FITNESS KICK SURGES THROUGH WOMEN'S TITLES:NEW TITLES FLEX WAY INTO NICHE AS THE OLDER ONES DO SHAPE-UPS FOR COMPETITIVE FIELD

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Magazines about healthy life-styles, fitness and nutrition-long a sleepy niche popular with vitamin and exercise fanatics-have emerged as one of the fastest-growing and most hotly contested categories in women's publishing.

"Nutrition and fitness are to the '90s what money was to the '80s. It's become a national obsession," said Rochelle Udell, editor in chief of Conde Nast Publications' Self, a 1.2 million-circulation monthly that has boosted its health and fitness coverage this year in an effort to re-ignite sluggish single-copy sales.

NEW AD CATEGORIES

Since the category is still growing, the battle remains sharply focused on building circulation as a first step toward breaking new ad categories.

Reader's Digest Assocation's American Health is refocusing under a newly installed editor in chief, Fredi Greenberg, while rival Time Inc.'s Health is using a trade campaign and a new study of 8,000 women to help score some gains on the ad front as a healthy lifestyle book. Both are trying to move away from an image closely aligned with medical health in favor of a softer overall fitness image.

"Somewhere between the fitness fanatic and the medical side is a vast middle ground of women," said Amy Wilkins, Health publisher.

Hopping on the bandwagon, Hearst Magazines' Country Living Healthy Living is being launched on newsstands next week.

"The category is hot, but there have already been some shakeups," noted Martin Walker, president of consultancy Walker Communications.

Financially stressed General Media shut down Longevity earlier this year. And Rodale Press has suspended publication of Healthy Women, which it had hoped to spin off as the female counterpart to its successful Men's Health.

Still, Rodale is testing new entries in the market by distributing such one-shots as Prevention's Guide: Health for Women Only and Fit & Firm at 40 Plus, which hits this fall.

Fine-tuned market approaches are taking on increased importance for health titles.

"The market is too competitive and too sophisticated for a magazine to be unclear about its mission," said Barbara Harris, editor in chief of Shape, the flagship of Weider's Publications women's magazines. Shape, a lifestyle magazine that carries more exercise information than rival titles, hits newsstands May 28 with a test of Shape Cooks. It will compete with Cooking Light and Eating Well, whose '95 ad pages grew 27.2% and 36.9%, respectively.

Shape, which upped its rate base 7.1% to 900,000 in January, also increased the frequency of one-time spinoff Living Fit from quarterly to six times this year and raised its rate base 33% to 300,000 after buying Longevity's subscription list.

CHANGES AT `FITNESS'

As proof of the combativeness of the market, Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing's 3-year-old Fitness, which jumped to 10 times frequency from six times last year, replaced launch editor Rona Cherry with Sally Lee from YM after newsstand sales took an unexpected tumble in the second half of '95.

New titles are still flooding into the market. Independent quarterly Sports Traveler just hit newsstands last month with its second issue carrying 43.5 ad pages, up 13.5% from the debut issue. Powerhouse Conde Nast will launch Conde Nast Sports for Women in the spring of '97.

Single-copy sales remain a key barometer of a book's ability to tap into the trend.

Self recently went on sale in 2,300 Blockbuster Video stores nationwide and plans a slew of event marketing promotions this summer.

In a major push begun last fall, Health doubled the amount of copies it sends to newsstands. That effort translated into a 77% rise in single copy sales, which helped overall paid circulation rise 3.4% to 947,728 for the second half of 1995, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Prevention, with a circulation of 3.25 million, is the king of the category. The Rodale Press title serves its audience with two editions: a 1 million circulation edition for those over 55 and a 2.25 million circulation family edition for younger readers.

ROOM FOR ALL?

With new titles entering the market and established titles aggressively pushing rate bases-a strategy that runs contrary to larger women's rivals among the Seven Sisters-the category is likely to remain contentious through this year and beyond. And some participants wonder if the market can support all the players.

"It's starting to look like the science category in the early '80s," said Prevention Publisher Ken Wallace. "At the end of the day, we may be back down to two or three magazines."

Countered Shape's Ms. Harris, "The market's crowded but there's always room for another magazine that's done very well."

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