Where do They all Come From? Youth, Fitness Gyms, Sport Clubs and Social Inequality | A Summary

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Mads Skauge1 & Ørnulf Seippel2
1 Faculty of Social Sciences, Nord University;
2 Department of Sport and Social Sciences, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


Two trends characterize physical activity in Western societies. Commercial fitness gym exercise is increasingly popular, and forces of social inequality have gradually become more pressing, also in club-organized sports. In this study, we investigate how these trends—the expansion of fitness exercise and the influence of social inequality in club sports—impact physical activity patterns among young Norwegians.

We ask two sets of questions. First, we study the prevalence of physical activity among young people in three exercise organizational contexts: fitness gyms, club sports and self-organized exercise. We also address the issue of social inequality in physical exercise and investigate how such exercise patterns depend on athletes’ age, gender and socioeconomic status. Second, we examine the interplay between the two trends: How does social background influence the transition from sports to fitness? The data for our study, The Norwegian Youth Survey, are obtained from a representative cross-sectional survey among Norwegian youth in secondary schools and high schools, 13-19 years.

So, the exercise levels in fitness gyms are increasing, but little is known about the fitness participants in terms of social inequality and the link to sports: who they are and where they come from. Our results reveal that the proportion of fitness exercisers has more than tripled in the 13- to 19-year span. The mirror image is found in organized sports. 7% have never participated in club sports. To put this into perspective, it implies that in an average secondary school and high school class with 30 students, only 2 students have never participated in youth sports.

Furthermore, our findings show that most youths who participate in fitness do so at a low level, while sport participants exercise more often. More boys than girls are engaged in sports, and more girls participate in fitness. The socioeconomic differences in the participation levels are much greater in sports than in fitness. Fitness participation, which demands a certain ability to pay, is even less classed than self-organized exercise, which is potentially free, implying that fitness is not much limited by family resources. The costs of fitness are probably more predictable than in organized sports because there are no extra costs, while the professionalization of youth sports with paid coaches, expensive facilities and private academies, have challenged the inclusiveness of sport.

One of the topics at the heart of the political debate about youth sports, also in the Norwegian context, is whether sport participation in childhood and adolescence leads to physical activity and healthy lifestyles later in life. A clear pattern is revealed in our results. The longer, more long-lasting, the sport participation/career before dropout, the greater the likelihood of present fitness and self-organized exercise. Those most likely to engage in fitness are those who recently dropped out of sports, followed by those who still participate in clubs and those who quit sports in primary school. Those who have never participated in associated sports are the ones least likely to engage in fitness.

It is the recent ending of sport participation that best predicts present fitness and self-organized exercise. Taking the Bourdieusian perspective, we suggest that this trajectory transition effect of youth going from clubs to gyms may be caused by what we refer to as fitness habitus. We think that sport participation brings some cultural resources/capitals that make fitness more easily accessible and attractive, and in the end, more likely. These types of capital accumulated from sports become more numerous and more embodied/internalized the more persistent/consistent the sport participation becomes.

Continued sport participation, at least participation for a certain period/some consecutive years, influences a person’s culturally inherited and embodied exercise values, preferences, tastes, motives, ways of thinking of and relating to the body, included in the habitus: the embodiment of knowledges such as taking care of and maintaining one’s body and health. We think that sport participation helps underpin young people’s propensities for regular exercise and healthy lifestyles. In other words, sport participation influences the fitness habitus, that is the quest for fitness exercise and physical health in general, through years of being exposed to sport socialization. Over time, this socialization will become an integrated and natural part of the habitus: a person’s mental scheme, and ways of thinking and acting.

Hence, we believe that sports socialize to fitness because sport participation over a certain period helps form the fitness habitus. If sport participation brings such an effect, it would favor the role of organized youth sports working as intended by sport policymakers, at least from a short-term perspective.

Copyright © Mads Skauge & Ørnulf Seippel 2021

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