Economies of the Fittest: Brazil Leading Latin America's Fitness Revolution

Within the last decade, the health and wellness industry has dramatically expanded to now touch every corner of the world. The industry has grown globally by 2.6% each year since 2015, reaching $87.5 billion dollars in revenue in 2018, which includes roughly 200,000 clubs worldwide serving 174 million members. Especially with advancing fitness technology propelling health consciousness to unprecedented heights, the potential of this industry shows no sign of slowing down any time soon. 

On a macro level, Latin America hosts a wealth of untapped potential for the fitness industry to thrive. Its current membership rate is at about 2.15%, leaving exponential room for growth as increasingly positive attitudes towards fitness develop throughout the region and world.

IHRSA’s (International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association) senior manager of Latin America, Jacqueline Antunes observed, “In recent years, we have seen the emergence of new business models in the region…we will continue to have multipurpose and family-oriented clubs, but, today, consumers are changing, and looking for unique exercise experiences.”

Similarly, editor and director of Mercado Fitness, Guillermo Velez, described the changing landscape as, “In addition to the growth of the low-cost segment, other developments, including economic indicators, increasingly savvy consumers, technology, the boutique phenomenon, and professionalisation have all impacted and shaped the industry in Latin America.”

Not only is public interest in fitness clubs on the rise in Latin America, but the capital and investment are groomed for the task of building a prosperous industry as well. Several major companies from both the United States and throughout South and Central America, like Grupo Sports World, have already laid the blueprint for aggressive franchising and development throughout the region during 2019. This speaks to the inevitable diversification fitness clubs will take on as they continue to become more prevalent, ranging from low-cost budget clubs to boutique specialty studios to high-end leisure facilities. 

While the majority of Latin America is currently considered a growing market for fitness, one country is leaps and bounds ahead of the rest, and has consistently ranked as one of the top fitness industries in the world. Brazil boasts the 34,509 fitness clubs to serve nine million active members, falling only second in those respective numbers to the United States.

Source: IHRSA 2018 Global Report

For scale, consider the second leading Latin American country in the fitness realm is Mexico, with 12,367 fitness clubs for 4.1 million members, and every following Latin American country falling significantly shorter in numbers and revenue.

Not only does Brazil have the physical numbers and revenue to support its position in the worldwide fitness industry, but trends and behaviors indicate that Brazil will continue to expand.

So, Why Brazil?

What led Brazil to be way above of the pack in terms of the fitness club revolution?

Besides Brazil’s large population and proportionately more gyms and gym attendees than most of its Latin American counterparts, the climate for Brazil’s international superpower status in the fitness world resulted from a combination of economic and socio-cultural considerations. 

After experiencing a significant period of economic growth from 2009 to 2011, Brazil established four major companies who still control much of its current fitness industry in addition to operating franchises spanning Latin America. 

Source: Ken Research 

These Brazilian born and bred franchises, BioRitmo, BodyTech, Companhia Athletica, and Runner, are primarily responsible for helping Brazil first develop and later firmly establish its fitness community, which still has experienced significant growth year to year 

These four companies also developed the cultural landscape for fitness by targeting urban and semi-urban locations for their clubs; today, most of their clubs are spread throughout the top eight industrial centers of Brazil as opposed to rural areas. (Ken Research). 

Source: Ken Research

The importance of these fitness corporations cannot be understated for initiating the grassroots gym culture in Brazil. For example, BioRitmo is not only one of the largest gym chains in the entire world in terms of club memberships and revenue, but it helped make fitness more accessible throughout Brazil by launching its sister company called Smartfit. Smartfit prioritized affordable membership prices, leading to a larger market share of gym locations as well as diversified gym experiences, especially in secondary cities throughout Brazil. 

Similarly, the overall fitness industry has strongly benefitted from manufacturing exercise equipment in addition to fitness club revenues. When demand for increased fitness clubs throughout Brazil proliferated, many clubs struggled to afford foreign equipment due to exorbitant prices on its importation. 

Thus, companies like Movement Fitness Equipment were created to fill the growing need for top-of-the-line gym machinery. Currently, Movement is considered the top producer of exercise equipment throughout all of Latin America while also garnering acknowledgement as one of the leading technology-based companies in Brazil.  (IHRSA) (Ken Research)

Cultural and Social Factors Pushing Fitness 

Ironically, two directly contrasting poles of Brazil’s socio-demographics have curated the current state of its fitness industry: Brazil’s obesity epidemic and the nation’s infamous beach culture and beauty standards. 

Public awareness of wellness and fitness initiatives took center stage in Brazil after hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 followed by 2016 Summer Olympics.

These major sporting events brought to light one of Brazil’s most concerning public health issues: the gradual rise of obesity and sedentary lifestyles throughout its population. A recent National Health Survey conducted by the Brazilian census bureau, concluded that 20.8% of Brazil’s adult population, or 26 million people, are obese. Brazil is currently on pace to catch the United States and Mexico with projections indicating that by 2020, 35% of the country will be categorized as obese. 

To combat this widespread problem, government initiatives promoting whole food diets and regular exercise have been emphasized over the last several years. While the obesity epidemic is still a major cause for concern, the unexpected beneficiary was the stable rise in gym memberships nationwide. In many cases, the spike in gym memberships was the direct result of need or physician’s orders. 

Brazilian Standards of Beauty Embrace Fitness

Conversely, common associations with Brazilian-inspired beauty are directly correlated with its blossoming beach culture found in Rio de Janeiro. In a country where fuller body types adhering to the “Strong not Skinny” mantra are glorified, gym memberships became considered a necessity for both men and women. 

Famed Brazilian entrepreneur and businesswoman Cristiana Arcangel explained this beauty standard as, “Brazilian women aren’t ashamed to look sexy. Vanity is not a bad thing here. It’s common to tell a girl she’s looking strong. In the UK, we might take this as an insult, but in Brazil it’s a genuine compliment.” This culturally accepted norm of body positivity inevitably emphasizes the importance of fitness and maintaining good health.

Similarly, Brazilian beach culture is equally notorious for embracing immodest attire. To achieve these commonplace standards, fitness practices based around strength training inherently perpetuate gym culture.

 With the average cost of a gym membership in Brazil ranging from 20-30 USD a month, access also factors into enabling this culture and enabling it to flourish. 

The Future of Brazil’s Fitness Industry

Brazil’s immediate future in fitness shows every indication of continued growth and success. While the country is not expected to expand in raw numbers of clubs the way other Latin American countries are projected to, membership revenues are expected to climb as a result of the aforementioned common attitudes towards fitness. 

Brazil will inevitably be looked to as a model for other Latin American countries to follow as their respective fitness industries skyrocket over the next several years, including increased franchising from Brazilian companies.