Have you noticed the increasing number of new fitness centers opening locations at shopping centers in your neighborhood?

It turns out that gyms were among the most active retailers leasing space throughout the Washington region in 2011. Approximately 20 percent of retail leases signed last year for 20,000 square feet or more were inked by fitness centers.

The expanding fitness craze is one reason retail vacancy in the Washington region remained relatively low at 5.2 percent in 2011, with some fitness providers competing with other retailers for the best locations. For example, Fitness 4 Less beat out several other retail prospects to lease a 21,750-square-foot space at Bowie Plaza in Maryland. It was widely thought that another grocery store would end up leasing the space formerly occupied by Giant Food. Locally based Sport & Health was also among the more active chains. It signed a lease to occupy about 42,000 square feet in a new facility at Potomac Town Center in Woodbridge.

Retail real estate brokers say the area’s favorable demographics, including a high average level of education and disposable income, make the Washington area particularly attractive to fitness centers. Firms such as One Life Fitness, L.A. Fitness, Sport & Health, XSport Fitness, Planet Fitness, Fitness First and Fitness for Less all signed sizable leases in the area in 2011.

Furniture stores helped fill some of the available ‘big box’ retail spaces that had gone dark during the recession.

Grocery stores accounted for nine percent of the big box leases signed in 2011, such as Harris Teeter, which leased approximately 50,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor of a new building proposed at The Yards at Capitol Riverfront at 1212 4th St SE. More recently, grocery stores have demonstrated a willingness to move beyond the suburban big box concept and experiment with new formats, particularly in the District. Giant Food opted to close its store at 3336 Wisconsin Ave. NW in favor of a new multi-level 56,000-square-foot store in a new project with 137 apartment units.

Dameon Makinde is a research manager at CoStar Group in Washington.