How we do fitness has changed but we still want that post-gym buzz
Staying fit has always taken commitment and effort. Most people see it as a necessity, like eating your greens. But signing up for a membership at the nearest sports centre and squeezing in a few classes or rounds on the treadmill each week is a far cry from the struggle to stay well in body and mind during extended periods of uncertainty, isolation, furlough, unemployment and homeschooling. Most of us may not have been able to sweat our New Year’s resolutions out at the gym but the search is on for a more personal, one-to-one experience to help us feel reassured and stay motivated.
The last year has seen an explosion of streamed fitness sessions, new devices and wellness advice from brands, highly trained professionals and well-intentioned, occasionally misguided, social media influencers. The glut of online classes and fitness kits means people are faced with a bewildering choice from traditional fitness brands and others that are muscling their way in. As we sift through our options and rethink our lifestyles, we are building our own tailor-made fitness routines that are likely to remain in place for years to come.
UK fitness personality Joe Wicks deserves credit for his quick response to the first lockdown, launching a daily physical education session on YouTube aimed at kids that was embraced by millions (proceeds went to charity). For the UK’s third lockdown, the BBC has partnered with Wicks to run sessions on TV, widening access to even more of the population.
The juggernaut that is Peleton keeps on diversifying its offer. Over the last year, it has opened new stores, launched a treadmill and a partnership with Beyoncé, the most requested artist on its playlist. In addition to Bey-themed workouts, free digital subscriptions are being offered to students at 10 of the US’s top Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to mark the start of an even more valuable long-term recruiting relationship.
Lululemon’s acquisition last summer of at-home fitness start-up Mirror is another example of an expanding market. While in the UK, women’s lifestyle magazine Stylist has launched the Strong Women Training Club. Originally a free weekly magazine handed out to commuters, the brand has expanded into events over the years, so this extension feels like a natural next step.
Boutique fitness brand I.Brand You is a new offer designed to look at the whole person – helping people to build their personal brand by focusing on internal and external well-being (listen to our interview with founder Jade Swabey here).
We are also getting outside to take a break from all that screen time. We are walking, running, cycling and wild swimming in our thousands. As we tramp through parks and trails, there’s a role to play for outdoor brands to help people engage in a new, more respectful way with nature.
This range of options may pose a problem for fitness brands with physical locations. They will see many members rush back as soon as doors open again, but some will have to rethink their member experiences, building stronger and safer communities and updating facilities that have looked tired for far too long. Most are operating a model that has hardly changed in the last 30 or 40 years. Do they even know what their members want anymore?
There's a lot to learn from the smaller, independent competitors. They tend to have a much stronger sense of community. Many are lending equipment to members, organising virtual cook-a-longs and fitness challenges. They are also invested in their community, like The Henrietta Street Gym’s volunteer boxing programmes for young people in Birmingham’s inner city. Bristol’s Trojan Gym most recently fundraised to purchase a community-accessible defibrillator, alongside its other charity initiatives.
I’m surprised not to have seen more health club chains grabbing the opportunity to organise outdoor fitness sessions for members, in the way that Nike and Rapha have brought their communities together for years through running and cycling clubs. In the US, Soulcycle studios ran outdoor classes before winter weather set in. Orangetheory in Ohio teamed up to launch ‘Orangetherapy’, which brings in local mental health professionals to talk to members about coping with the wide range of stresses affecting people. Brands that think beyond their product and offer their customers what they really need will be the ones that thrive in the long run.
How we do fitness has changed, probably for good. But with the technology and opportunity available, there’s no excuse for brands looking to connect with their customers through fitness. The challenge for too many will be remembering those customers, clients, members and users are, at the end of the day, people who want to feel safe, well, and get that amazing post-workout buzz that makes the effort worthwhile.
By Christina Futcher, MD of Honest and recently qualified personal trainer.