When New York City gyms closed in mid-March, Equinox instructor Amanda Katz was immediately out of work. But instead of discontinuing her classes, she began lifting weights, leading ab workouts and sweating with her students on Instagram Live.
Although going from working in a fitness studio to her studio apartment took some getting used to, Katz felt a responsibility to give her clients some sense of routine throughout a period of uncertainty.
“Our current climate feels out of control,” she said. “If there is one consistent activity in my community’s schedule that also brings them joy, then I’ve done my job.”
Those who were once opposed to at-home exercise have had no choice but to make do with what is available online, and even after fitness centers reopen and workout classes start up again, experts predict the industry will still feel the effects of this forced digitalization. Fitness brands will need to tailor their messages to consumers to address health concerns, incorporate remote fitness plans and prioritize exercise enjoyment over visible results.
“The industry is going through a digital disruption,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing firm Metaforce and professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “Quarantine has accelerated changes that were already happening. If you’re trying to build a digital business, now is the time to step on the gas because now everyone is a potential customer.”
This disruption comes as consumers may be even more concerned with staying in shape than they were before, which is something brands need to be cognizant of.
“People become anxious when they aren’t moving in the way that they used to,” said nutrition counselor and fitness instructor Caitie Corradino. “It has only amplified body image and weight concerns that they were already having.”
Permanent changes to fitness
Since the beginning of quarantine, fitness companies have found creative ways to engage their members remotely by expanding online services, livestreaming workouts on social media and offering additional lifestyle content, such as healthy recipes and family workouts.
Although consumers have adjusted to at-home workout routines, many leaders in the industry predict that once stay-at-home orders are lifted, members will be ready to head back to the gym.
Sharad Mohan, CEO and co-founder of the personal training software Trainerize, said the social element of the gym is what members miss the most, suggesting fitness brands “run in-gym challenges that spark healthy competition and camaraderie, run limited-edition, in-person classes or offer up free trials for in-person training.”
Chad Waetzig, evp of marketing and branding at Crunch Fitness, said 83% of its members were anxious to get back to the gym. “There is a certain social component, the benefit of getting proper coaching, and it is incredibly motivating for some people.”
Waetzig shared that roughly half of Crunch members were dissatisfied with their at-home fitness program.
Mohan also predicted that the industry will see “a long period of transition and apprehension” before members are ready to head back to the gym. In order to combat that reluctance, Mohan suggested fitness companies focus on a hybrid of in-person and remote services while focusing on community-based initiatives.
Orangetheory Fitness has done just that, expanding at-home workouts for both members and nonmembers during quarantine. “The pandemic greatly accelerated the brand’s plans to evolve as a hybrid in-studio and digital fitness model,” said chief brand officer Kevin Keith, adding that its in-home workouts aren’t meant to replace the in-studio experience.
To address health concerns, Planet Fitness has promised heightened cleanliness by introducing The Clean Thumb Club. The company will use touchless check-ins, install more cleaning stations and temporarily halt the use of cardio equipment that does not comply with social distancing.
Navigating shifts in the industry
In order to survive the digitalization of the industry, Adamson stressed that “now is the time to push.” As consumers see online fitness as a reliable alternative, he said, trainers and gyms must continue to offer these resources while also reminding clients of the social aspects they may miss about the gym.
Tim Derdenger, associate professor of marketing and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, emphasized that those in the fitness industry must be flexible in their practices by consistently evaluating whether their services align with customers’ current preferences, such as cleanliness and increased comfort with technology.
“Consumer preferences have changed, and firms will need to change right alongside them,” Derdenger said. “Now is the time for firms to be innovative in their business model and product and service offerings.”
But even with these changes, until the virus is completely controlled, “we understand that some of our members may not be comfortable or ready to come back into the clubs just yet, and for these members, we are continuing to release new on-demand videos weekly,” said Kyle Beste, vp of group fitness at Life Time.
Brands must ensure healthy motivation
While exercise can be a source of mental clarity during such uncertain times, fear of gaining the “quarantine 15” and a heightened fixation on weight loss has perhaps shifted the conversation away from health, ultimately putting consumers at risk.
“I think a lot of people are focusing on food and body because it is a means of control,” said Jenna Free, co-founder of The Body Love Society, a group coaching program that works to combat negative body image. “In a world that is so out of control right now and feels scary, I think it’s kind of a security blanket. People turn to that in times like this.”
Free added that the fitness industry must advertise the difference between weight loss and health.
According to Corradino, exercise plans that are focused on weight loss can also have a long-term effect on business. She said it is important to intrinsically motivate clients by showing them how to enjoy exercise in the moment, as opposed to focusing on body changes.
“As far as getting people into fitness long term, it is more effective to not market specific results,” she said. “There is a tendency for people to jump from one fitness program to another, and if you want to stick around long term, it’s important to emphasize just enjoying the experience of the workout.”
Although personal trainers like Katz are eager to return to their studios and many consumers are looking forward to resuming trips to the gym, many believe that a short-term disruption of traditional business may be just what the industry needed.
“The pandemic has left a permanent mark on how the fitness industry does business, but it doesn’t mean we can’t embrace the change and come out stronger for it on the other side,” he said.