To argue that COVID-19 has been a wildly disruptive force would be to downplay the blunt shockwaves that have reverberated across every corner of the planet. Everywhere, harrowing tales of infection rates run amok and livelihoods upended abound. The ravage has been universal, and the future of the global multi-billion-dollar fitness industry – characterized on the supply side by massive chains, local studios, and independent trainers and instructors, and on the demand side by people of all shapes and sizes – is no exception. Virtually everyone is feeling the squeeze.
Looking ahead, here are our 2021 predictions for the future of the fitness industry:
As fitness enthusiasts settle into their post-pandemic workout habits (even if reluctant converts), they will accelerate their move away from big box gyms and their local spin, Pilates, and yoga studios that will be hit by ongoing disruptions, such as lockdowns, reduced capacity owing to physical distancing measures, and people wary of the risks of returning to shared spaces, even after they re-open, for fear of contracting the virus
Replacing these fitness studios will be makeshift private set-ups across garages and basements everywhere, which will be increasingly powered by exercise equipment (e.g., Peloton, Echelon) and fitness technology (e.g., Fitbit, Garmin) companies, virtual instructors, and streaming services (e.g., YouTube)
Newcomers to the fitness scene and emerging start-ups, like micro-gyms, will become beneficiaries of the pent-up demand bolstered by people lacking viable alternatives to gyms and studios and fearful of their New Year’s resolutions flopping
Virtual reality fitness apps (e.g., Supernatural) that gamify exercise will grow in popularity, offering hundreds of on-demand workouts that transport users to sweat atop a volcano in Ethiopia, lunge on Iceland's glaciers, meditate amongst the ruins of Machu Picchu – all from wherever they are
Optimists forecast that travel will rebound as government interventions to curb the spread of the virus take effect, which will usher in growing demand for active adventures (think cycling trips in Hawaii, yoga retreats in Costa Rica, and golf getaways in Arizona) that offer the upside of moving with others in a contained bubble-like way (typical cycling trips and yoga retreats rarely accommodate more than a dozen participants)
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is how perilous our predictions (or lack thereof) can be. The wild card of our 2021 predictions for the fitness industry will be the staying power of peoples’ newfound fitness patterns (studies indicate it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to develop a new habit, and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become involuntary), which will depend on:.
How well people adapt to their new make-shift set-ups – are they satisfied with their basement yoga sanctuary, or desperate to return to the feng shui-inspired, chi-filled balance of their local yoga studio?
How safe (or not) people feel sweating in a public space shared with other humans – governments have assessed the risk of gyms and athletic studios as high compared to local pools or playing distanced sports outdoors, which pose a medium and low risk, respectively
How gym rats, social yogis, group cyclists, and other fitness enthusiasts will balance any reservations they have about returning to public spaces against their desire for real human connection and authentic, tangible interactions despite the remarkable advances brought on by virtual platforms
Ultimately, one prediction is certain to manifest itself in 2021: The fitness industry has been irreversibly changed by the COVID-19 pandemic – for better or for worse.