Feature Article - February 2020
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Fitness for Life

An Expanding Audience, and Other Fitness Trends

By Rick Dandes


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."