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A Year Into the Pandemic, How Is the Fitness Industry Doing?

By Neesha Kanaga

Published 2 March 2021

A year has passed since the mundane and mandatory mandates that took control of our lives came into effect. From curious fascination about what was to come to devastating boredom and very real losses – we as a society have gone through the motions and more when it comes to this pandemic.

For those of us operating in at-risk industries, such as travel, entertainment, food – and of course, fitness – to say that the past 12 months have been tumultuous is an understatement. We’ve seen businesses big and small (and unfortunately, mostly small) close their doors, while the community that made up the rich tapestry of fitness became disarrayed amid rapid digitization.

As we near a rather dismal anniversary of one year of the coronavirus, let’s look back on how the fitness industry evolved. What has changed for better and for worse? And, how have we as an industry adapted to these rather necessary transformations?

Not Just About #fitbody

If there’s one thing that the pandemic has made clear, it’s that a healthy lifestyle certainly does pay off. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), healthy individuals fare better at overcoming the virus than unhealthy ones. These latter are older people and those with underlying medical conditions.

This has caused a sea change in the way we view fitness. Simply said, a chiseled body isn’t going to help you curb symptoms if you’re at risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, etc. Suddenly, health was on everyone’s minds.

This might come off as ironic seeing as to how many gyms remain shuttered due to lockdown measures. Nevertheless, individuals far and wide who never before spared thought for the gym became increasingly concerned about their new sedentary lifestyles and how it puts them at further risk.

Confinement comes with a price, and people are feeling it. A study by the University of Saskatchewan in Canada shows that the pandemic affects eating habits and inactive lifestyles are on the rise. Researchers attribute these behavioral changes to the psychological distress associated with the global pandemic, the limited opening hours of food stores and restaurants, and the closure of gyms and other recreational facilities.

In light of this, fitness has come to occupy a more mindful space in our lives as we struggle to stay healthy while working or studying from home. It’s not about six-pack abs anymore, but rather about a continuous lifestyle centered around health, wellness, and nutrition. It’s about getting outdoors with your ‘corona bubble’ for a breath of fresh air – or simply remembering to close the laptop after a day’s work.

Digitization or Bust

peloton promotion
Peloton has become a key player in the fitness industry during the pandemic

 

You’ve heard it before – and if you’ve probably heard it the most here – but the fitness industry is going digital. According to our 2020 coronavirus client impact study, fitness was already on the trajectory of digitization over the past decade. Social media, fitness apps, and video streaming services allowed businesses to quickly bring their offerings online.

The pandemic has flipped the traditional fitness club model on its head, and fitness tech companies have benefited from the tailwinds of the pandemic by throwing their money behind the digital economy. Companies like CLMBR, Peloton, Tonal, Mirror, and other connected fitness equipment rushed in to fill the gap left by shuttered gyms.

From digital remote coaching to hybrid or multi-club digital memberships, the fitness market is become increasingly saturated with tech-laden solutions designed to add value to memberships. The end goal? To keep members engaged from afar and provide them with a fitness service that is accessible during COVID-19.

Fitness Marketing Is Grappling With Space – or Lack Thereof

In the before-times, you could promote the swanky gym space you had filled with beautifully chiseled bodies and high-fives all around. You could organize group classes, launch campaigns, or showcase the complex new equipment you’ve made available. These days, however, the spaces are your members’ living rooms – and high fives have effectively been replaced with abruptly talking over one another on Zoom.

The art of marketing online fitness during the pandemic is akin to the art of marketing fragrances: how do you make people engage with something they can’t visit, can’t hold, and can’t presently experience?

Fitness marketing these days is about imparting a feeling for the ephemeral experience that your client is about to have. In studying examples of pandemic-era fitness marketing, a degree of nuance comes to mind. Physical memberships are replaced with digital, stackable offerings. Or, a gym space is transposed into your living room with all the trimmings of a gym environment. It’s a sort of stylish head-trip of what your at-home fitness could look like.

This may be an electronic-music jammed Peloton ad designed to make you feel like you’re working out with Beyoncé, or other hypothetical situations designed to make you dream larger than the 300 square feet you have to work with. Fitness marketing during the pandemic has been a strange experiment in mise en scène that simply does not exist.

Unemployment

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: unemployment. The fitness industry hasn’t been exempt from the onslaught of job cuts and closures. We often talk about losing client hours, members churning, and revenue loss. But, there’s one pivotal aspect of the gym community (and industry) that keeps getting left out of the picture: the staff you’ve let go of.

These are the individuals who keep your spot running like a well-oiled machine; the familiar faces that those clients you’re so eager to keep engaged knew and forged connections with.

According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) unemployment rate peaked at an unprecedented level over the past 12 months and stooped to a level not seen since data collection started in 1948.

The hit was mostly felt in the leisure and hospitality industry, which experienced an unemployment rate of 39.3% in April 2020, before declining to 16.7% in December. Minority and ethnic groups experienced severely disproportionate unemployment rates throughout the pandemic.

The good news is that all industries are showing signs of recovery as COVID-19 vaccination programs sweep over nations. Nevertheless, a total return to normal may be slow as the global economy shrunk by 4.4% in 2020 – the worst since the Great Depression.

Many individuals have borne a mental brunt alongside a financial one. Moreover, the advancement of big tech in the fitness industry isn’t making things any easier for traditional players.

Many former trainers, instructors, and club owners lament that the industry will not be the same when gyms can reopen. The move to digitization during the pandemic means that employees in the fitness sector will need to be savvier and serve a heightened demand born from a pent-up need for socialization, flexible memberships, and everything else members have gotten used to – and have been missing – over the lockdown.

Many former gym employees and personal trainers have taken things outside to continue providing a service. The move to digitization, in a sense, has been a double-edged sword that allowed them to reach members amid the slowdown in their businesses – while also simultaneously forcing them to relearn a craft they’ve spent a lifetime developing.

Will this trend continue as COVID-19 slowly wavers in the face of mass vaccination? While outdoor or remote workouts may not be the go-to option, digitization has certainly made a case for itself by being a nearly infallible business model amid uncertainty.

You Were Always Losing Members – You’re Just Seeing Them Drop Off Now

The most profitable gym members are the ones that never show up – and that’s more than you think. In an article published by the Hustle in 2019, it is reported that 63% of memberships go unused; 82% of gym members go to the gym less than once per week. The kicker is that that these members often let their memberships run for an extended time before canceling.

Why? Perhaps there’s a notion buried deep (very deep) down that they might find the motivation to leap into the gym one day when the mood strikes. Or perhaps, it’s a mental thing. Apparently, 85% of gym members simply ‘feel healthier’ by having a membership!

Hence, there’s no denying that in pre-pandemic times, you were probably not as concerned with reaching your unengaged members as you currently are. These days, you’re more aware than ever about churn and member retention, and what it means for your monthly revenue.

Thankfully, rapid software developments in fitness tech mean that member engagement and retention can be addressed. Many gyms have geared their COVID-19-era marketing efforts towards connecting with members from afar.

More people are working out from home during the coronavirus
Home workouts are flexible and budget-friendly

 

This may come in the form of having a content calendar so that gym members have something to look forward to or enable participation through a custom app with leaderboards and challenges. At the peak of these efforts is a purpose-built gym retention software. This is a type of business intelligence tool which enables gym managers or owners to identify at-risk members and act quickly with personal outreach to reduce churn.

We’re seeing data-driven decision-making on the rise during the pandemic. The fitness industry has utilized the available data from wearables and apps to understand consumer behaviors. To succeed in today’s fitness industry is to have a head for data and know what metrics to look at. Sounds complicated? It really doesn’t have to be. Learn more about having a retention strategy in place for your business by clicking here.

The Rise of Gamification

Fitness gamification has been on the rise ever since mobile gaming was introduced. Utilizing gaming mechanics to spur healthy habits and competition among friends and strangers has become a no-brainer tactic for fitness app developers over the past year.

From getting your cardio in while running away from zombies to the indisputable popularity of Fitocracy – a sort of MMORPG for fitness enthusiasts – the skyrocketing success of fitness gamification has revolutionized the industry.

Nike tried cashing into this trend with Nike+ (in collaboration with the wildly popular Headspace app). Strava has also become a household name throughout the pandemic.

The appeal of gamification in fitness is it allows individuals to seamlessly integrate it into their daily lives. A study by the International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction hypothesizes that game-infused elements make individuals more likely to engage in a particular activity. By studying the gamification platform, Fitocracy, the study found that gamification improves not only attitudes towards and enjoyment of exercise but also shapes behavior in terms of increase in exercise activity.

The unfolding fascination with gamification in fitness suggests that this trend is only just starting to hit its stride. Many believe that gamification occupies a fool-proof space in the fitness market that is sure to grow as society becomes more tech-savvy and interconnected.

The Democratization of Fitness

Health is a human right. This may seem like an obvious statement, but the pandemic has made it clear that the traditional model of health and fitness was prone to stratification. Access to fitness has always been genderized or unequal to marginalized groups, i.e., lower-income, disabled, or communities with limited infrastructure.

According to a series of studies compiled by Club Industry, titled Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion In The Fitness Industry, working out can be a challenge even without the realities of stay-at-home orders and limited community resources. However, the shift to online means that once unreachable communities are finding ways – and more time – to focus on health.

How has online fitness made health more accessible
Physical barriers removed, digitization has made fitness more inclusive and accessible

 

The plethora of fitness offerings, both free and paid, is causing a systemic change to happen in the fitness sphere. Access to the internet, the ease of video streaming, and the flexibility to do customized workouts from home mean that the fitness space is becoming more democratized. By making the physicality of the fitness space obsolete, the pandemic – specifically, digitization – has inadvertently removed the barriers faced by certain communities in accessing health and wellness.

An example of this is Spirit Club, an organization that provides an integrated exercise environment to support people with and without disabilities. Spirit Club facilitates exercise for its members and agency partners across the US by offering live or on-demand classes. These inclusive classes are run by professionals in a cutting-edge, community-focused way, based on a hybrid membership model that thrives amid the pandemic.

A Year of Lessons, Losses, and Great Leaps

12 months, 85 million cases, and the greatest example of globalizing communities – for better and for worse. COVID-19 has shown us the power of collaboration between sectors and societies. In fact, we see firsthand how quickly vaccines were developed and mobilized through strategic cooperation between nations.

The fitness industry can hone in on the successes and lessons learned from the pandemic to quickly create future-focused solutions. At the heart of this should be mindful growth plus a willingness to pivot towards new norms, for example, by working hand in hand with other industries such as tech.

The British statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” There will not be a universal solution to the predicaments faced by the fitness industry. However, working the problem through cross-collaboration, facts, and taking each blow in stride is a way forward.

This may come in the form of a gym software solution for your business, or it may be something else entirely. The past 12 months have shown us how quickly life can come at you. The fact that the fitness industry is still fighting this uphill battle is a testament to the resilience of its innovators, communities, and agents who embrace change at each step.

Neesha Kanaga

Neesha is a copywriter and wanderer who currently finds herself bound to the weather-challenged Netherlands due to the unforeseen circumstances of 2020.

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