11 October 2021
Recent advancements in fitness technology and the outbreak of COVID-19 have seen the fitness landscape evolve into a content-first model. Fortunately, the timing feels serendipitous and presents huge opportunities for growth.
The global fitness industry has boomed in the past decade – driven by health and exercise being an integral part of a growing desire for collective wellness – to one with an estimated value of $US100 billion.
Coinciding with increased consumer awareness of the importance of and demand for healthier lifestyles have been incentives from employers offering health and fitness benefits and health insurers discounting policies for regular gym goers.
On the supply side, an expansion in bricks and mortar fitness clubs as a multitude of fitness brands – offering everything from premium high-end studios to those emphasising value for money as the differentiating factor – have entered the market, increasing its accessibility.
And though the outbreak of COVID-19 and closure of in-person facilities saw many gym memberships placed on hold, it tasked fitness fanatics and personal trainers with re-inventing the ‘traditional workout’ in a virtual setting. Interestingly, as such, the increased adoption of “FitTech” has likely created the biggest opportunity for bricks-and-mortar fitness facilities in decades.
Culturally, we know that gyms and reactional activity play a key part in maintaining both physical mental wellbeing, alongside providing a sense of community and social connectivity. Around the world, as the pandemic took hold, medical professionals stressed the importance of maintaining physical activity, especially as individuals were more isolated than ever before. As a result, at-home workouts, and the routine they provide quickly became a valued part of ‘lockdown life’ for many.
Unable to offer in-person classes, gyms offered live or pre-recorded sessions that people could follow along at home – in effect, shifting their offering from a premises-first to a content-first approach. On YouTube alone, the top 5 ‘home workout’ videos collectively boast 117 million views.
While working out at home can have its limitations (and frustrations) for regular gym goers, for providers, it’s been an opportunity to engage those who haven’t had the means or desire to attend a physical gym in the past. For many, working out from home is far more inclusive, affordable, and flexible – this shift in accessibility has somewhat democratised the industry, allowing more people to embark on a fitness journey from the comfort of their homes.
Now that workers are looking to head back to the office in some locations and as global societies start tentatively returning to their ‘COVID-normal’ lives, a question remains around the long-term effects of this shift in consumer behaviour. This is especially pertinent for gyms and fitness centres located in city hubs, whose clientele, insight suggests, are not expected to return to their previous way of working; less than 20 per cent of C-suite managers anticipate employees will spend more than 80 per cent of their time in the office in future in the United States.
While this change in consumer habits could be detrimental to the bricks and mortar gyms, the opportunity for them to pivot towards a hybrid model of service provision remains ripe for the taking. If gyms continue to broaden their digital offerings post-pandemic, fitness will organically evolve to a content-first model and, as a result, they could become the interfaces for consuming content once only done in person. While the distinction may be subtle, the implications are substantial and create a new third space within the industry.
In the past, physical gyms were the beating heart of a fitness brand and offered a complete client experience. Then came the likes of at-home workouts, where you could still train with your favourite instructor, but in a time and place suited to you. Now you can combine the two. You can rent equipment from your gym and still train with your favourite instructor, but do it from home by connecting your devices for a fully immersive experience. And you potentially pay less per month for the membership. This total hybridisation of the business model now allows members to engage on their own terms.
In order to retain an authentic brand experience in the workout-from-home era, companies will look to strong social media strategies, branded equipment and sophisticated streaming hardware to connect with their clients at home and provide them with as realistic an in-person experience as possible.
Paul Golding, Macquarie’s Senior Lifestyle and Digital Commerce Analyst believes that a “fitness [company’s] branding, culture, and community will reside in a platform’s digital content, and fitness engagement will be carried out in a venue or on hardware most suitable to the workout and consumers’ circumstances.”
This paints bricks and mortar gyms and streaming hardware in a new light, as they become spaces and tools intended to effectively facilitate consumption rather than being destinations or platforms in-and-of themselves.
Convergence across mediums is the path of greatest investment happening across the fitness landscape.
“Our sense is that the approach to fitness is once again in flux. The constant variability in lifestyles, remote and hybrid work, greater emphasis on flexibility of fitness venue and content, and the rising value of talent turn our ideas of fitness as either a streamed or bricks and mortar platform on its head,” adds Golding.
This juxtaposition of convergence and segmentation within a singular market isn’t isolated to fitness. The pandemic saw premium hospitality venues join their more mainstream counterparts and offer ‘at-home dining experiences’ whereby individuals could still enjoy high-end restaurant quality food from home. While these offerings originated under very different conditions, businesses are continuing them as the world returns to a new normality.
“Once consumers are given this level of flexibility, it’s challenging to pull it back, and as fitness technology continues to mature, it’s clear that this digitised approach to fitness will only grow in popularity,” says Golding.
As they mature under their new guise, streaming fitness platforms will grow as distribution platforms in their own right – spanning music, travel, and nutrition content – transforming them into broader lifestyle offerings which leads to new revenue opportunities in content licensing and immersive advertising.
Some are already adding eSports and gamification elements to their workouts – California-based Zwift, for example, is blurring the lines between fitness training and playing sports by allowing users to turn a stationary bike into a video game controller, while still maintaining fundamental similarities to real cycling.
Thus far, the pandemic has bolstered the global fitness app market to a $US4.4 billion valuation last year, and that’s expected to significantly increase, with a compound annual growth rate of 21 per cent through to 2028.
Fitness has transformed into what it was always meant to become – a more convenient, more engaging, and more social activity, even if its displacing from a physical space to cyberspace. The importance of mental and physical fitness to living a healthy life will continue to grow, and if technology and curated content can unlock and attract new audiences, it offers a win-win for those on both sides of the small screen.