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Why experts say the pandemic-led virtual fitness boom is here to stay

  • Much like how Netflix and Amazon disrupted the way Americans watch television and shop, experts say the on-demand fitness boom is ushering in the next wave of digitization in our lives. 
  • While the pandemic was integral to the rise of digital fitness, Matthew Schopfer, head of research at Infusive, said it ultimately served to accelerate a push towards digital fitness that had long been in the works.
  • “The virtual component was already a big deal for us as a brand,” Retro Fitness Chief Marketing Officer Victor Bao told Business Insider. “And then as the pandemic shut down every single business in the world, we made a big thrust into virtual.”
  • We talked to leaders in the fitness industry and analysts about why they think virtual fitness is here to stay, even when the pandemic subsides. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The pandemic has drastically changed the way Americans exercise, and now experts say it will have lasting effects on the long-term digitization of fitness. 

With gyms and fitness studios temporarily shuttered earlier this year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, consumers found alternate outlets to break a sweat — namely virtual, on-demand fitness programs.

According to Matthew Schopfer, head of research at investment management firm Infusive, while it is true that the pandemic was integral to this shift, the coronavirus ultimately served to accelerate a push toward digital fitness that had long been in the works. 

Much like how Netflix and Amazon disrupted the way Americans watch television and shop, Schopfer says the on-demand fitness boom is another example of digitization infiltrating all aspects of our lives.  

“We’ve seen this across all sorts of different industries and categories, whether that’s e-commerce or digital entertainment or food delivery, and also of course on-demand fitness,” he told Business Insider. “The rising penetration of digital consumption was already an ongoing global secular trend.” 

Infusive’s early research also indicates that there will be a “permanent consumer behavior change” regarding how Americans exercise over the long term, Schopfer added.

“We’re less of the view that as soon as the economy reopens everything goes back to normal,” he said. “[Virtual fitness] may decelerate from the current growth level, but broadly speaking, we think this shift toward things being more digital at the consumer level is really here to stay.”

Gyms and studios find their virtual footing 

For Retro Fitness — a chain of 150 gym locations across the US — wading into virtual programming during the pandemic ultimately helped to accelerate the company’s pre-pandemic push towards becoming a “lifestyle brand,” according to Chief Marketing Officer Victor Bao. 

“The virtual component was already a big deal for us as a brand,” Bao told Business Insider. “And then as the pandemic shut down every single business in the world, we made a big thrust into virtual.”

He added that this effort included streaming classes taught by Retro instructors, but also mental health and nutritional content. Just last week, the company launched “Retro Fitness Kitchen,” a series of healthy cooking videos available to members. Bao said that while on-demand exercise platforms are now ubiquitous, the market is still not oversaturated leaving an opportunity for Retro Fitness to capitalize on the trend.

“Luckily enough, for now, it doesn’t feel like it’s a fragmented market. We’ve got one clear leader, and I think that’s Peloton,” he said, adding that there is enough differentiation in fitness programs for multiple types of platforms to thrive and prosper. 

Indoor cycling chain CycleBar was itself already in the process of building out a virtual platform — which includes a partnership with the fitness curator company Xponentional Fitness — when state-mandated lockdowns began.

“We had to have a way to stay connected with our customers and virtual is the perfect way to do that,” CycleBar President Trevor Lucas told Business Insider. “So we fast-tracked something that we were already working on.” 

Lucas said that though nearly all of CycleBar’s locations in the US have reopened to high return rates, an estimated 10% of riders are still holding off, while taking classes from home. And while physical studios will always be core to the business, he said he expects virtual offerings to act as an “ancillary piece” of the business that can also help attract new riders.

Fitness chains still all-in on brick-and-mortar

Apple fall September event Apple Watch iPad Fitness +

A man uses Apple Fitness Plus, a new service launching later this year.

Apple


Overall, fitness brands still have high hopes for their brick-and-mortar locations.

“We still see folks that want a physical connection with us and they love the community,” Lucas said. “It’s the music, it’s the atmosphere that we’re able to create in the studios. You just can’t duplicate that at home.”

Neil Saunders, managing director of market research firm GlobalData Retail, however warns that membership levels are going to continue to fluctuate and may never return to pre-pandemic levels. As he puts it, the pandemic is likely to have a lasting affect on personal fitness habits and proclivities.

“People will go back to gyms, but I don’t think in the foreseeable future they will ever get the kind of membership and the level of payments in terms of subscriptions that they were getting before,” Saunders said.

Consumers that have invested in more costly virtual fitness programs like Peloton or Mirror during the pandemic will be less keen to re-activate gym memberships and pay additional fees to go elsewhere, he added. And though a common argument for physical gyms and studios is the sense of community they foster, many of today’s virtual fitness programs have integrated sociability aspects that help users feel more connected. 

“Some people learned they actually like working out from home and they found it more convenient,” Saunders said. “A lot of new devices have social elements built in, such as live classes and a degree of competitiveness where you can see how you rank against friends and people you know.”

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A man takes a Peloton class from home in New York City.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images


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