Why wellness pays off

The benefits in the Asics study tie into the awareness of emotional wellness, which is increasingly becoming part of the health dialogue, the writer says. Picture Leon Lestrade.

The benefits in the Asics study tie into the awareness of emotional wellness, which is increasingly becoming part of the health dialogue, the writer says. Picture Leon Lestrade.

Published Feb 12, 2023


By Jessica Spira

Over the last two decades or so, the concept of “wellbeing” has gone from a niche concern to a mainstream preoccupation – and for good reason.

The far-reaching benefits that improvements in physical health have on other aspects of our lives are becoming increasingly clear.

This concrete proof not only validates the emphasis people place on these pursuits, it also points to the next evolution in this world – one where exercise isn’t just an activity on its own, but part of an interconnected ecosystem that holistically improves quality of life.

In this piece I will be highlighting results from some of the latest studies around health and wellbeing, as well as a few key challenges that people face in this space.

Lastly, I’ll also share what this means for us as Virgin Active South Africa, especially bearing our local context in mind.

As a Wellness brand, this is our world – and we want to make sure we’re poised to play a meaningful part in what is to come.

Healthy Bodies. Healthy Minds.

Let’s start with the positive impact, because the list of benefits of physical activity is continually growing. In one study conducted by Asics, cognitive function was boosted by 10% on average when participants performed 150 minutes of weekly exercise (mixing strength training and cardio).

That makes it as significant an intervention on mental performance as learning a language, reading or playing an instrument.

It isn’t just the ability to process information that improves either.

Participants in the same study also reported a 43% drop in feelings of anxiety and 44% increase in confidence as a result of the increased activity.

The benefits in the Asics study tie into the awareness of emotional wellness, which is increasingly becoming part of the health dialogue.

The growing incidence of anxiety post-Covid has highlighted discussions around mood and resilience, and physical activity can play a meaningful a role here.

A separate study reinforced the Asics findings, tracking the link between mood and exercise. It found that small increases in everyday movement resulted in an improved feeling of wellbeing in participants overall, and an increase from 5,000 to 10,000 steps a day significantly reduced symptoms of depression in women.

One last study to note, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, further highlights the halo benefits of exercise. This time, however, the difference was tracked minute by minute, showing not only the positive impact of an active lifestyle, but also the negative influence inactivity has too. Working off participants’ everyday baseline, the researchers saw cognitive skills decline by between 1% and 2% with every eight minutes of vigorous physical activity replaced with sedentary behaviour. Conversely, scores increased by 1.3% for every nine minutes of sedentary activities switched for exercise.

Why Focus on Wellness?

These findings are important for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that mental conditioning when you’re younger can stave off cognitive issues as you age. And as we’re living longer, this is only becoming more necessary.

But we’re not just enjoying extended lifespans. We’re also working for a greater portion of them. Plus, many of us operate in a knowledge economy, which means that cognitive performance is vital throughout our professional lives.

So, investing time and energy in active pursuits isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ for balance as something separate to work – it can directly impact our ability to succeed in our careers and maintain a competitive edge.

Zooming out from the individual, the benefits add up on a macro scale too. Unsurprisingly, one of the main metrics that has been used to underline the importance of wellbeing is its return on investment.

According to a recent study by Global Wellness Institute, Defining Wellness Policy, November 2022, some clear trends emerge when spending on wellbeing in a community is prioritised.

The research found that, for every $844 increase in wellness economy per capita, the average happiness level increases by nearly 7%. And longevity is impacted too, with an increase of $769 in wellness economy per capita being associated with an additional 1.26 years in life expectancy.

In the same report, the authors also point to a fundamental ideological shift in the wellness space. The industry has evolved from a “consumer movement” to a “policy imperative”. Simply put, that means it is no longer just a market to tap, but a crucial filter for decision-making, whether by government, institutions or business. The challenge that emerges then is where to start unpacking the concept.

Although the benefits are clear, as something so multi-faceted, the path to realising them is a little more circuitous.

What’s in the Way?

For those that can afford to invest in their wellness, a key challenge is the lack of a single touchpoint.

The broader social trend towards disintermediation means that while people each want to self-direct their journey, they’re still looking for somewhere to consolidate all the different activities connected to it.

In the old model of health and wellness being curative rather than preventative, your General Practitioner fulfilled this function, getting to know you over time and holding the important information about your medical history.

Now, as wellness has become demedicalised and multifaceted, a gap has emerged. Related to this decentralisation, we are also facing an “infodemic”. People struggle to find credible advice, and knowing who to trust in this space can be tricky.

The stakes can be high, and individuals are seeking certainty before they dedicate time and money to a wellness regime.

In the South African context, we also have to bear in mind that for many, investment in health and wellness is necessarily more of a luxury spend. Even though weaving exercise into life is aspirational, it may simply not be affordable.

So we have the added complexity around accessibility in our market.

Making the benefits of exercise available to all South Africans is something we have to work towards both as a wellness industry broadly, and a brand ourselves.

Making Gyms Matter

So where does that leave Virgin Active? What imperatives do we set for ourselves with all of this in mind?

Firstly, we want to move away from the periphery of people’s lives and into their heart. We already know that many of our members see our clubs as not just places to work out, but spaces to connect with friends and community too.

We offer a range of classes and facilities which cater for a variety of people all in one place and for one membership. As a leading brand in this space, we’re also well-positioned to be that centre point for an individual’s wellness activities and place to go for trusted advice.

Our holistic positioning also includes considerations around a healthy diet. Optimising this aspect of our lives is just as important as exercise – the two go hand in hand one’s wellness journey. We acquired Real Foods (the company behind Kauai and Nü) in 2022, thereby strategically expanding our credibility across the wellbeing spectrum. This broadened offering not only allows us to serve our customers more comprehensively, it also means we can ultimately make use of data to personalise both our nutrition and physical wellness offerings for members going forward.

From an operational point of view, we’re tackling the issue of accessibility alongside this centralisation.

As we refine our club strategy, we’re making active living more possible for people wherever they are: in the country, in their budget and in their wellness journey.

This includes a significant investment in digital touchpoints – taking our ecosystem way beyond our walls. We continually find ways to make useful information available to all South Africans, not just members, sharing online workouts, tips and advice on our social channels.

From the Virgin Active point of view, it’s a truly exciting time to be in the wellness space. We are consciously developing our brand and product set to meet our members’ needs in keeping with international wellness trends. Our imperative is to capitalise on this momentum – for the good of our individual members, certainly, but also for the impact we can have on South Africa as a whole.

Jessica Spira is the Managing Director of Virgin Active.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.