Fitness for Life

An Expanding Audience, and Other Fitness Trends

Traditional exercise programming will meet and merge with technology and whole-body wellness coaching as the leading trends in 2020 and beyond, according to fitness experts.

"It appears as though basic exercises like high-intensity interval training, strength training and using free weights are always going to be the foundation of fitness programs, particularly in commercial clubs," said Walter R. Thompson, former president, American College of Sports Medicine (2017-2018), and author of "Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2020," published in ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal. "But wearable technology, the ACSM's number-one trend in 2020, is becoming an indispensable part of the programming mix, in commercial clubs in particular."


"Given ongoing advances in technology and increasingly virtual participants, a trend I envision playing out significantly in 2020 and beyond is a broadening of how we view fitness and recreation and what it entails," said Ann Wyatt, vice president of Program Management & Engagement for HealthFitness, a provider of fitness center management and wellness programs. "It all comes down to offering our participants better and more convenient options to help them manage their health. This likely will encompass the use of wearables, small-group training and live streaming on-demand instructor-led workouts (at home or in a facility)."

Wearable technology, Thompson explained, includes fitness trackers, smart watches, heart-rate monitors and GPS tracking devices. Examples include fitness and activity trackers like those from Fitbit, Garmin and Apple. These devices can track steps, heart rate, calories burned, sitting time and much more. Wearable technology has been estimated to be about a $95 billion industry.

Clubs are creating links between people's wearables and what happens in the gym, Thompson said. "You might go into a gym that has a group exercise program, and they'll tap into their wearable device and project on a big screen on the wall your first name and your heart rate or minutes active. It can become a competition. They are using that technology very effectively in gyms."

Wearable technology also provides people with instant feedback, added Vanessa M. Kercher, a clinical assistant professor in the Kinesiology Department at Indiana University. Kercher's research focuses on helping individuals optimize their physical activity experiences to promote sustainable, positive health behaviors.

The key to keeping people active, Kercher said, is to give them that instant feedback. "A client might have certain fitness goals, such as wanting to lose weight or increase their stamina. But those goals could take months to achieve, and it is hard for most people to stay motivated over an extended period of time. Wearables can provide some timely gratification. It might even tell you that it's time for you to move, be less sedentary. It's good for people to be cued throughout the day. In that sense, wearables are hot. For fitness professionals, it is a great tool for programmers to use and track some of the goals they might have that center around positive experiences."

Thompson, who has tracked trends for the past 14 years, said that what he really finds fascinating is to see certain fitness programs trend for a while, and then completely disappear, or at least disappear in major markets, only to reappear later on.

In the 1970s, he noted, group training was all the rage. "You'd see very energetic group exercise leaders on a stage leading 100 to 150 people. That was big group training. Then, in the early 1990s, personal training became hot. Before that, you didn't see personal training, except personal trainers for the stars. Every club that you'd go into, whether a community-based organization, like a YMCA or JCC, a high-end commercial club or even low-end commercial club, you'd see personal trainers being employed."


During the recession, in 2007 to 2008, many people couldn't afford personal trainers anymore, Thompson said, "so you began to see small group training, defined as five people or less, where if you brought a friend into a group you could get a 30% discount or something like that for the both of you. The personal trainer would still be making money because now he was training a few people and not one, even though they all might be getting a discount. We saw this surge of small-group personal training."

As the economy began to improve, Thompson said, "there was a resurgence of personal training, but we also started seeing, about five years ago, group training coming back. I think it came out of the small-group personal training that surged after the recession. People found out that they like to be in groups."

Small-group personal training is a "huge trend," Kercher said. "It's in line with people wanting to connect with others, feel accountable and gain a sense of mastery in skill sets. We've learned over time in our research that when people are around others who have the same goals, the same mindset and all want to do better, they do more. Their relatedness is being matched. Interaction keeps you going. Programmers need to take heed of this trend."

The generation that is now involved in group training, however, is a totally different generation than it was back in the 1970s or 1980s, Thompson said. "They were never exposed to group training. These small-group training sessions are starting to merge with a single personal trainer. Today, in 2020, ACSM is predicting that group training is going to be the third highest trending form of exercise. It was number-two last year and in 2018."

Take It Outside

With a desire to provide as many outlets for people to get active as possible, parks and rec organizations and others devoted to improving wellness have increasingly been adding outdoor fitness options, which most often are free for use by anyone in the community. This might include cardio and strength training equipment that works a wide range of muscle groups, as well as inclusive equipment aimed at getting a wider percentage of the population active.

"There has also been a push toward greater inclusiveness in outdoor fitness areas," explained Allison Abel, director of marketing for a manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment based in Anaheim, Calif. "New machines that accommodate users at all fitness levels—including those in wheelchairs—are now available. The goal is to create an exercise environment where all participants can perform activities at their individual level."

Even if the selection of available apparatuses does not include activities for those at all fitness levels, she noted, it's often possible to adapt these machines to a wide range of users, and the programmer plays a key role here. "Take, for example an upper-body machine utilizing body-weight leverage. Those in wheelchairs may be able to transfer."

The able-bodied can keep their feet on the ground for an easier exercise, Abel said, or extend their legs in front of them with knees straight to engage the abs. "Pull-up bars can be made usable by those at lower fitness levels by using resistance bands looped over the bars to assist users in lifting their weight. Ideally, a class can accommodate a wide range of users and provide opportunities for diverse community members to socialize with each other at the same time as they work out."

A unique trend in 2020 outdoor fitness programming, added TJ Peele, HealthFitness director of Business Development, college and university, is the continued emergence of obstacle course races. They appeal to multiple skill levels, have collaborative components, and offer variety to those who find single-modality competitions limiting.

"Similarly," Peele said, "in fitness facilities and gyms, the emergence of ninja training courses will continue, as they allow for continuous engagement through multiple modalities while providing a great workout. For operators, ninja courses are ideal as they can be bolted in place but then removed if future programming trends and needs emerge."

And, similar to what's trending in indoor fitness centers and clubs, outdoor fitness has also increasingly been incorporating functional fitness, said Abel—exercises that mimic everyday tasks such as carrying, reaching, and bending. Programmers should make sure to include these types of exercises.

Think Small

The biggest growth factor in fitness facilities for at least the past five years is the emergence of boutiques and studios, said Meredith Poppler, vice president, communications and leadership engagement for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). "With less heavy equipment needs," she said, "they are able to open in smaller spaces and employ less staff than full-service multipurpose clubs or equipment-heavy fitness-only clubs."

Millennials and gen Z are driving this trend, Poppler said, as they are less likely to commit to long-term contracts, and therefore prefer paying a fee-per-class rather than committing to a monthly contract. Personalization and tribalism are fueling the boutique demand, especially among millennials.

"Most people want to be with 'their people,'" Poppler said. "They like being with people like them who have the same passions. Boutiques deliver on that, whether you are a cyclist and want to be around others in an indoor cycling space, or a yoga practitioner, or a CrossFitter. No matter what fitness or sports tribe you identify with, there's a studio that fits your calling."

Stay Ahead of Trends

At commercial clubs where the bottom line is important, said Thompson, "programmers should pay attention to trends in the industry. If a club is not doing group training, if for some reason they are avoiding it, they are not going to do as well as the gym next door that has group training. Same thing with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Some people shy away from it because they think there is going to be a higher rate of injury—that someone could get hurt or die from it. That hasn't been shown to be true. If your facility is not doing high-intensity interval training and you're not doing group exercise training, then you are probably missing out on a very large segment of the market."

Fitness programs for older adults is also a "must," Thompson said. As the baby-boom generation is retiring, they are doing so in good physical shape. "It's not like prior generations where you had your first heart attack by the time you were 60," he said. "Today retirees are looking for places to go and to live where they can be physically active. Community organizations like YMCAs and JCCs already do a good job with this, but the commercial clubs need to as well."

If you are 65 years old and walking on a treadmill at a 12-minutes-per-mile pace, and some young person comes in and sets the treadmill next to you at a 7-minutes-per-mile pace, that is not a very inviting place to be, Thompson explained. "So, what smart clubs are doing is at the end of the morning rush—around 9 o'clock—they turn the rock and rap music down and are inviting people to exercise who have that time between 9 and 11 a.m. and 2 to 4 in the afternoon, where the music played on loudspeakers is Bach and Beethoven and not Dr. Dre and Drake. And they are teaching their personal trainers how to work with older people, which is not the same as if you were working with a 25-year-old."

Those three—HIIT, group exercise and specialized training for older adults—are three areas Thompson said he would keep his eyes on if he were a commercial club owner.

Beyond that, keep your programming fresh and innovative. Reinvent older programs if necessary, Thompson said. "I was surprised that yoga was not in our survey of top 10 trends for 2020. Part of the reason why yoga remains popular is that yoga instructors reinvent themselves, introduce new forms of yoga. I contrast it to Zumba, which was incredibly popular years ago, and other forms of Latin-type dances. If you go to New York City, the eastern shore of Florida or California, you'll still see Zumba. But it doesn't have this worldwide popularity that it used to have."


The point, Thompson said, is they didn't reinvent themselves. "If you went to a Zumba class 20 years ago, it would be the same as you'd find today. Some people like that, but exercise has a tendency to get stale. People want new, exciting kinds of things, and unfortunately Zumba instructors did not reinvent themselves."

The same holds true with Pilates, he said. Pilates 20 years ago was very popular, Thompson said, "but we haven't seen Pilates in our survey of top 20 trends now for the past 10 years. They, like Zumba, did not reinvent themselves, as opposed to yoga classes where instructors are reinventing and remarketing."


Meanwhile, Poppler said she is often asked about the impact of high-end home interactive fitness products, such as Mirror or Peloton. "Thus far," she said, "at-home fitness programs and products have been feeders to clubs, rather than competition. With the early-adopter products like Mirror or Peloton, those early adopters are also more likely to have a gym and a trainer as well."

It remains to be seen, however, if an Uber-like fitness delivery product or service will have an impact on clubs, she cautioned. "Clubs are, and position themselves as, not only places to exercise but places of community and connection. People visit their club, gym or boutique studio for much more than equipment and a good workout. There's the social aspect of a club, whether that club caters to families, millennials or seniors. The camaraderie of being with your tribe is why boutiques are the fastest-growing segment of the market."

Poppler urges programmers to understand that even the most dedicated exerciser is only in the club an hour of every day, "so be ready to serve them when they are not at the club. Most clubs embrace the idea and technology around connected workouts. Many clubs are providing apps that measure and track exercise and its results regardless of where the member performs the exercise."

2020 & Beyond

Mind-body wellness and attention to fitness throughout the lifespan is a trend that will continue to be strong, said Kercher. "This applies to all demographics—kids, adolescents and older people. The need to focus on children is a trend that will be huge," she said. "For a programmer, it comes down to treating a person's lifespan, working at promoting physical activity. It is important to provide different programs that are tackling that lifespan. There is functional fitness stuff for kids, strength training as they get older, resistance training or movement, all the way to the older adults." Older adults could have balance problems, or you might need to focus on posture.

Another future trend is what ACSM calls "the coach approach," Kercher said. "Wellness coaching is conducive to helping with behavior change, sustainable behavior and a lifestyle change approach."

Wellness coaching can be associated with functional fitness programs, kids' programming and weight loss. "It is the answer to making sure a client is meeting their goals, doing the right thing and sustaining new behaviors," she said. "People need to talk to a coach for positive reinforcement. This is important for programmers to think about. People need to be held accountable and feel competent, and to feel a sense of mastery. At the same time, people want to relate with others, either within a group or working with a coach.

"The idea of coaching is coming," Kercher said, excitedly. "I feel it. I know it. It is where we need to go for people to stay active. In order to keep helping people with their mind-body-spirit, a coach is great. A coach is a teacher. In the fitness industry, we need coaches. And it doesn't matter how old the client is: An older person needs a coach, and a younger person needs a coach."

Inclusivity will only increase into this new decade, Poppler added. "Clubs are looking to be more accommodating of populations that have special needs." While physical inactivity is a global problem, she said, the outlook is often worse for those living with disabilities who face additional barriers to exercising, such as perceived negative attitudes, discrimination and lack of inclusion. While clubs alone cannot address every single barrier those with disabilities face, the fitness industry is working to create an environment where no one feels unwelcome or intimidated.

Since experience and community are key drivers, Poppler continued, clubs and studios should be putting more into efforts to keep their fitness communities connected, whether in person or via apps and social media. Many of the chains and larger club companies are heavily investing in branded apps to keep their clubs "sticky." Trainers need to be great at training and communicating their services, but now, many clubs are encouraging their trainers to be active on social media to gain a following. RM