Fitness Technology

Fitness Had a Bumper Year—And It’s Not Slowing Down in 2021, Either

Ali Finney

All parts of wellness had a shake up this year—how we work out, what we eat, the products we put on our faces, the way we rest—and the reverberations of those changes will be felt into 2021 and beyond. Here’s how the innovations born of this year will usher us into the future. See All

After workout spaces closed their doors in mid March, it didn’t take us long to realize that the gym is wherever you can lay your mat. According to the media analytics company Comscore, March 2020 saw a 147 percent increase from the prior year in consumption of on-demand fitness videos on streaming apps, subscription platforms, and cable. Then in June, YouTube announced that since March 15, daily views of videos with “home workout” in the title saw a 515 percent uptick. And Well+Good’s own YouTube fitness videos likewise surged in popularity, generating 350 percent more views in 2020 than in 2019.

With this newfound appreciation for sweating it out at home, we’ll see a major flip-flop of the fitness industry in 2021: In BC times (before COVID-19, that is), Americans largely associated exercise with a trip to the gym or a fitness studio. But into next year, digital workouts will become the norm, with fitness brands embracing an “omnichannel” approach that gives users access to IRL sessions, live-streaming classes, and on-demand libraries. “The businesses that will survive will be those that can adapt to this trend via hybrid memberships inclusive of both in-person and virtual offerings. Ninety-one percent of group fitness businesses are offering or planning to offer virtual services in 2020,” says Josh McCarter, CEO of the fitness booking platform Mindbody.

This shift will spark innovation on all fronts next year. First, brands are finding ways to reach more people. “This pandemic has forced us, and many other brands, to reimagine our business model and rethink how we engage with our clients,” says Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s, which launched online classes in April and is set to launch Barry’s At Home platform—with features like social sharing components, on-demand workouts, and new modalities—in 2021. Tone House (“the hardest workout in NYC”) launched its digital platform in May and will deploy a 12-week online program for beginners at the first of the year. “The digital expansion has reduced three barriers to entry: price, proximity, and fear,” says Elvira Yambot, Tone House’s chief operating officer. All these digital upgrades are expected to help drive 30 percent year-over-year growth, leading the online fitness market to be worth an estimated $30 billion in 2026.

In addition to developing new digital offerings, apps and fitness-streaming platforms are striving to increase financial accessibility. Top trainers are creating videos for YouTube (see: Well+Good’s own Trainer of the Month Club), while Nike Training Club recently committed to making its app totally free. Orangetheory At-Home, likewise, offers free workouts for both members and non-members on YouTube, the brand’s website, and its app.

Next year will also see new solutions to some of the long-held gripes about digital fitness products thanks to investments from companies like Apple, Samsung, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. For instance, those concerned about over- or under-training without a trainer present can check out a 2021 feature Apple Fitness+ is imminently launching that will serve up workout recommendations based on the intensity of their last session. Tonal—the strength-training behemoth backed by Amazon—will introduce Smart Flex to solve the same issue: This hardware feature dynamically adjusts the machine’s weights while you’re lifting (down to the millisecond) to ensure you’re getting your best workout possible. And Nike, which has a longstanding partnership with the Apple Watch, aims to keep motivation up when you’re sweating solo by offering training programs, guided runs, and on-demand classes from star trainers like Shalane Flanagan within the Nike Run or Training Clubs App that show up on your watch face. 

The final piece of the fitness puzzle for 2021 is finding ways to replicate the energy and community of a live workout class virtually. Peloton has long led the charge in creating digital togetherness and connection for its 3.6 million subscribers (early in the pandemic, head instructor and vice president of programming Robin Arzon led a live-streamed workout for enough people to fill Madison Square Garden) and it’s rolling out new features in an effort to stay in front as other players invest in the space. During the tail-end of 2020, for instance, the brand experimented with a beta version of a feature called “Sessions” that allows those who join a class within five minutes of each other to compete on the leaderboard the same way they would in a live class. “We always knew our community was really special,” says Jen Cotter, Peloton chief content officer. “But I will say it was a humbling human responsibility to be at Peloton at a time where you could sense our community needed each other in a different way.”

Other ways digital brands are looking to foster community among their users include a new workout party feature from Obé (wherein you can invite up to seven friends to sweat with you) and upcoming launches from Mirror that allow you to go on a “Sweat Date” with a friend or participate in head-to-head challenges with other users during a live class. These opportunities for digital connection are all the more valuable when it’s not possible to gather in person, says Peloton instructor Ally Love. “Having people in real time, live on the leaderboard, is an acknowledgement of unity. Hopping on [for a class], especially when you are feeling low, and realizing that you’re not alone, not only helps boost the spirit, but helps us all stand in our power,” she says. “We show up for ourselves and, for each other. Now that’s a real community!”

These personalized touches and connections with trainers are the stuff that business is built upon. “No matter how you choose to sweat in 2021, the fitness fundamentals will stay the same—a great workout with a connected group of people led by an inspiring instructor is what brings you back every day,” says Brynn Putnam, Mirror founder. By leveraging community, utilizing new technology, and providing studio-like experiences to users, every drop of sweat is proving to be liquid gold for brands and those elevating their heart rates alike.

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