The Big Picture
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.
"“The digital expansion has reduced three barriers to entry: price, proximity, and fear." Elvira Yambot, Tone House COO
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.”
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.
Studio Equipment Finds a New Home—In Our Homes
There’s nothing quite like a stay-at-home order to have record numbers of Americans decking out their home gyms… or at least collapsing treadmills to fit under their couches. Sales of fitness equipment have skyrocketed this year—particularly for cardio machines like stationary bikes, treadmills, and rowers—and the crowded market is pushing fitness brands to innovate. In 2021, we’ll see improvements on two fronts: more affordable hardware and more connected digital experiences. Both of these are great news for how we work out.
Market research groups confirm the at-home boom is consistent across the industry: The NPD Group reports that stationary bike sales have risen 100 percent this year; WGSN shares that searches for treadmills on Amazon have doubled since March; ICON Fitness, the largest gym equipment manufacturer in the world, has sustained 600 percent year-over-year growth since May; cardio purveyor Life Fitness’s consumer orders have increased 130 percent; and at large, the fitness industry is expected to pack on $2 billion more in valuation over the next five years.
Newer fit-tech brands like MYX, Stryde, and Echelon are standing out from the crowd by offering connected workouts (aka fitness equipment that comes with a screen and corresponding on-demand and live-streamed classes) at a (albeit still expensive) lower price point—starting at $840 compared to Peloton’s $1,895. “Digital fitness hardware [offerings] are going to grow broader in 2021 at both [the lower and higher] ends of the price spectrum,” says Mohammed Iqbal, founder and CEO of SweatWorks, a company that focuses on digital fitness product design. “Many brands are already offering several tiers of products, including Peloton, MYXfitness, and CityRow, where you can get a base version or a ‘plus’ version.”
Next year, the competition will continue to tighten: Echelon has plans to launch a treadmill and NordicTrack just announced Vault, a mirror (with a lowercase “m”) device, which should hit big box stores any day now. Zwift, the online cycling and running app that is valued at over $1 billion, is meanwhile expected to launch its first piece of hardware in 2021.
And that brings us to the second field of innovation: The classes available to you at home. “When I talk about this category, I like to remind people that home fitness equipment and home fitness content are not new,” says Jon Canarick, managing partner at North Castle Partners, a VC group that invested in Echelon. “What has changed is bringing those two things together and creating a better experience.” And brands are doing this in unique ways that will only continue to get more creative next year.
New partnerships between hardware- and content-focused brands, for one, are increasing the options available to boutique fitness devotees who want to sweat at home. CityRow is launching classes outside of rowing in the new year. And the Equinox-owned app Variis, which launched in March (for Equinox subscribers only) with content for the new SoulCycle bike and classes from PURE Yoga, Precision Running, and others—added cult-favorite studios solidcore and Rumble to its roster this fall as well as made membership available to all.
Other digital fitness brands are creating immersive class experiences that take participants outside the studio: Hydrow received $25 million in funding in June in order to expand its offering of “Live Outdoor Reality” classes in 2021. And Peloton’s artists series, which features rides set to chart-topping talent like Beyoncé or Bon Jovi, is meant to recreate the energy of a concert in your living room. “As digital fitness becomes a more permanent fixture in our lives, brands are focused on keeping their consumers engaged in their brand rather than having you jump around across platforms,” says Iqbal. “Ultimately, this will result in better value for the consumer.” In 2021, and beyond.
Trend Photo: Hydrow
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Hard Times Prompt Restorative Modalities To Hit Pause On ‘Going Hard’
"Crushing it" at the gym becomes less cathartic when all you want is for everything to feel less crushing. "I think people have completely changed their relationship with working out [this year],” says Hollie Bloch, director of events and marketing at New York City’s East River Pilates. "It used to be an adrenaline hour and now it's become a survival mechanism." And as we head into 2021, Americans will look for new ways to use fitness as a balm for both body and soul.
"I'm seeing more emotional-based requests [for classes]," says YouTube’s most popular yoga instructor and Yoga With Adriene founder Adriene Mishler, who cites “Yoga for Loneliness” as her most-watched video of 2020. "We're circling back to yoga being used as a resource in the same way that it was when I found yoga—as a tool for tending to your inner self," she says. And she’s carrying this idea into the new year by focusing her annual 30 Days of Yoga program in January on connecting with your breath.
Yoga, which ClassPass says has seen a 25-percent increase in interest on the platform this year, is just one of a few gentler modalities that are gaining traction. Stretching is another method on the rise, with ClassPass saying it ranked among the top 10 on-demand activities booked during 2020 and workout app Aaptiv adding stretching classes to its offerings to meet increased interest. Cult-beloved sweatbox The Class by Taryn Toomey says its new hybrid Restore classes—which combine the brand’s signature fiery workouts with intensive stretching and meditation—have been so successful, the brand plans to expand its restorative offerings in 2021.
"People need an escape. They need to find safe ways to de-stress," says Nike master trainer Traci Copeland, who leads yoga flows on the NTC app. "Realizing that we have to live with this [pandemic], we want to prepare our minds and our bodies for a certain level of uncertainty. I think that’s why we call it a practice. Practice so you can be ready again when and if things get worse."
An area of growth to keep an eye on in 2021 is fitness offerings that more explicitly blend exercises for the body and mind. This year, Aaptiv added more sleep classes and walking meditations, while at-home fitness platform Mirror saw a 40-percent increase in demand for mindfulness content. The classes available on Open, a new digital platform launching in early 2021, combine physical movement with breathwork, meditation, and music in what it calls a “hybrid methodology…designed to strengthen the mind-body connection.” Wellness booking platform Wellset has seen such demand for this type of mind/body content, says founder Tegan Bukowski, that they’re creating tools to help fitness instructors pivot to include it in their slate of offerings.
Body alignment specialist Lauren Roxburgh is similarly blending her 2021 programming; her 11-week course, ELEVATE, which is “designed to strengthen and empower your body, mind, and heart,” launches in January. “2021 is all about becoming your own healer and finding more restorative ways to up-level your energy and stay calm in the chaos,” she says.
Trend Photo: Luis Alvarez
High-Tech Sneakers Give Runners a Performance Boost
In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge became the first runner to complete a marathon in under two hours. One key factor attributed to his success: his shoes. Kipchoge was wearing a Nike prototype sneaker not yet available to the public. But next year, shoe technology that was once reserved for making the world’s top athletes perform harder, better, faster, stronger will be available to all of us at the click of a button.
The global sneaker industry is on track to hit $97.8 billion in four years—and that's primarily due to innovations that are already well underway. “It's not just performance athletes who are benefiting,” says Danny Orr, general manager for performance running at New Balance. “We really are seeing everyday runners being able to run farther, being able to run faster, being able to run more frequently.”
One shoe upgrade that's now trickling down to the everyday workout warrior is carbon-fiber plating in the footbed, which helps to propel runners forward, making every step more energy-efficient. By Nike's measure, adding this component to shoes boosts runners' speeds by 4 percent. "Now that consumers have access to this innovation [with the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%], we've heard from many that they're running their fastest times ever," says Jenna Golden, director of Nike media relations and narrative. Nike isn’t the only brand using carbon fiber plates: This fall, Brooks launched the Hyperion Elite 2, an ultra-fast shoe with plates built from a prototype that helped Des Linden win the Boston Marathon in 2018. The just-launched, ultra-high-end Courser sneaker utilizes the technology, as does On Cloudboom Shoes to keep the wearer’s feet in the optimum position to hit the pavement.
Another high-tech feature that will become more available to the public next year is lightweight, energy-transferring foam that helps with speed and cushion (over the thousands of steps on your run, a heavy shoe can slow your pace and wear down your joints). "Materials that are lighter weight, more durable, bouncier will extend themselves farther across [sneaker] categories” in 2021, says Jean-Luc Diard, founder of Hoka One One. Asics will release the latest iteration of its MetaRacer, which contains FlyteFoam technology that helps feet to bounce back after striking the pavement. And New Balance has plans to extend the FuelCell line, which has advanced foams that give runners a lot more bounce back.
When it comes to these two big upgrades, the name of the game is efficiency and injury prevention. “The technological advances have helped our foot structure, our form, our biomechanics, and the health of our body,” says Jordan Marie Daniel, founder of Rising Hearts and professional runner with Altra and RabbitPRO.
And while Daniel is an elite runner, everyone who laces up can benefit from these advances. “These technologies are for everybody,” says Orr. “The people who want to use them to run faster can really enjoy them, but the benefits also exist for that person who wants to be able to get out a little bit more frequently.” In 2021, we might not be breaking World Records, but with the help of smarter shoe tech, we'll definitely be breaking our own.
Trend Photo: On
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Al Fresco Workouts Are a Breath of Fresh Air
Fresh air, open sky, firm ground: “It just feels good to be outside,” says Julia Healey, director of account management at ClassPass. Necessity may have sent Americans in search of sweat sessions outdoors this year, but thanks to major investment and expansion by some of the fitness industry’s biggest players, this movement has legs that will carry it beyond COVID-19.
Over the past six months, one by one, fitness studios and gyms in select markets moved their operations outside: Barry’s, 305 Fitness, Fhitting Room, SoulCycle, and SLT, among others. And this pivot has proven to be more than a fair-weather solution. Kristin Sudeikis, founder of the New York City-based studio Forward_Space, for one, says she plans to continue the brand’s al fresco dance parties “forever.” And Healey says brands are making significant financial investments in developing open-air spaces that can accommodate more equipment-heavy modalities. Two examples: Equinox opened full-service outdoor locations in New York and Los Angeles this fall (called Equinox+ In the Wild) and Gold’s Gym has plans for a 1,400-square-foot covered terrace to open for classes and training sessions in Washington, DC, in early 2021.
SLT founder Amanda Freeman, whose fresh air Megaformer classes will stick around through next year, says the shift outside also presents brands with new expansion opportunities. “I expect to see outdoor workouts continue once the pandemic has ended thanks to the unique experience an outdoor class offers as well as the fact that they’re a cost-effective way for studios to offer their workout in more places,” she says. SLT will be expanding its outdoor offerings next year (though the locations are still TBD), and 305 Fitness and Forward_Space will be launching theirs in cities where they don’t yet have physical locations. Fhitting Room and The Ness are looking to broaden their own open-air offerings through partnerships with hotels, and Orangetheory chief brand officer Kevin Keith foresees outdoor workouts contributing to the brand’s continued growth beyond the pandemic.
"People have been forced to explore, and I think studios are seeing their clients respond well to doing workouts on a beach or in a park,” says Ntiedo Etuk, CEO of Fitgrid, a communication platform for fitness studios and communities. “I see studios...keeping outdoor options open because their clients like that variety." After a year that was dominated by Zoom meetings and “Are you still watching?” messages from Netflix, fresh-air workouts are exactly what our screen-fatigued brains and couch-contorted bodies have been begging for.
Trend Photo: Equinox