The Future of Fitness
How is fitness going to change over the next year—for both you and society in general? That’s what’s been on my mind. I’m more interested in people than in business models but my more idealistic impulses have also been tempered with the knowledge that you can’t serve anyone if you’re out of business. So, it’s got to work. It’s got to be profitable. It’s got to—in some way—be scalable.
It starts with needs
In my mind, there are a dozen major “areas of need” that people experience fitness through.
You’ll notice an up or down arrow next to each need. What I’ve been thinking about is whether people will be seeking out—and paying for—professional support for these needs more or less. The arrows represent my predictions for the near future vs life BC (before COVID-19).
Fitness for enjoyment and play ↑
Fitness for quality of life and longevity ↑
Fitness for cognitive and emotional regulation ↑
Fitness as competition ↓
Fitness as community Z
Fitness as social capital or signalling ↓
Fitness as obligation ↓
Fitness as a measured response to a health or identity issue ↑
Fitness as an emotional response to a health or identity issue ↓
Fitness as identity or self-expression Z
Fitness as mastery ↑
The up and down arrows are self-explanatory. The Zs represent places where I think that demand will dip noticeably and then slowly rise over time to surpass BC levels. In my mind (or perhaps just my bias), the most profound and positive reasons behind exercise will continue to gain momentum and cultural value. What will this look all like?
I predict that physical distancing is going to be very bad for the fitness industry and very good for human movement in general. If you want a sense of specifically how that will play out, let’s look at a few verticals. I am basing this on the fundamental assumption that we will not be going 100% back to business as usual.
Will gym re-openings be staggered?
To my knowledge, no local government has gone so far as to differentiate between types of gyms when it comes to a proposed reopening schedule. If it were up to me, I’d organize it like this (with the top of the list opening last).
High density (people per sq ft)
The most profitable per sq ft fitness models were charging a premium of up to $40/session for busy classes back in their heady BC days. On the other end of the price continuum, those who competed on price leaned into class density even more heavily. Group classes were, without a doubt, the most popular fitness model. I think that this segment of the industry will be the most impacted.
Next on the list: classes with relatively dense clustering BUT less frenetic movement or heavy breathing. I imagine the busier yoga and pilates studios of the world.
Team sports and technical practices follow. Intense effort and more participants will be offset by the potential for more physical space and room for drills and challenges to incorporate more relative physical distancing. Unfortunately, that won’t extend as neatly to all sports. I think we’ll see a very different landscape in the less mainstream sports by the end of this decade.
Hybrid and personal training
Next are spaces like Bang. Maintaining a six-foot perimeter (about 115 ft sq ft per person) doesn’t require much of a change-up. Although, our small-group class delivery may need some tweaking.
Right now, we’re looking at how we’d assign specific equipment to each person and disinfect between sessions. That’s not a big change. Some barriers and air management systems may also need to go in. Whatever we do, we’ll do right.
Personal training has traditionally taken place everywhere from big box gyms to inside your living room. I think that people with boutique studios—especially the 1-at-a-time spots—are going to be in higher demand than ever.
Online personal training will c
ontinue to grow and adapt. If you’ll allow me to pat myself on the back for a moment (it’s the only way you can get that done anyway these days) our team has done an incredible job of making this stuff work for our members. I’m very proud of what our coaches are doing. I also think we’re going to see a greater emphasis on both education and social support. Rep counting and in-the-moment motivation tactics are going to fade into the sunset.
What about big boxes?
The model has long been pretty broken—with huge debts acquired and reacquired. Gold’s Gym has filed for bankruptcy and 24-Hour Fitness is on the cusp. Meanwhile Steve Nash is staring down the barrel of a class-action lawsuit—even though he’s been uninvolved with the facilities since 2015. GoodLife has always seemed savvier than its competitors but it’s hard to imagine the business looking completely different. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a lot of what’s going to be different. I’m guessing that there will be an increased emphasis on personal training but time will tell. It’s entirely possible that the entire model will be replaced by neighbourhood gyms.
Streaming group classes
My guess is that a few premium brands will flourish and it will be a race to the bottom for anyone who tries to compete on price. This will be exacerbated by startups like ClassPass who profit by bringing average attendance prices down. Same deal, different platform.
The really good news
People are already expressing an increased awareness of the role of exercise in their mental world. Our constraints have been freeing. So, yes, some are still cranking out joyless burpees on their patios and counting calories per workout but many others have said, “You know what? I like how doing THIS feels—before and after.” And then doing more of THAT. As it turns out the fear of not wringing every last drop out of your genetic potential has been usurped by the power of consistency and self-expression.
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