Last year, we produced a detailed study of fast food outlet concentration in the UK’s major towns and cities.

The aim was to determine in which areas consumers might be more exposed to fast food brands; and potentially be more tempted to opt for less healthy dining options when out shopping on the high street, or on a lunch break from work.

Many of the menu items available from fast food outlets tend, as we all know, to be calorie-dense and high in sugar and salt. These qualities, again as we all know, are conducive to a range of diet-related illnesses, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type-2 diabetes.

However there is much more to a healthy lifestyle than limiting the consumption of certain foods. Making positive choices is important too; and maintaining a varied and balanced diet which includes a range of food groups is one major aspect of this.

The other? Staying active.

So, whereas last year, we focussed on those towns and cities where it might be easier or more difficult to avoid unhealthy temptation, this year we thought we’d explore the other side of the coin; and attempt to determine where in the UK the facilities to get active and keep fit are most readily available.

As with the fast food study, we wanted to explore whether there were any discernible trends across the larger cities and more regional areas; and where, if anywhere, fitness amenities are more readily accessible.

Exercise: How Much Should We Be Doing?

One of the great misconceptions of physical activity concerns the amount of time which needs to be invested in it for it to make a difference.

The NHS maintains that just two and a half hours a week of moderate physical activity (such as cycling or fast walking), or one and a quarter hours a week of ‘vigorous’ physical activity (such as jogging, running, swimming or aerobics) is a good level of cardiovascular exercise for most adults.

These can of course be broken up into smaller chunks over a number of days, and the NHS recommends them in addition to undertaking strength exercises on two or more days a week.

Accessibility: The Fitness Boom

The landscape of the fitness industry in the UK has changed drastically over the last two decades.

Prior to the late 1990s, private gym memberships were generally much more expensive, and less accessible to those on lower incomes. The emergence of budget gyms has completely altered this; monthly subscriptions are now available for as little as £15 per month in some cases.

Government and public spending on sports amenities has also become much more significant over this period. The number of sports and leisure centres in the majority of UK cities is now in double figures.

Consequently, fitness and sports amenities (whether privately or publicly owned) are now perhaps more available to us than they have ever been before.

The Study

To discover our fitness capital, we took a number of factors into account.

The Big Seven

  • First of all, we assessed the presence of what we determined to be the ‘Big Seven’ gym chains in the top 20 most populous urban areas in the UK.
  • We based our selection of these chains on a combination of indicators, including membership numbers, nationwide presence, and number of branches.

Sports and leisure centres

  • We also wanted to analyse the number of publicly-run amenities in each of these urban areas. So, we scoured council information for each borough in each of these cities, to determine the number of leisure centres, sports centres and swimming pools for our cities per capita.
  • We wanted our publicly-run facilities data to reflect the number of fitness amenities with wide-ranging appeal, so we excluded certain types of amenities which we determined to have a narrower user demographic. Consequently we did not include athletics tracks, tennis centres and golf clubs.
  • The figure given in the ‘Swimming pools’ column is for standalone swimming pools or dedicated aquatic centres. In many cases, a swimming pool will be attached to one or more of the leisure centres already indicated in the ‘Sport and leisure centres’ column.

Independent and smaller regional franchises

Finally, we also wanted to gauge the presence of smaller fitness franchises and independent gyms in each of our urban areas.

  • We identified the PayasUgym website as the most comprehensive directory available of fitness centres which fall into this category. PayasUgym is a service which thousands of independent gyms and smaller franchises up and down the country participate in, granting users access to a variety of facilities on a subscription or pay-as-you-go basis.
  • We accept that the list isn’t a comprehensive directory, but we think it does at least provide some indication of the gyms and pools situated in each area.
  • The measurements for this final table are different to the previous two, in that a means to count the number of participating centres within an urban area boundary was not applicable. Instead, results are given for the number of branches within a 20-mile radius of the specified search term.

The Results

[click to enlarge]

TREATED - Gym Concentrations Mar 16 Proof1

  • In terms of Big Seven concentration per capita, Edinburgh tops the list. However the city isn’t quite as overflowing with gyms as the table suggests. Despite being Scotland’s capital, the population of the Edinburgh ‘urban area’ is comparatively small next to that of Glasgow (almost three times larger).
  • Greater London unsurprisingly places high in second. With a significant proportion of busy professionals with greater disposable incomes, the market for private gym memberships is a competitive one.
  • We would speculate that these gyms will also cater to those workers who live in the suburbs surrounding London but commute into the city on a daily basis; meaning that they service a population which reaches beyond greater London boundaries.
  • Bristol ranks well with 10 gyms, spanning all seven brands, servicing its 600,000 strong population.
  • The Big Seven have yet to establish a significant presence in Liverpool, Stoke and Coventry, who make up the bottom three on this table.

TREATED - Gym Concentrations Mar 16 Proof2

  • Liverpool tops the list with 37 facilities run by or in partnership with the local council, servicing its population of 864,122.
  • This could account for the smaller presence of the Big Seven in this city. Because there are so many public fitness facilities available, the demand for private fitness centres may not be as large.
  • Cardiff posts respectable figures with 18 sports and leisure centres accessible in the city for its population of 447,287, as does Teesside (15 servicing 376,633).
  • Publicly-run fitness centres are in comparatively short supply in the city of Leicester, Stoke, and Bristol.
  • In Bristol (as in Greater London which ranks fourth lowest for council-run facilities per capita in our table) the gap is filled by the Big Seven as seen in the table above.
  • However this isn’t the case in Stoke. The city has two-and-a-half times fewer sports and leisure centres per capita than high flying Liverpool, but this shortfall hasn’t been made up by the Big Seven; Stoke ranks second lowest for major gym chains and second lowest for sports and leisure centres per capita.

TREATED - Gym Concentrations Mar 16 Proof3 (1)

  • Seemingly, the search term ‘Sheffield’ overwhelmingly comes out on top per capita, with 217 registered entries in a 20 mile radius. Measuring this figure against the population of the Sheffield urban area, this gives a reading of over 31 gyms per 100,000 people.
  • However (and this is a big however), within this 20 mile radius are other towns such as Doncaster, Barnsley and Chesterfield, which are not accounted for in the urban area population we’ve previously specified.
  • Unsurprisingly once again, the search term ‘London’ brings up the highest number of registered independent and smaller franchise gyms within a 20 miles radius.
  • Figures for ‘Manchester’, ‘Southampton’ and ‘Bristol’ also stand out, with 137, 123 and 89 respectively, indicating that smaller gym franchises have established a presence in these areas.
  • We’ve chosen to discount the result for ‘Bournemouth’ as we don’t believe the number of gyms registered to this service the search term generates gives an indication of the actual number of gyms in the area.
  • It should be noted that some organisations run in partnership with metropolitan borough councils, such as Better Gym, also participate in the PayasUgym service and are therefore included in search results.

The Fitness Capital

Urban areaPopulationA) Big 7 GymsB) Pools, Sports and Leisure CentresC) Centres listed on PayasUgym in 20-mile radiusTotal facilities (A + B + C)Total facilities per 100,000
South Hampshire855569112512315918.584
Greater Manchester255337926911372549.948
West Yorkshire17779341854761488.324
Greater London97874261801844398038.204
West Midlands24409863246791576.432
  • According to the table above combining all three measures, Sheffield is the runaway fitness capital of the UK.
  • However, this victory comes with a significant asterisk next to it. The higher number of gyms attributed to Sheffield in our independents table considerably increases (and for reasons already explained, likely somewhat exaggerates) the total amenities figure; meaning Edinburgh, in second place, can feel justifiably aggrieved at having not placed first.
  • We suspect that the independents table has likely reflected unfairly on Bournemouth, and dragged their score down for reasons explained above. So while Sheffield's win comes with a disclaimer, so does Bournemouth's position at the foot of the table.

Identifying trends

Perhaps the most unsurprising correlation is that between the number of council-run facilities and the Big Seven. The fewer leisure centres and pools there are in most urban areas, the more chain gyms, and vice versa. So much so, that the Big Seven league table loosely reads like the sports and leisure centres league table in reverse, with a handful of exceptions.

Does this suggest that the private and public sector, whether consciously or not, are to an extent working cohesively to provide a range of facilities to residents? We think it does.

Could councils in some areas provide more fitness amenities to residents? Perhaps. But just how much responsibility councils and local government should bear for the fitness of taxpayers is the subject of continuous debate.

The positive trend we’ve identified is that where a gap exists in public services, private companies are to a point stepping in and offering fitness solutions at competitive prices.

Budget gym chains are growing and responding to demand, and this is great news for consumers. Amenities have never been so available, or so affordable. Hopefully, this is a trend which will continue for years to come. And with health and fitness becoming an ever more prominent fixture in social discourse, we can’t imagine why it won’t.