Health-club memberships are down among consumers aged 25-34 and those over 45, according to research company Leisure Trends. The New York Times recently reported at least 15 once-popular aerobic studios in New York have closed since 1990.
Much of the decline in such activities is occurring among women, says Tom Doyle, director of information and research at National Sporting Goods Association. "It's a response to the Superwomen phenomenon," he says. "Something's got to give."
Walking and gardening, conversely, are gaining in popularity, researchers say. And it's likely the relaxed attitude toward fitness will continue to grow next year.
Leisure Trends reports that much of what Americans are doing to keep fit these days occurs outside of health clubs: In a given week, 62% of Americans run, bike, walk or jog, and 26% say they exercise in the home.
Walking, the most popular sporting activity nationwide, is growing as the population ages, especially among younger boomers and women, says Randy Scott, marketing director of U.S. Shoe's Easy Spirit division.
Of the 53 million fitness walkers nationwide, 65% are older than 35 year old, 62% are women and the fastest-growing segment is consumers aged 35 to 45, says Mr. Scott.
Shoe sales are a telling measure of what amounts to a lifestyle shift. After years of meteoric jumps, athletic shoe sales are flat overall, while sales of rugged contractor-style and hiking boots are rising, revealing a trend toward an outdoorsy, casual lifestyle and exercise regimen, says Mr. Doyle.
Gardening activities also have increased dramatically among people ages 30 through 49, says Bruce Butterfield, market research director at the National Gardening Association. In 1994, of all the households that garden, 47% of gardeners were between those ages, compared with 40% in 1988, he says.
Sales of garden gloves at glovemaker Wells Lamont have almost doubled in four years, the company reports.
The evidence points to a lifestyle trend being fueled by the aging of the boomer population, the popularity of outdoor activities, a growing interest in a holistic, mind/body approach to health and to disillusionment with all-or-nothing fitness messages that have permeated media, marketing and government edicts for the past decade.
"It's not necessarily a back-to-nature trend, but it's certainly a back-to-outdoors trend," says Jim Petru, brand manager of ProMark, a line of women's hunting gloves marketed by Wells Lamont.
Other observers point to holistic health theories, based on the idea that exercise and medical treatment must include both mind and body. People are seeking activities with the best payback for their limited leisure time, says Mr. Butterfield.
"The driven, hard-body approach to fitness does not have the same payoffs as gardening," he says. "There's less frustration and you get the sense of aesthetic renewal."
The trend toward lighter exercise may be something of a backlash as well. "Fitness has been promoted so strongly, you're seeing a reaction to it," says Mr. Doyle.
"People are having an internal fight" between their desire to obey the fitness message and the reality of fitting it into their lives, says Bruce Kelly, senior editor of Health. The magazine recently tackled the subject in a cover story that was headlined: "How much exercise do you really need?"
Government exercise recommendations, which gained a following in both the consumer media and in marketing, are changing.
The government's new recommendations "may be the clue that ... answers the question, `Can I just do it in my day-to-day life,"' Mr. Kelly says.
In the 1980s, government health-agency promotions drew a parallel between high-intensity fitness and health, but they didn't emphasize alternatives for people who couldn't live up to the ideal, says Kevin Patrick, senior adviser, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The high ideals promoted may have contributed to a well-documented increase in the numbers of sedentary Americans, he says.
"The public began to say, `I need to be Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mary Lou Retton to get any benefits,'*" Mr. Patrick says. "We need to make it clear that there is no threshold under which you don't get any benefits."
The government is fueling the new outlook on fitness. The President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports is promoting what it calls "exercise lite" or "gymless fitness," recommending 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily-including traditional leisure activities such as walking for pleasure, playing with children and gardening.
Boomers' increased attraction to moderate-intensity activity, combined with this official support of such routines, is a clue for marketers.
Some companies are beginning to meet that challenge with new advertising and brand identities.
Based on the success of its womens' work gloves, Wells Lamont this fall introduced women's hunting gloves after learning the number of women applying for hunting licenses has grown about 20% in the past three years, says Mr. Petru.
Easy Spirit has taken advantage of the growth in the walking-shoe category to change its advertising message, says Mr. Scott.
"In the '80s, fitness was about hard bodies and losing weight," he says. "In the '90s, it's about wellness and a healthy lifestyle."
Kathy Smith, a fitness personality and veteran of the exercise-video market, now has a yoga video. She says yoga is poised for a boom among mainstream Americans.
"As people age, they slow down and incorporate more practical routines into their lives," she says.
The "exercise lite" trend appears to be one that will continue as boomers re-create their lifestyles to fit new life stages.