Fitness Gets Personal
Pandemic Adaptations Mean More Fitness Offerings
After a challenging couple of years, fitness facilities are back in action, offering in-person workouts once again and giving gym-goers the opportunity to take their favorite exercise class and work out with their favorite trainer. What's more, live streaming sessions and digital apps have become more popular, giving consumers the option to stay fit at home or switch up their workouts.
No matter where consumers want to work out, they have many choices today, with more digital content being offered, as well as tailored workouts to meet individual needs.
"Fitness facilities are always looking into how to accommodate members and consumers. Right now, according to The Next Fitness Consumer Report, it's about delivering a personalized and curated experience wherever fitness is consumed—in the gym, outdoors, at home, etc. It's no longer a one-size-fits-all situation. Fitness facilities understand that each consumer's wants and needs are different, and it's important to cater to those individually," said Sami Smith, communications and public relations assistant at IHRSA, the Global Health & Fitness Association.
(The Next Fitness Consumer Report, commissioned by the IHRSA Foundation and ABC Fitness Solutions, provides an in-depth analysis of the active fitness consumer post-COVID. Topics that are covered in the report include: exercise motivations; fitness goals; activity regimen mix, including in-club, outdoor and digital usage; expenditures on fitness participation; demographics of active consumers; as well as a snapshot of traditional gym consumers.)
In addition, Smith pointed out that there is a strong focus on providing medical fitness and improving mental health. "The fitness industry has preached the immense overall benefits that physically active lifestyles provide—boost in immune health, the social, physical and mental improvements, etc.—and now people are truly listening," she said. "Among active Americans, mental well-being is ranked as the second extrinsic fitness motivator for consumers, only behind being active."
Anthony J. Wall, director of international business development for ACE (American Council on Exercise), noted that many club operators have been successful in bringing back members. "Member engagement and member experience are two aspects where facilities can improve their offering," Wall said. "Member engagement, while tied closely to the experience, is subtly different. When clubs talk about engagement, they are looking at how they can create a connection with the member on a more personal level. The member experience is often the broader context."
Some factors of engagement, he said, include: "the social element: being recognized by a staff person, people remembering your name and staff asking you about your day, etc. The experience starts with instilling trust in the member. In our current times, this starts with demonstrating a commitment to the health and safety of members and staff by following appropriate cleaning protocols and social distancing regulations. Other clubs have introduced new services."
He added that, "Despite the pandemic, some facilities have undergone an upgrade or have refurbished certain areas of the club. Through programs and touch points, clubs are trying to make members feel welcome, heard and appreciated."
Marco Zambianchi, president, North America, at a global company that specializes in equipment and digital technologies for fitness, sport and health, said that "The fitness world has changed since COVID, so it's imperative for facilities to do two things."
One is to "Offer more digital content," he said. "More and more fitness club members, especially millennials, expect their clubs to continue offering digital content even post-COVID. They've become accustomed to working out at home with digital apps, so this hybrid model will likely continue."
Second is for facilities to "Focus on an updated and personalized offering, and on the integration of physical and digital experiences," he said. A digital platform the company offers provides both offerings for fitness clubs. It enables wellness professionals to deliver user experiences anytime and anywhere.
"By helping them easily book their favorite workout from home or even on their way to the facility, members avoid queues and increase their confidence and security by making the experience seamless," Zambianchi said, noting that the latest evolution of the company's digital platform "adds the ability for businesses to deliver a hybrid model, making products and services accessible both in the facility and away from it (from bookings and payments to physical training experiences and classes)."
Similarly, Eric Vahey, strategic account manager for YMCA/JCC and connected solutions specialist at a Cottage Grove, Wis.-based company that specializes in commercial fitness products, said that "New technologies are transforming fitness mediums, and people have come to expect access to virtual training options with fitness memberships. Facilities are gravitating toward cardio equipment with immersive on-console content such as on-demand workouts and live studio classes to meet and exceed that expectation."
What's more, "Connected technology on the cardio floor also helps facilities engage members who want to feel like a part of a community even if they aren't ready to rejoin group activities or have minimal interest in participating within a studio environment," he said. "Flexible offerings give members the choice to work out with their favorite trainers or in their preferred virtual landscapes whenever it suits their schedules best."
In October, it was announced that a strategic partnership was established between the Cottage Grove, Wis.-based company and an on-demand digital platform for the YMCA community, which offers group exercise classes, youth sports instruction, nutrition and wellbeing classes for Y members wherever they are.
"The partnership was formed so participating YMCAs can give their members access to the depth and breadth of the [digital platform] with 1,000-plus on-demand exercise classes and programs" on the company's touch consoles and new virtual training cycle, explained Brian Rewkowski, the company's senior manager for strategic accounts and group education.
"As a result of the partnership, [the YMCA digital platform] plans to grow their content library and release more product-specific exercise classes featuring [our] cardiovascular machines, including treadmills, suspension ellipticals, ascent trainers, climbmills and stationary cycles," he added.
Programming, Equipment Trends
As far as trends go, digital, at-home fitness services and equipment are gaining in popularity.
"Digital fitness was up-and-coming prior to the pandemic, and, because of mandatory shutdowns, fitness facilities quickly got on board to keep consumers active and engaged," Smith said. "To meet consumers' needs, an omnichannel approach—a variety of live streaming or on-demand options and in-club classes and programs—is expected to be the new normal."
The key to retaining members is to remain flexible and engage consumers, which, she said, "is why CRM (customer relationship management) software is also on the climb; keeping consumers on track with their goals, connecting with other members and staff, understanding what consumers want and need, knowing what needs improvement in your club. CRMs really hold a lot of information in one database."
In addition, Wall noted that one of the things seen during the pandemic was "a slight shift in the popularity of programs. Whether this is a long-term change will remain to be seen. Mind-body offerings, such as yoga and Pilates, have grown in popularity."
There also has been an "increase in the demand of high-intensity classes. These classes are often shorter in duration, so it may be time commitment is a factor," he said.
Another service that has grown is fitness clubs extending and continuing their on-demand or streaming services, which Wall said increased "substantially during the pandemic."
"As members are returning back to gyms, clubs have continued to offer a modified timetable for reopening and offering virtual courses. Whether this is to offset the in-club programs or if this is a long-term strategy remains to be seen," he added.
Two key trends in fitness programming and equipment that Zambianchi discussed include data monitoring and content.
"For members to enjoy a training experience suited to their needs and aspirations, it is essential to be able to track their results and progress," he said. "Data monitoring allows operators and trainers to prescribe tailored workouts, exercises and technical advice to achieve a specific goal by accurately identifying workload, distance, duration, calories or heart rate."
Regarding the second trend, "Content is the key," he said. "Users are looking for highly personalized content and a wide variety of activities, classes and workouts that can be enjoyed, either physically or digitally, live or on demand."
The company's new live training experience, which is available on all of its cardio products, offers users a training experience that is complete with data monitoring and content. The live training experience features the company's new "AI-based virtual assistant that guides users through the different training options based on their passions, needs and tastes," he explained.
Alongside the virtual assistant is a complete library of sessions, which are on-demand digital classes that are available across the entire cardio line. The library consists of training videos—with different durations and training focuses, and led by sought-after trainers.
Some trends in fitness programming and equipment Vahey pointed out include the fact that "The traffic patterns of the core cardio modalities remain consistent, treadmills still being the most desired of the cardio mix. With the hybridization of onsite and virtual training, more facilities are adopting cardio modalities with fully connected console technology to give members access to on-demand content and programs.
"Functional training spaces are gaining popularity, especially multipurpose areas that can be used for individual, 1:1 personal training and small group training. Effective and easy-to-understand programming remains a key driver in attracting and retaining members," he added. "Virtual training programs are increasing the need for facilities to extend their reach past their four walls, which requires attention to an intuitive, one-stop-shop for members to access limitless resources."
Beyond the Gym
More fitness facilities are taking their offerings beyond the gym walls and enabling consumers to integrate their workouts, for example, with outdoor exercise.
For fitness clubs to take their offerings beyond the gym, it's all about "keeping consumers engaged and filling them with knowledge to maintain their overall health," Smith said. "Again, due to shutdowns and capacity limitations upon reopening, outdoor exercise became an alternative for the gym."
During the height of the pandemic, fitness facilities in some states, such as California, were closed for nine months or more—so expanding or creating areas for outdoor exercise for consumers was vital.
"Beyond the gym, fitness facilities educate their staff about the overall benefits of exercise and healthy habits, so that they can better provide for consumers," she said. "It's not all about changing your physical appearance or losing/gaining weight. It's about the total fitness experience and meeting consumers where they're at. For example, some health clubs provide nutrition programming or create a sense of community and belonging through hosting events outside the club."
Wall noted that online programming is an area in which clubs are extending their services.
"Generally, they have offered these services to existing members. Over time, we'll see them open up their service to a different group of members," he said. "Could the future offer virtual memberships? I have not seen this yet, but suspect a few places are already doing it.
"We are still in the early days of learning the best way to move forward. Even though different parts of the world are at different points in the evolution of their pandemic, everyone is slowly starting to understand what the long-term implications are for their business," he added. "As this settles we'll understand what services and models are the most successful."
The year 2020 had confirmed and strengthened a trend that already was emerging, Zambianchi noted, "that of online training, whereby training is increasingly seen as independent from a specific place or time, but an experience to be lived wherever and whenever people choose. The forced closure of fitness centers also brought on the growth of the home training and hybrid model phenomenon—be it at home, in the gym or outdoors."
The company's digital platforms offer the hybrid experience where users can work out wherever and whenever they choose. Even if users want to work out at the gym, the live training experience has a "renewed library of outdoor virtual training, a full range of exercises and training routines that completes the variety of training options users can choose from," he said. "These are yet another opportunity for operators to offer every single member a fully personalized and engaging experience from both the training and entertainment standpoint." RM