Research Corner: How Has Fitness Changed in the Past Twenty Years?

In a rare turn for this website, today’s post focuses on a 2023 reseach article which recently crossed my path. Published by Tor Söderström, the article focuses on twenty years of interviews with gym-goers at a Swedish gym and, in doing so, highlights the changes in both exercisee’s motivations, as well as their training patterns.

Given that I, myself, am coming up to my own twenty-year training anniversary, this article hit a chord with me. In the past twenty years I’ve…

  • Stopped playing sports, done two natural bodybuilding shows, and now focus on strength/longevity
  • Went from taking all of the supplements to being sparing with them
  • Gone on incredibly restricted diets to eating (relatively) intuitively
  • Utilised movements that work for me, as opposed to doing what ‘I should do’ – Think trap deadlifts over barbell deadlifts etc.
  • Shifted my time in the gym from hours of training (largely spent doing nothing) to utilizing shorter, but more intense sessions
  • Gone from reading every muscle magazine to being suspicious and cynical about every new development in the industry
  • Met Ronnie Coleman. Admittedly this has nothing to do with anything but it happened during the summer and I forgot to brag about it.
  • Most importantly, discovered Dan John, whose sensible approaches and advice have largely made me a more pragmatic lifter.

Anecdotally, I’ve changed. But so too, has the industry. When I came to fitness in the early 2000s we had a rudimentary internet culture, magazines were king and, though it pains me to say it, the Mr. Olympia was still a relevant thing for the average gym goer. This was relatively advanced given the preceding decades wherein fitness communities relied on magazines, occasional books, pamphlets, and workout videos. We had forums and training DVDs.

That now looks like the Stone Age compared to the present day. While some things never change, or they reappear (such as Mike Mentzer’s resurgence) some things have changed irrevocably. Though focused on Sweden, Söderström’s article seems a nice place to look for an insight into this change.

One Important Distinction

Söderström‘s article stemmed from surveys given at the same gym over a twenty-year period (1995, 2005, and 2015) so it isn’t entirely up to date. Likewise, the same participants were not used for each survey, and indeed Söderström notes that the original 1995 was studying something different about gym cultures, and was retro-fitted into the present study. Finally, different years had differing numbers of participants. So like all academic work, Söderström highlighted these issues within the paper to avoid any confusion.

How Gyms Changed

Despite being in the same physical location throughout this period, the gym itself underwent multiple changes during this period. Accordingly, the paper found that

The number of gym-goers at the gym has increased over the years. Between 1995 and 2015, the gym was rebuilt and expanded several times, including the regular addition of new equipment. At each expansion, more room was devoted to machines, treadmills, cycles, climbers, rowers, as well as weights (e.g. dumbbells). In addition, areas for functional movement training and CrossFit-style training have expanded over the years (this type of training did not exist in 1995…)

For readers, I’d love to know how this matches your own gym experience. I’ve found assault bikes and TRX/CrossFit rigs to be the most notable addition to most gyms in Ireland but, admittedly, I now train in a home gym. So for me, my home gym has evolved from barbells and dumbbells to barbells, dumbbells, Indian clubs, heavy clubs, sandbags, prowlers and rucking backpacks. I may have fallen too far down the training as conditioning abbit hole at some point.

How Demographics Changed

While the demographics of the study were weighted towards men (2/3 of all participants were men), the survey still noted a rising number of women engaging in weight training by 2015. Both men and women who attended the gym were likely to have played childhood sports and, interestingly, more men then women relied solely on the gym as their only outlet. While the author did note elsewhere in the paper how training patterns have changed over time, it is worth expanding somewhat on this pathway.

Over the period covered by the study, CrossFit and powerlifting became common entry points for women into strength training. While CrossFit was the trojan/equitable horse who brought women to the gym, many more branched out into Olympic Weightlifting and powerlifting in particular. This was also the same period that bodybuilding split into far more open divisions for women, thereby offering more options to lifters. Importantly there is both anecdotal, and peer-reviewed, evidence that CrossFit, in particular, helped break down barriers for more women, and also men,  in coming to the gym.

How Training Patterns Changed

Something that really caught my eye was the article’s focus on how body parts have changed over time for both men and women. Noticeably for both groups, arm training has decreased and leg training has increased. I would love to have seen more information about the how and why of this pattern. I suspect this stems from the above importance things like CrossFit and powerlifting.

Given the timeline ends in 2015, I wonder also if ‘functional training‘ also played a part in this change. If readers remember, this was the idea that training could be done for ‘functional’ purposes – i.e. not just building muscle for vanity but actually for purpose. This was a time when squatting and deadlifting, even in the form of ‘don’t skip leg day’ became a thing.

Women’s Training Patterns

Graphs 1

Men’s Training Patterns

Graph 2

How Motives Changed

Söderström‘s research listed ten of the most common motives among gym goers and how they have shifted over time. In no particular order that list included

  1. Improved Strength
  2. Improved Health
  3. Fit (well-trained)
  4. Build Muscles
  5. It’s Fun
  6. Firmer Shapes
  7. Improved Endurance
  8. Look Attractive
  9. It’s Indoors
  10. Meet Others

Some interesting observations included that

In 2015, women valued strength, health, fun, firmer shapes, and endurance as more important than men valued these motives, but men and women valued the other motives equally.

And that

Overall, there has been a change in how motives are valued over the years. ‘It’s fun’ and ‘improving endurance’ have become highly important motives, especially for women, whereas ‘to build muscles’ and ‘to get firmer shapes’ has decreased in importance for both men and women.

Summing Up

As is perhaps clear, I really enjoyed this article – which can be found here. Fitness has undergone such a rapid evolution in the past ten to twenty years that is is fantastic to see this change being chronicled in real time. Some key takeaways for me are

  • The fluid nature of the industry
  • The relatively fixed motivations for involvement
  • The need for more opportunities as opportunities open engagement
  • The fluid nature of muscles. Or, put another way, how we privilege different body parts in different eras.

This was obviously a departure from the typical histories we house here but I very much see this as a snapshot in time or a history being captured in the moment piece. Let me know below how Söderström’s work matches with your own gym experiences over the past twenty (or less) years.

As always… Happy Lifting


Söderström, Tor. “A 20-year analysis of motives and training patterns of Swedish gym-goers.” Annals of Leisure Research 26, no. 4 (2023): 521-544.


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