :)

I think the third space comment is also relevant - it is a place one can hang out without spending money (beyond the already-paid membership fee).
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 1:35 PM on January 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

Born 1982, I never, ever went to the gym until I was in my 30s but by that point most of my contemporaries (young office-workers like myself) were going to the gym regularly at lunchtimes or after work. At university, we had a gym which I never stepped into and not a lot of people I knew did either although one of my close friends was really into Thai Boxing. I wasn't unusual being someone who never, ever exercised.

I hesitate to make it all about social media (that's the glib answer) but my university life, which occurred in the pre-Facebook time, felt pretty confined to my own life and my small circle of friends; I didn't have the kind of wide circle of acquaintances it has been possible to cultivate post-Facebook and as a result I never really had anyone to compare myself to in terms of what I looked like or how fit I was. My friends were all dorks with zero interest in self-care, like me.

In my early 30s I went to the gym regularly and interestingly it was a university gym (I worked there but didn't study there). The gym was always crowded and always with people markedly younger than myself. I am in my late 30s now and don't go anymore, but that's largely a convenience issue - I'd go again if I could. It was nice to have that hour to completely zone out. I mostly used the cardio machines and would just pootle along not really pushing myself while I listened to my music. It was great; I miss it.
posted by unicorn chaser at 3:56 AM on January 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm 41 now. When I was in my early 20s I started going to the gym in university with some friends. We went regularly and even when I was off-term with them I would still keep going regularly. This stopped somewhat when I was out of school for a while and then when I went back to school in my later 20s I found other groups of friends to go with. This is all in Canada. None of me or my friends were in any way ripped, cut, or swole, but the gym was there and so were we and we made use of it. We'd do cardio and weights. I've had periods where I went to the gym by myself and I don't enjoy it as much and don't do it as often.

As far as connection with other people, after a while you end up seeing the same people over and over again and there's a camaraderie of sorts. I wouldn't start a conversation with these people but there'd definitely be a head nod if I saw them outside of the gym. I'm sure there are people who do make friends at the gym but that ain't me.

I think there used to be a perception that gyms were for super dedicated athletes and bodybuilders and that more normal people would be mocked/shamed if they went which would dissuade people from going to the gym in the first place. That never played out in any gym I've been to and it was more that people were just doing their own things at their own pace and its great that you're there at all, just as long as you aren't hogging the equipment. It might be for the younger people that they never had that earlier perception so why wouldn't they go to the gym?

I think there's a much bigger exposure to people looking really fit as well. I remember seeing some meme comparing Hugh Jackman's body in the first X-Men movie to the most recent and they were almost like a before and after picture. He was in shape for the first movie but in that second picture it's like his abs have abs.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:05 PM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

Addendum : if somebody had transported a teenage me forward in time from the early 80s to 2020 - and if they wanted to impress me about how much things had changed - then they would do well to take me to a gym. There, they would show me people exercising with wondrous new equipment almost all of which I had had never seen before. They would be wearing clothing made from strange, colourful fabrics (not a track-suit in sight!) and would be drinking mysterious liquids from bottles. They would have what looked like phasers from Star Trek to chat with distant friends, take pictures of themselves or track some sort of information about their performance. There would be wall mounted mirrors that some would use to gaze at themselves, some would avoid looking at and a few would employ to try to flirt. TV screens on the walls would play repeated loops where they talked about futuristics sounding stuff like "detoxification", "quinoa salad" and "kale smoothies". Many would have what looked like bended q-tips in their ears for some reason. There would be a special room where groups of people rode some kind of stationary bicycle and listened to a shouting lady on a big tele-screen while they were bathed in moving disco lights - another place where it looked like everybody was just lying down and being shown how to rest. There would be what looked like gym teachers - but they would be talking to individual people rather than to a whole class. There would be lots and lots of folk with tattoos - but surely they didn't all work in circuses> Lots of people would be lifting weights - including a few wearing woolly hats; and women!

I would be unable to find anybody playing pirates, tug of war or picking teams (skins versus shirts). Nobody would be being goaded to vault a horse, balance on a beam, inch their way up a rope, touch their toes or perform endless sit-ups. Most people would be looking a little self-absorbed, but I would notice that there was a wide range of body types, dress styles and ages; most people would look like they were having fun.

A brave new world, indeed!
posted by rongorongo at 11:10 PM on January 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

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