The athletic apparel industry: Fitness or fashion?


Not that long ago going to the gym meant throwing on an old, sweat-stained t-shirt with a worn high school logo, a pair of frayed gym shorts and a $30 pair of Costco running shoes that were kicked under the bed after the last run.

Working out at the gym these days has changed from a time to break a sweat to a time to impress. With new brands, styles and colors of workout clothes and gear being added every year, the branded exercise apparel industry has been bulking up, with sales pressing a staggering $100 billion internationally and nearly $30 billion in the U.S. alone, according to

This is good news for big brands like Nike, Reebok and Adidas, but what does it mean for the average exercise fan who might be seeing his pocketbook get skinnier faster than his waistline?

The importance placed on exercise apparel by the fashion industry is changing the way people look at physical fitness. Athletes and personal trainers find there are several reasons why the expensive name brands may be worth the high-price compared to the cheaper look-alikes.

Sophomore Eric Tran, business management, works out in name brand clothes because of their higher quality.
Sophomore Eric Tran, business management, works out in name brand clothes because of their higher quality. (Photo by Kristina Smith)

Some athletes find putting down a little extra money for nicer gear and apparel can provide motivation and commitment to working out. The psychology of wearing expensive clothes can play a role in helping athletes make the most of their training.

Gold’s Gym personal trainer Cecily Zimbelman, 23, from South Jordan, said for most people making a big purchase on expensive gym apparel, is a motivator.

“People who spend a little extra money on their gym clothes generally spend a little more time in the gym,” Zimbelman said. “Even if they’re spending the money first. It’s an investment.”

Another Gold’s Gym personal trainer Katie Huish, 19, from Mission Viejo, Calif., said good workout clothes help gym members get into the right mindset for working out. Huish sees the expensive, more attractive apparel as motivation to perform well while exercising.

“If I look at myself before I go to the gym, I’m like, ‘OK, I feel good. I look good,’” Huish said. “And when I go to the gym I’m going to kill it.”

BYU student and basketball player Austin Carter, 21, from Melbourne, Fla., also found that purchasing a pair of Adidas basketball shoes encouraged him to meet his goal of hitting the courts and playing ball more often.

“Recently I wanted to play more basketball,” Carter said. “But I didn’t have any basketball shoes so I bought a pair of Adidas shoes so that I would play more basketball.”

While some weekend warriors find that making an expensive purchase pushes them to work out, marathon runner Chelsea McBride, 19, from Fort Collins, Colo., said high quality running shoes are critical when putting in a lot of miles.

“For clothing, brands don’t really matter that much,” McBride said. “The only time that I would say that it matters is when you’re doing long distance running. I ran a marathon this summer and I had to get special shoes, otherwise I had knee problems. It just depends on the intensity of your workout.”

Senior Nate Jones, PD bio, works out in name brand clothes because he likes how they look and feel.
Senior Nate Jones, PD bio, works out in name brand clothes because he likes how they look and feel. (Photo by Kristina Smith)

Zimbelman said the more expensive brands such as Nike, Lulu Lemon, Under Armour and Adidas have a superior quality and last longer than the cheaper brands, making them worth the price.

“It’s worth it to spend a little extra money because then you have your clothes longer and don’t have to keep replacing them,” Zimbelman said.

Carter said he usually purchases Nike shoes because of their quality and has never regretted it. His Nike shoes always seem to last longer than other athletic shoes.

“They are pretty durable compared to other shoes that I’ve had,” Carter said. “The other shoes wear out pretty quick. I trust Nike.”

Once you go Nike, Adidas, or Reebok, can you ever go back? Athletes may also find themselves continuing to buy more expensive brands because they feel a loyalty to the brand they have worn and trust.

Huish, who is on the cheerleading squad in addition to working as a personal trainer at the gym, has been sponsored by Nike and has grown to develop a love and a loyalty to the brand.

“I normally don’t shop anywhere else other than Nike,” Huish said. “There will be some things that I will buy, for example if a certain company was known for a really good pair of shoes or whatever it may be. But my loyalty’s definitely to Nike. Always.”

McBride believes that many people spend extra money on well-known brands just for the cooler looking logo. The Nike swoosh is one of the world’s most recognizable logos, next to the McDonald’s arch, making it no surprise people feel comfortable making an expensive purchase to such a well-known brand.

Knock-off brands such as Wal-Mart and Target’s clothes don’t look quite as professional, and McBride has noticed more people wearing their athletic apparel outside the gym so they can get noticed.

Sophomore Annie Tyler, nursing, prefers to run in cheaper non-brand athletic apparel.
Sophomore Annie Tyler, nursing, prefers to run in cheaper non-brand athletic apparel. (Photo by Kristina Smith)

“People want other people to think that they’re in shape so they will wear their fitness apparel to class,” McBride said. “Even people who don’t work out will buy that type of stuff to wear to class so people will think they’re in shape.”

Jogger and basketball player Sherry Henry, 19, from Vancouver, Wash., has also noticed that buying expensive workout apparel is often about the showing off a logo and looking good at the gym.

“Workout clothes have become a fashion statement so, therefore, you don’t wear them just to the gym,” Henry said. “Even when girls wear them to the gym they’re trying to look cute. That’s why they’re spending all that money. People wear them outside the gym and to classes because it’s fashionable. Nike is not just for performance. It’s for fashion.”

Whether it’s motivation, quality, loyalty or fashion, athletic apparel is an exploding industry that is dominating every aspect of the game. Sales and selections are continuing to grow and companies are developing more trendy and desirable lines of apparel.

Zimbelman and other athletes find as people become more involved in fitness, the athletic apparel industry will only continue to grow.

“People are going to keep spending money on their gym clothes,” Zimbelman said. “If it’s going to change, it’s going to get bigger. It’s become more trendy. People are finally deciding to make it a part of their lifestyle and make it a priority in their lives.”

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