It’s been a turbulent year for the fitness industry. Between major gyms and fitness studios having to shut their doors and find alternative ways to stay afloat, there’s been a big change in the way businesses in this space serve their customers.
Right now there’s a guerrilla war going on between big gyms and smaller, independent ones, while the rise of virtual fitness coaches doesn’t look like slowing down. Despite the industry’s much-reported problems, interest in health and fitness is at an all-time high. The rise in fitness tech has led many to work out at home, in parks or on the street. And there have been some eye-catching innovations from brands.
Hospitality conglomerate Kerzner announced a series of fitness-focused hotels called SIRO in March. Stomp Sessions, a digital learning platform dedicated to high-intensity sports like surfing and mountain biking, recently expanded to offer online snowboarding lessons. And while enthusiasm might have died down for Zoom classes, new platforms like Bande are adding community elements to virtual group training.
How will the battle for the future of the gym affect people launching a business in this space? What are the major trends they should be aware of? From a yoga instructor and a small gym owner to the founder of an at-home rowing brand, we speak to experts from around the world to find out more.
Bruce Smith (left) is the founder of at-home rowing brand Hydrow, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jas Kaur [JK1] (right) is an online and mobile personal trainer based in Sydney who works with global clients.
Jolie Kobrinsky [JK2] (left) runs Elektren, a studio in Seaside, California, aiming to be ‘radically inclusive’. Simon Freeman (right) is editor of Like the Wind, a quarterly magazine about running culture.
Josh McCarter (not pictured) is the CEO of Mindbody, a software platform for fitness and wellness services.
Natalie Armitage (left) is a London-based yoga teacher and founder of Come Breathe, offering live classes. Percell Dugger (right) is an instructor in Brooklyn, New York, and founder of GOODWRK and Fit For Us.
How has the past year changed the fitness industry, and in particular, what you do?
SF: ‘It’s clear that running – which we publish stories about – has seen a significant boom during the pandemic. It focused people’s attention on physical and mental health, and running is a relatively easy, cheap way to support both.’
JK2: ‘I had a studio called Prime, but because none of the trainers could work, I went from thriving to realizing I would be in a ton of debt. I closed Prime and started the Elektren brand from scratch.’
BS: ‘Connected fitness as a category was already at risk, but gym closures and lockdown restrictions resulted in exponential growth at an accelerated rate. And while initially people might have viewed at-home workouts as a temporary measure, I think the majority have realized how beneficial they are. We knew that rowing was uniquely positioned to bring people together and achieve a sense of belonging.’
PD: ‘The past year has shifted some of the focus from larger companies to individual creators and communities. For me, it’s been about ensuring the black folks in my industry are supported, instead of just focusing on myself – whether it’s a group doing pull-ups in Prospect Park or folks holding Zoom classes in Fort Worth, Texas.’
NA: ‘I teach pranayama, the science of the breath. Prior to the pandemic, people didn’t have much time or interest in taking time out for breath alone – they were only interested in the appropriated version of yoga. A pandemic with a virus that affects your respiratory system later… they do now. It is all online, so it can reach a global class.’
JM: ‘As an experience technology platform that assists our business partners, at Mindbody we had to quickly adapt to first provide relief for these businesses, but also offer resources and support as they navigated mandates and consumer demand. We saw a 400% increase in virtual bookings in April 2020 and quickly realized we would need to offer a product that would support them in making this transition.’
Are people still going to the gym after a year of investing in at-home fitness?
JK1: ‘I think the demand for gyms will always be there, but I think it will take a bit of a hit. At the start of the pandemic, a lot of people invested in at-home equipment and are now used to the convenience that it offers. I think people will combine the best of both worlds and find a suitable hybrid approach.’
PD: ‘Absolutely. But for people who don’t feel comfortable in the gym or don’t have access to one, they’re going to continue tapping into at-home fitness. It’s beautiful to be part of because, for too long, people were relegated to a very singular approach to fitness. People now have various entry points to start or sustain their journey.’
JK2: ‘A few days ago, I had a virtual group class, followed by a private in-person class, followed by a virtual private class and then an in-person group class. I'm going back and forth between them both all day now. People are continuing to train virtually, because it’s priced way more accessibly.’
BS: ‘I do anticipate a strong rebound back to the gym, as people are eager to return to public spaces and activities, but I think it’s important to recognize that it won’t immediately be the same as it was pre-pandemic. There are so many advantages [to at-home workouts] – comfort and convenience, time saved on travel and the ability to connect with others.’
JM: ‘We believe virtual will serve as a complement to in-person workouts, not a replacement. Since most workplaces have transitioned their teams to work remotely, longer workouts that are scheduled before or after working hours and require a bigger time investment will be dropped in favor of more “snackable workouts” that can easily be squeezed in. Virtual fitness also allowed people who were “gymtimidated” to engage in fitness in a way that they hadn’t before. It’s possible we may even see higher numbers of people returning to the gym due to these newcomers.’
What should people looking to start their own fitness business keep in mind?
JM: ‘One thing that came out of Covid is that workdays are more fluid than before. Childcare, work and home life are all happening in the same place. Because of this, Americans are grabbing time to work out whenever they can. Shorter sessions prove effective and convenient when juggling competing priorities.’
SF: ‘Technology and connectedness are just starting to have an impact. At the moment, it's online classes and GPS-enabled platforms. But there's also much more to come.’
BS: ‘The fitness industry will only get smarter and more technologically adept. Consumers are becoming more knowledgeable about using exercise to become the best version of themselves, whether through cross-training, mindfulness or taking up something new.’
PD: ‘Invest in your people and their experiences, and they’ll invest in you. You won’t have much success without an engaged community. Being the leader of a successful business requires a lot more than an elevated social content strategy and comments on your posts. If you’re a trainer with a ton of credentials, how will you continue to have a viable business as you age? If you’re a gym owner, how will you stay profitable?’
JK1: ‘Brands are becoming much more inclusive, showcasing people of different backgrounds, shapes and sizes. The industry is shifting to a holistic view. Mental health has already become an important topic; stress management, sleep hygiene, hydration and nutrition all matter just as much, if not more. With fitness wearables becoming popular, it’ll be interesting to see how the industry uses this data.’
JK2: ‘Community, connection and collaboration, as well as an opportunity to learn from others, will become important. For people looking to start a business, I’d advise growing the grassroots and building a business that is a reflection of yourself. I want to be a person who is involved in strengthening the community, not just a gym owner.’
What sort of fitness and activity services are people after – or no longer looking for?
BS: ‘Consumers are more educated about exercise than ever. People do their research and are so much more aware of what they’re getting out of it. They want full-body workouts that help them achieve their unique fitness goals and give them the most bang for their buck. People don’t just want to learn how to row, they want to learn how to row well – and they want to learn it from an expert in that field.’
JM: ‘Whether virtual or in-person, the most popular modality booked on Mindbody is yoga, followed by high-intensity interval training (HIIT), Pilates, barre and boxing. We’ve also seen increased interest in meditation services.’
NA: ‘People appreciate that physical exercise is good for mental health, but becoming obsessed with it is counteractive to that. Yoga is not just about physical exercise – it’s emotional and spiritual, too. I think people are searching for the decolonial teachings of yoga now.’
JK1: ‘People are looking for fitness services that are more convenient and practical. Not everyone has an extensive home gym set-up, so the demand for free-weight programs has increased. Although many still can’t head to the gym, people are maintaining connection online. Personalized online and group sessions are great for this.’
PD: ‘People want quality, customized, budget-friendly experiences. They want to be entertained while also getting results. People are tired of seeing performative activism from industry leaders and operators without true commitments to social and racial equality. The days of body shaming, transphobia, homophobia and racism are not behind us by any means, but people are more mindful consumers.’
SF: ‘People who love the gym or Spin classes or team games will want to return to them. But I think it will take a long time before people are comfortable exercising indoors and in close proximity to others.’
How have you had to evolve, adapt or change what you do over the last year?
JK1: ‘I started offering private online sessions via Zoom or Google Meet. Training clients online meant I could grow my business beyond the borders of Sydney, with clients all over the world. I’ve transitioned from training my clients in person to running almost all my personal sessions online. My partner, who is also a personal trainer, and I run three workouts per week for our community from our apartment.’
NA: ‘I've had to do a lot of classes for free to keep it accessible to people who need it. I've had to keep consistency and no sudden changes at the center as so many people’s mental health issues have been exacerbated by changes with little warning. This looks like turning up, no matter what, at the same time every week and approaching it as a community space where I am just facilitating, not directing.’
JM: ‘We fast-tracked a virtual wellness product, which allows businesses to upload and share pre-recorded videos or host livestream sessions. We also released a new product enabling studios to customize interaction with their clientele via text message, essentially acting as a 24/7 front desk.’
Out in the open
According to RunRepeat, a US-based athletic shoe review site, the number of active adults choosing to exercise outdoors in 2021 has risen to nearly six in 10, up by almost 15% from 2020. It’s the same for inactive adults, with just over half preferring outdoor fitness activities like hiking, walking and cycling. These have the dual benefit of improving wellbeing without needing to pay for an expensive gym membership that limits you to one location. Virtual running clubs also offer a sense of community. Lost Running Club took an unconventional approach to this in May, encouraging 300 runners around the world to take part in a three- or 13-mile race from wherever they were. In the four months prior, they could plan routes, train together and network online, and they were sent energy bars and race paraphernalia. It’s an approach that shows fitness communities can work well in a digital environment.
A report by gym management software company Glofox found that attendance at boutique gyms and group classes has already bounced back to 91% of pre-pandemic levels. So, gyms aren’t going anywhere – but they certainly have to up their game. Alongside a hybrid, online and offline approach to fitness services, gyms also need to take note of another important factor: how much human contact members get at their facilities.
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, interactions with staff at a gym reduce the chances of a member canceling by a third. Those who exercise in groups were also more likely to stick around for the long run – the risk of cancelation is 56% higher for people who only use gym equipment. Going forward, this has important implications for how gyms build out and promote their portfolio of services, as well as how they train staff to ensure higher levels of personalized customer service.