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Why Can’t Fitness Magazines Cash In on the Wellness Craze?

Wellness is booming, but once-popular women's health mags are dying out.

Neghar Fonooni started lifting when she was 17, at a time when magazines like Women’s Health, Fitness, Self, and Shape were the go-to sources of information on women’s fitness. There were no bloggers, no social media, no online communities for fitness obsessives. "I used to cut the little workouts out of the magazine and take them with me to the gym," Fonooni says. "That was my exposure to what women’s fitness was."

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A little more than a decade and a half later, interest in health and wellness is at an all-time high. The Global Wellness Institute’s most recent economic report values wellness tourism as a $494 billion industry, up 12.7% from the previous year. In the Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal’s 2016 Yoga in America study, surveyors found that the number of Americans practicing yoga has increased by over 50% in the past four years.

And yet, fitness magazines — like the ones Fonooni clipped and toted to the gym — are falling left and right.

When Self, the first modern magazine to tackle women’s health, hit the scene in 1979, the focus wasn’t on rock hard abs or the 10 pound weight loss that will change your life. Founding editor Phyllis Star Wilson described Self’s reader to Connecticut-based newspaper The Day thusly: "I don’t mean she wants to be the vice president of AT&T," Wilson said at the time. "But she wants to move up, she wants to make money, to make her life comfortable." Likewise, Self’s managing editor at the time, Valerie Weaver, told The Day that "if readers want to read about celebrities, they buy People. If they want to read about tennis, they buy Tennis. If they want to read about themselves, they buy Self."

Image: ChinaFotoPress/Getty

In the years that followed, a parade of women’s fitness magazines would hit the newsstands: shortly after Self launched, Shape arrived, with an inaugural cover touting the promise of a reshaped body by Christmas with the help of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Time Inc. revived Health (known as In Health at the time) in the early ‘90s, the New York Times’s publishing company launched Fitness, Weider Publications launched Fit Pregnancy (a spin-off of Shape) in 1993 and Muscle & Fitness Hers in 1999, and Rodale would follow up with Women’s Health in 2005.

Today, with interest in fitness at an all time high, the future of these magazines looks less than robust. Fitness’s current publisher, Meredith, bought ShapeFit Pregnancy, and Natural Health at the beginning of 2015 and promptly shut down Fitness, folded its subscriber base into Shape, and moved all of Fitness’s content to, which still regularly updates. Natural Health and Fit Pregnancy were also closed down but Fit Pregnancy has since been merged with American Baby and is — sort of — back in print under the name Fit Pregnancy and BabySelf barely made it out alive after Conde Nast’s end-of-the-year purge last November, which resulted in huge masthead shifts at Allure, layoffs at GQ, and the decision to completely fold Details.

"I used to cut the little workouts out of the magazine and take them with me to the gym."

The problems that have plagued the fitness print industry are hardly topic-specific; magazines are slowly, painfully crumpling up everywhere. But 10 years ago, the magazines were thriving on the same formula that’s getting them in trouble now — selling to women by playing into their body insecurities.

The national interest in fitness has manifested in the rise of new types of wellness coverage, coming from the likes of Goop and Greatist and Well + Good — all of which have launched in the past five to eight years. In the summer of 2012, while Goop was highlighting Gwyneth’s most efficient packing methods and Well + Good was tracking the phenomenon of fitness monogamists in New York City, Women’s Health was investigating whether our allergies are making us fat, Shape was cooking up 20 chilled summer soups that keep the weight off, and Self was reporting, in the pages of its August 2012 issue, that if you could just lose 10 pounds, your sex life would (probably) get better, you would (probably) make more money, and you would (probably) be a smarter person.

Historically, Self’s covers didn’t push weight loss as loud and hard as its competitors; the magazine teased a lot of sex tips and ways to reduce stress alongside the promise of flat abs in five minutes, and its cover stars typically looked a little more fashion-forward. Shape’s covers were a parade of tightly toned abs and butts and promises that five minutes of exercise each day could get you those abs, too. Fitness skipped traditional celebrity covers in favor of bikini-clad fitness models interspersed with cover stars like Valerie Bertinelli after her 40 pound weight loss and The Biggest Loser competition winners.

Image: Fitness

"Covers are always such a challenge," says Argy Koutsothanasis, the former fashion director of Fitness who worked for the magazine from 2009 up until it folded last year. "We were very concerned with not booking anyone who was too thin or inappropriately cut-up. We were trying to appeal to the girl next door who works out. A real woman, who has a life, who tries to work out to stay fit and healthy."

Koutsothanasis noted that the team tried to vary the covers so they weren’t so bikini-heavy, but at the end of the day, the best-selling covers typically had abs and skin showing. "Workout clothes are not as sexy as a swimsuit," she says. "I think a cover has to have a certain amount of sex appeal. It doesn’t have to be sexy in the way that men’s magazines are, because women have their own idea about what sexy is. Sexy for me is healthy and attainable and someone who I could say, like, ‘Maybe I could be like that.’ It’s not Kate Upton on the cover of the swimsuit issue for Sports Illustrated because I’ll never be that."

By the measure of print audience reach, Shape’s approach was narrowly beating out the other magazines. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, in 2012, Shape was pulling in 1.63 million readers in total average circulation each month, Women’s Health fell just behind at 1.6 million, and Fitness and Self were neck and neck at 1.517 and 1.515 million, respectively.

As Self fell behind, there were more pivots. Mid-2012, under editor-in-chief Lucy Danziger, Self was paired up with Buyology, a consulting firm brought in by Conde Nast to reevaluate the magazine’s look and voice. "The objective was to deepen the relationship with Self’s audience but also expand the audience," Buyology founder Gary Singer explains of the time the company spent consulting with Conde Nast. The new audience that Self set its sights on was increasingly younger, and Self’s subsequent redesign in March 2013 reflected those characteristics.

Image: Self

The content in the new Self was pared down to snackable blurbs and listicles in the newly created "Flash" concept — less long "self expression" articles about women and their body image issues, and more short features like the "BS Meter," which came with the tagline: "Our judge-y guide to what’s legit and what’s lame this month."

"It didn’t feel like we were trying to figure out what the audience was, but we were pushing it to that audience," says one former Self staffer. "It was like we want to force this on this audience."

In any case, the rebrand didn’t last long. In April 2014, one week after Self made national headlines for mocking a cancer survivor in its "BS Meter" that month, Lucy Danziger was let go and Joyce Chang, the former executive editor of Cosmopolitan, was handpicked by Anna Wintour to make over the magazine. Wintour had been promoted to artistic director of Conde Nast in the prior year and announcements like Chang’s were becoming more commonplace: Wintour also orchestrated Eva Chen’s ill-fated Lucky makeover, brought in Pilar Guzman to revamp Conde Nast Traveler, and, more recently, handed Allure over to Michelle Lee.

Chang — and Wintour’s — influence over Self was rapid and wide-ranging. Within months, the magazine had completely shed the younger tone and look that it had just adopted in exchange for a sophisticated, fashion-forward rebrand. The cover stars of 2013 (Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell, Kesha) were discarded in favor of supermodels including Cameron Russell, Candice Swanepoel, Karlie Kloss, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Lily Aldridge. Inside, sections like the magazine’s Sex Edit were scrapped.

"It was like we want to force this on this audience."

While Self was trying to find itself, Meredith’s publishing company, which already owned Fitness, acquired Shape, Fit Pregnancy, and Natural Health at the beginning of 2015 and promptly shut down all of the magazines except for Shape. Fitness’s subscriber base was folded into Shape in order to, as Meredith put it, create a "category killer," while the Fitness brand would live on as a digital-only property. Similarly, is still in operation while Natural Health was killed completely. Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine also folded in early 2013.

The magazines weren’t necessarily doing poorly; Fitness’s subscriber base was steadily, if slowly, increasing, according to AAM, and Fit Pregnancy’s paid subscriber base was up by 264% by the end of 2014. But still, they were all wiped out.

"I think it has to do with the magazines and the right advertisers not being able to find each other," explains Andrea Bartz, the former deputy editor of Fit Pregnancy and Natural Health, and, before that, an editor for Whole Living. "Maybe the old white men who, generally, decide where print advertising dollars will go don't totally get these types of magazines?"

Koutsothanasis, the former Fitness editor, saw similar problems. "It’s not like there wasn’t enough room for all of us," she explains. "It’s just that there wasn’t enough advertising for everyone to exist there."

For the magazines that are left, topics like weight loss and workouts to slim down and tone up women’s bodies to fit a certain ideal are not as welcome as they once were, thanks to the democratization of the industry online. In response, many of the magazines are trying to position themselves as more body positive.

Many of the magazines are trying to position themselves as more body positive.

Women’s Health’s decision to drop "bikini body" and "drop two sizes" from covers "marks an evolution in the way women are thinking about health and fitness — that being healthy shouldn’t only, or even mostly, be judged based on size," Women’s Health editor-in-chief Amy Keller Laird explains over email.

Also, cover lines are generally crafted to sell magazines on the newsstand, and newsstand sales have been on an irreversible decline for years now, according data provided by AAM.

Laird also notes that the decision will affect the inside of the magazine as well. "That’s not to say we won’t have weight loss articles," she explains. "We still promote exercising, eating well, and generally taking care of yourself. What we don’t promote is trying to drop pounds in an unhealthy way just so you can fit in a certain-size bikini by June." It’s quite an editorial change: just six months ago, Women’s Health’s June 2015 cover promised a bikini body in two weeks.

When Chang took over at Self, she too stopped using weight loss as a cover tagline, and the "Drop 10" section of the magazine disappeared. "My mission since the minute I walked in the door here was to change the conversation around women and weight," Chang explains in an email. "We have never had a weight loss line since I've started. We focus on motivation, being active, trying new things, and being good to your body and yourself. My mother is a doctor and I was always aware growing up of her oath to do no harm — I think as editors we have a similar responsibility in our own way."

But again, even though the cover lines aren’t as critical, the magazine has routinely featured supermodels on its covers. "I think models and fitness don’t belong together," says the former Self staffer. "I think it’s a really bad conversation. If they’re all being healthy, that’s great, but it’s not representative of everyone and I don’t necessarily find it aspirational. It seems like a very slippery slope."

Compared to some of the other magazines, Shape hasn’t tweaked its outer message a whole lot in recent years. Last January’s Jada Pinkett Smith cover promised a plan for "flat abs, lean legs, firm butt!" inside its pages, and the exact same wording was used again on its January 2016 cover. (Other fitness magazines employ the same repetitive cover line structure as well.)

"It’s our mission to motivate women to live their healthiest and most active life possible," says Elizabeth Goodman Artis, Shape’s editor-in-chief, in an email. "We understand that we’re speaking to women of all shapes, sizes, and activity levels, and make it a point to be inclusive in our voice and content. But our goal is to help women achieve the best versions of themselves, so we provide inspirational content for living in the fit mindset, and encourage them to embrace getting stronger, healthier and more confident."

The direction that these magazines are now aiming for sounds like what the online fitness and wellness space was aiming for years ago when outlets like Well + Good and Greatist were just getting started.

"In our first year, Barry’s Bootcamp had just opened, Flywheel had just opened, and boutique fitness was incredibly new," says Alexia Brue, co-founder of Well + Good, a wellness lifestyle site that launched in 2010. "We felt that it was a beat in the same way that New York Magazine obsessively covers the latest restaurant openings or the latest plays on Broadway. We wanted to cover fitness and all of the healthy businesses in that way in New York."

Brue and her co-founder, Melisse Gelula, made a point from the beginning to not position Well + Good’s fitness coverage through the lens of weight loss. "Things like weight loss are a by-product but certainly not the goal," Brue explains. "It was nothing that we wanted to talk about because feeling great and feeling alive and feeling healthy — that’s exciting. It didn’t seem like a good way to do it, saying that we work out because we want to lose weight. We work out because places like SoulCycle made working out really fun. We grab some girlfriends and we do it after work and it’s how we spend time with friends. That’s what’s exciting."

Five years later, Well + Good has launched national coverage and city guides in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and Brue mentioned plans to relaunch the site with more of a national focus early this year. Similarly, Greatist, a healthy living site that launched in 2011 and operates under the tagline, "Real facts and doable steps for your happiest life," now boasts a staff of 20 people and a network of over 100 health and fitness experts in the field that weigh in on the site’s content.

"Probably five years ago when I launched Greatist, I would have said that change is coming and the way people are thinking about health is shifting," says Derek Flanzraich, Greatist’s founder and CEO. "Today, I would say that change is here. I don’t think it’s coming, I think it’s here."

"We work out because places like SoulCycle made working out really fun. That's what's exciting."

The story is similar across many fitness and wellness websites that have popped up within the last five to eight years — they were born out of a frustration with how the mainstream fitness media sold healthy living concepts to its readers. "No one at the time was over-the-top saying to women, ‘You are more than the number on the scale,’" says Jennipher Walters, a co-founder of Fit Bottomed Girls. "We wanted to be that voice and we wanted to make being healthy and being fit not something that was born out of a need to change or that it has to be terrible and full of deprivation and you have to diet. Basically, it was like, you can’t hate yourself healthy."

Now, that same message that provided the founding of Fit Bottomed Girls is no longer the exception to the norm. "When I say that kind of stuff now, everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what everybody says,’" Walters explains. "Which is awesome! We didn’t start the movement by any means, but we were a part of it and — not to say that everything’s perfect and everything’s great — but there are so many places for positive body image advice and support and health. It’s very commonplace and it’s really cool to see and to know that you were a small part of that."

"Basically, it was like, you can’t hate yourself healthy."

Michele Promaulayko made the switch from running a print magazine, Women’s Health, to editing Yahoo Health in August 2014, and while it’s clear that Yahoo Health readers still want to read about losing weight, Promaulayko says that they try to avoid using the word ‘skinny’ when covering the topic and often highlight reader-submitted weight loss stories. "The body-positivity movement is only going to grow stronger — and for good reason," Promaulayko notes in an email. "The message is about working out and eating well to feel energetic and vibrant, not just to fit into a certain jeans size."

When I mention Women’s Health’s decision to drop certain phrases from its cover lines during my conversation with Well + Good’s founders, Gelula notes that she felt proud when that news broke. "I feel like we had something to do with that," she says. "I think there was a tonal shift when we entered the space. I think there’s a lot more voices in this space now besides Shape and Fitness and Women’s Health and I think that they are having to steer in the direction of them."

"We joke internally that no one wants to watch their weight anymore, they want to live their life," says Flanzraich. "But that approach is where a lot of things must head because if they don’t, I think they’re going to be in some trouble."

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