In one vision of rural America, residents are hiking rocky trails all day or horsing bales of hay around sun-drenched fields, sweating and staying in shape via nature, the world’s biggest gym.

But Donna Iannone, who lives in Sullivan County, 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia, would like to go to a real gym, the kind with weights and elliptical machines, maybe even a juice bar to cap off an exhausting barre class. She said there’s not one private gym in Sullivan County, one of Pennsylvania’s most rural areas.

“It would certainly be great for people to have that opportunity,” Iannone, a county commissioner, said. “Some people might not want to walk in the woods because they don’t feel safe. I try to ride a bike as much as possible.”

While dollar stores proliferate in rural Pennsylvania, and DVD rental chains hang on, gyms are much scarcer there when compared with suburban areas. Planet Fitness, for instance, has 96 locations in Pennsylvania. It’s one of the nation’s largest gym franchises, but most are clustered around Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. Up above I-80, in the state’s northern counties, there are relatively few. A spokesperson wouldn’t divulge all the factors that play into choosing a location, but said “the population within certain drive times” is one of them.

Planet Fitness, one of the nation's largest fitness chains, has 96 locations in Pennsylvania. Most are centered around larger cities and suburbs.
Planet Fitness.
Planet Fitness, one of the nation's largest fitness chains, has 96 locations in Pennsylvania. Most are centered around larger cities and suburbs.

Iannone said a gym in Dushore, Sullivan County, closed years ago. Today, some people have home gyms, others try the weight room at the local high school, and for senior citizens, there’s a bus to the YMCA in Williamsport once a week.

“That’s an hour ride each way,” she said.

Population density is both a draw and bane for rural areas. That’s why many households in Sullivan County have dismal internet speeds: It’s costly for providers to put in the high-speed infrastructure for so few customers.

According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), 20.3% of U.S. residents have gym memberships. Connecticut has the highest percentage, 27%, while 20.9% of New Jerseyans have memberships. In Pennsylvania, that number drops to 15.9%.

Along with fewer gyms and fitness centers, rural areas also have fewer sidewalks, more unpaved roads, and fewer bike lanes. It’s not surprising that obesity rates for adults living in rural areas, according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, are nearly 20% higher than in “metropolitan counties.” According to the Rural Health Information Hub, a site supported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, all of the drawbacks of rural life play a role in that: “Rural health-care facilities are less likely to have nutritionists, dietitians, or weight management experts available. Rural areas may lack exercise facilities and infrastructure to encourage physical activity.”

Tim Smith, 43, has owned Average Tim’s Gym in Wysox, a town of 1,721 in Bradford County, since 2015. The gym has about 250 members, two of whom travel from Sullivan County. Recently, a smaller, franchised gym opened about a mile away.

“In a small area like ours, knowing how much money you have to put into this, it’s a risk,” Smith said. “That’s why Planet Fitness isn’t going to come here. Their prices are cheap, and they need 1,000 members to make a profit.”

Meredith Poppler of the IHRSA said exercise “deserts” exist in the United States — but that the void has enabled smaller gyms like Smith’s to move in.

“Happily,” she wrote in an email, “the influx of smaller studios that can open in smaller spaces with less expensive equipment and the growth in 24-hour fitness clubs light on staff have both brought more fitness options to rural areas than there were 10-plus years ago.”

Average Tim's Gym, in Wysox, Bradford County, has been open since 2015 with 250 members. Owner Tim Smith said larger franchise gyms need three to four times that number of members to operate.
Tim Smith
Average Tim's Gym, in Wysox, Bradford County, has been open since 2015 with 250 members. Owner Tim Smith said larger franchise gyms need three to four times that number of members to operate.