The annual SFIA Topline Participation Report found more Americans embracing healthy lifestyles in 2018, including notable gains in participation in a number of outdoor and fitness activities. But the study found tackle football participation taking another hit and overall gains being driven by casual rather than core participants.

The report generally found more positives than negatives.

Overall activity continued its steady climb, gaining 1.6 million participants from 2017. Since 2013, 1.1 million participants, on average, either started or returned to some type of physical activity. While the participation rate appeared flat, this was  due to the increase in the overall population year after year. Wrote SFIA in the report, “This trend remained hopeful, showing fitness was again being integrated back into the fabric of the daily lives of Americans.”

Also on an encouraging note, the study showed most activity categories increasing in participation, underscoring overall interest in healthy lifestyles.

On the downside, driving the activity growth were “casual” rather than “core” participants. “Core” are more regular participants and are a better signal of individuals committed to a sport or fitness activity.

Since 2013, for instance, casual participation (once-to-twice a week) in high-calorie activities has increased 3.4 percent on average. The growth is encouraging but once or twice a week participation falls short of national guidelines for physical activity recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise.

Said Tom Cove, president and CEO of SFIA, in a statement, “Long-term, we need to see these numbers transition from casual to core participants, in order for sustained industry growth to take hold.”

Overall inactivity rates were unchanged, at a stagnant 27.3 percent, and the report found youth inactivity rates (ages 6-12 and 13-17) continued to decline moderately for the fourth consecutive year.

Lower household incomes further continue to be associated with lower physical activity rates. Nearly half of American households making under $25,000 per year reported being totally inactive last year. The cost of fitness boutiques, personal trainers, race entrance fees and equipment in some cases remains a barrier to staying active. Those growing up in lower economic areas are also often less exposed to the benefits of healthier lifestyles.

Said Cove, “Our society cannot allow sports and physical activity to be available only to those with the most means to pay for it.”

In team sports, tackle football participation was down 1.3 percent overall with a 5.8 percent drop in core participation (26+ times a year). In the key playing age group of 6 to 17, core participation was down 3.0 percent and is now off 1.9 percent on average over the last five years.

Basketball and baseball, the two sports with the largest total participation base, showed gains, although it’s being again driven by casual rather than core participants. Niche sports, such as lacrosse, ice hockey, beach volleyball and gymnastics, experienced increases at the core level but decreases in casual/overall participation.

As expected, Gen Z, in their school  years, dominated team sports participation as over half of this generation participated in a team sport during 2018. However, the report found that Gen Z team sport participation declined over the last six years, losing 0.2 percent on average annually.

On the positive side, Gen Z participation in fitness sports has gained 5.2 percent since 2013. While this activity category was dominated by Gen X six years ago (65.5 percent participation rate), Millennials and Gen Z begun to move to the forefront. In 2018, well over 60 percent of Millennials and 50 percent of Gen Z participated in fitness activities.

Among fitness activities overall, nearly every equipment-based category experienced growth, including treadmill, elliptical, stationary cycling, rowing machine and kettlebells.

The growth in high impact/intensity training (HIIT) continued to find some appeal as it delivers a beneficial workout in less time (30 minutes or less for a workout). But growth slowed somewhat in 2018 as HIIT activities saw a modest increase, acquiring 135,000 participants.

Outdoor participation remained strong, reflecting America’s interest in an “active lifestyle” and sharing time with family. Activities such as biking, camping and hiking reported strong gains. Day hiking increased 6.6 percent; that’s a year-over year gain of roughly 3.0 million Americans ages 6 and over. Hiking was followed by trail running, another outdoor high-calorie burning activity.

Overall, 60 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 6 participated in an outdoor activity. When split by generation, over half of Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X participated in the outdoors.

While the overall participation rate for outdoor activities showed a modest decrease of 0.7 percent over the last year, this loss can be attributed to the slowing interest in hunting activities and weather dependent water sports. Indeed, weather impacted some sport participation in 2018. Overall, winter sports had the biggest decline at 2.8 percent. Other sports, however, like surfing, stand-up paddling, and trail running thrived.

Tennis showed a modest increase of 0.9 percent, implying many participants moved to courts inside, which is also reflected in cardio tennis numbers. A high impact activity, cardio tennis increased 12.4 percent from 2017: a gain of 5 million participants.

Other findings:

  • Outdoor activities aspirational: When it came to what Americans were interested in doing, many reported interests in outdoor activities such as camping, biking, and fishing. For the first time, stand-up paddling drew top interest; ranking the top activity for 25 to 44 age groups. Soccer was the top interest for the 6 to 12 age group and interest in the sport has increased each year since 2013. Older Americans, aged 45 to 54, ranked camping as their top interest for the last four years, possibly due to many purchasing RVs. In the key early Millennial age group (18-24), the top-five activities they were interested in doing were: camping, martial arts, backpacking, snowboarding and climbing.
  • Gym class attendance lessens in teens: The majority of kids ages 6 to 12,, 95.5 percent, reported participating in PE at least once a week in 2018, but weekly participation by teens (ages 13 to 17) was only 80.8 percent. The drop was significant in later years. At the age of 14, for instance, 90.2 percent attended PE an average of 3.7 plays a week. At age 17, 62.1 percent attended PE an average of 2.2 days per week.
  • Gym class benefits for youth: Those currently participating in PE were more likely to be involved in a high calorie activity, compared to youths who were not attending PE. Around a third of children aged 6 to 12 and 13 to 17, who are not in PE, were inactive.
  • Gym class benefits for life: The study continued to confirm the link between attending PE and staying active in adulthood. Those who enjoyed PE classes in their youth were more likely to be active in a high calorie activity. Almost 50 percent of adults who did not have PE reported no activity for 2018.

The annual SFIA Topline Participation Report tracks 120 activities and is based on  a total of 20,069 online interviews.

Image courtesy Pop Warner