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The changes that occurred with the COVID-19 pandemic came fast and furious for the fitness industry. Gyms, yoga studios, and indoor rock-climbing facilities were packed one month, and shut down the next. But like many other businesses affected by the pandemic, the fitness industry has transformed itself. Online workouts and virtual fitness classes are now common, and individuals are adopting to a new fitness norm. But the transition has been far from easy, and many casualties will likely result before it’s over.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the fitness industry was valued at $100 billion. A number of fitness trends have encouraged its growth over the last few decades. These trends include the increasing popularity of yoga and indoor cycling gyms. Likewise, a much larger variety of workouts are now accessible including gyms that specialize in HIIT, Pilates and barre. But with social distancing now the norm, the challenge has been finding ways to effectively adapt to COVID-19 precautions. For most, online workouts and virtual fitness instruction have been the answer.

“The COVID-19 global pandemic has presented a challenge unlike any other that the health and wellness industry has seen. Almost 90% of our 30,000 gym, studio and wellness partners across 30 countries have indefinitely closed their physical locations.” – Fritz Lanman, CEO of ClassPass

A Boom for Online Workouts

In the U.S. currently, there are roughly 350,000 personal trainers who offer fitness instruction. Many meet clients in local gyms while others have their own studios or work out of their clients’ homes. But nearly all of them saw their businesses dry up when lockdowns went into effect. While some decided to meet their clients on outdoor parks with social distancing precautions, most were more innovative. By far, the majority invested in digital equipment and virtual software so they could continue online workouts for their clients. And for many, it has not only saved their business but also created attracted new clients who live remotely.

A woman working her biceps with VR goggles
Virtual online workouts? With the fitness industry pivoting to digital, anything is possible.

Of course, personal trainers are not the only ones embracing online workouts and virtual fitness classes. Many businesses in the fitness industry were already offering online workouts as part of their offerings. Thus, it was easy to ramp up their digital platforms to meet rising client demand. For example, Modo Yoga began offering free yoga classes on Instagram Live after lockdowns went into effect. Orange Theory included 30-minute HIIT workouts on its websites for members. And the Equinox Group, which owns Soul Cycle and many premium gyms, offered hundreds of online workouts for its members.

Perhaps, the businesses that are struggling the most in these times are the smaller, boutique gyms and salons. These businesses make up a large proportion of the fitness industry, and many have relatively narrow margins of operation. In this regard, many have turned to ClassPass as a means to offer online workouts to its members. ClassPass is a subscription app that serves over 500 small gyms and fitness centers. The platform offers over 2,000 prerecorded workouts, and all the proceeds go to the local gyms. For many of these small businesses, going virtual has meant the difference between surviving and closing their doors for good.

“There is definitely a group of people saying, ‘I really like this livestream thing.’ It’s less expensive, more convenient, it’s about as good as a workout in a studio.” – Zach Apter, Chief Commercial Officer at ClassPass.

The Post-COVID Fitness Industry

In time, it is highly likely that the fitness industry will return to in-person workouts and fitness classes. After all, there is something to be said about the motivation that others have around you during exercise. But that doesn’t mean online workouts will disappear into the background or even return to their previous level of use. With advanced videoconferencing platforms, digital fitness will likely expand. And with many realizing the advantages of exercising from home, online workout subscriptions will increase. In fact, these trends were already in place before COVID-19 ever appeared.

In recent years, data-driven companies in the fitness industry like Peloton and Mirror have enjoyed incredible success. Both businesses offer in-home fitness options that allow individuals to experience a dedicated workout from the comforts of their home. At the same time, both offer opportunities to connect with others over digital media. These companies had little difficulty adapting to social isolation and community lockdowns. In fact, both have seen their subscriptions increase significantly. It appears they were simply ahead of the curve in terms of online workouts.

“What was meant to be a generous gesture for at-home clientele will end up being destructive for the fitness industry because if you give away something for free, it devalues how difficult it is to be a fitness instructor.” – Jennifer Maanavi, CEO of Physique 57

Virtual Disruption or Virtual Detriment?

During the pandemic, many in the fitness industry offered free online workouts or access to digital fitness libraries. This was naturally done as a kind gesture for those unable to attend their own gyms and fitness classes. But it also served as an opportunity to attract new clients for the future. One of the benefits of virtual fitness offerings is not only its accessibility and safety but also its lower costs. With the potential to have larger online workouts using digital platforms, costs per person is less. But some personal trainers and local gym owners are concerned how this may permanently change the fitness industry long-term.

In all likelihood, the fitness industry will continue to see more and more people embracing online workouts. Virtual fitness does have its advantages, including greater accessibility, lower cost, and increased flexibility. But many still prefer the adrenaline rush that an in-person fitness experience offers. For those individuals, virtual platforms will never achieve the same level of satisfaction as traditional workouts. Thus, it’s quite unlikely that local gyms and fitness centers will fade into the woodwork. Instead, we will likely see businesses in the fitness industry expand virtual and in-person offerings to meet evolving consumer preferences.

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