Does The Fitness Biz's Digital Shift Have Post-COVID-19 Endurance?

home fitness online

Americans have a complicated relationship with physical fitness, particularly when it comes to getting enough exercise. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, only about 23 percent of American adults are getting the recommended amount of exercise per week, data consistent with measurements by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) indicating that about a quarter of all Americans have gym memberships they report using regularly. For the majority of Americans, therefore, the era of social distancing is a loss in many ways, but at least it is an excellent reason to skip going to the gym.

But for the quarter of Americans who are into the gym and have made it a regular part of their routine, the loss is strongly felt. The global fitness industry is worth roughly $100 billion a year, $27 billion of which comes from U.S consumers. And it is an industry that virtually shut down on a dime in the last month, as fitness studios, gyms and even virtual studios where tele-classes are filmed by instructors have shut their doors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The effect on the fitness industry as a whole, ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman told Karen Webster, has been nothing short of “catastrophic” — and almost every player in it, his firm included, has spent the last several weeks scrambling to simultaneously shut down their business while providing for their staff and pivoting toward new endeavors long enough to ride out the crisis in progress. Which, he noted, and recent data strongly supports, has meant a switch to digitizing their offerings almost overnight as a stopgap during the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s not the same, right?” he said. “There’s nothing like being in a class physically with a community and an instructor. That ambiance, that immersiveness you can’t replicate digitally. But we like to think it is the next best thing.”

The next best thing, however, hasn’t exactly been easy to provide, given the vast swath of consumers who in a massive wave have set about re-arranging their fitness routines around home-based workouts. Even for firms that were already in that business to start with.

Peloton, for example, took the market by storm with its connected fitness bikes that allow members of the greater community to tap into live classes and pre-recorded content with fellow riders from around the world. One might assume the firm was perfectly positioned for the rapid shift to home-based exercise. And in many ways it was — in fact, too perfectly positioned as demand for its bikes and workout community rapidly overshot demand, such that those trying to buy new bikes as of today are seeing the following message before they start shopping:

“Our delivery timeframe is normally 2-3 weeks after purchase. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, orders placed today are unlikely to be delivered any sooner than 5 weeks from now, and over 7 weeks in some areas.”

And while Peloton is one well documented case of delays, tales of sold-out yoga mats, free weights, resistance bands, exercise balls and all make and manner of home fitness equipment have abounded in the national news. And simply expanding supply is a bit more complex than merely hitting a switch — an issue SoulCycle has recently run into in the wake of shutting down the in-person studio classes the brand is built on and attempting to switch to something resembling the Peloton model of selling custom home equipment and access to a digital hub of workout content.

SoulCycle’s smart bikes are available for pre-order (with a $2,500 price tag) but as of yet it has no online content to offer — and likely won’t until later in the year, according to the firm. Which begs the question: will consumers still be shopping en masse for expensive home fitness setups, or will they merely have returned to their SoulCycle classes, gym memberships and studio experiences once the immediate coronavirus crisis is over?

That is probably a more complicated question than can easily be answered at this point. Because for all the delays, hiccups and speed bumps the industry has hit responding in real time to an extremely unusual situation, an extraordinary amount of content has been created to fill the fitness hole. YouTube workout channels, Zoom yoga class, Skyped aerobic classes have all exploded in the last several weeks — some free, some pay-per-play. Some involve specialized equipment like the Boston Row House’s Facebook Live sessions (that require the use of a rowing machine). Others merely require a physical space to jump up and down inside.

Digital Fitness Firms Thriving

Digital fitness firms like Obe and MIRROR have noted that since the COVID-19 outbreak their business has skyrocketed. MIRROR is an interactive at-home fitness system that sells for $1,495 and resembles a full-length mirror when it is not activated for fitness purposes. Obé is a digital subscription service gives members unlimited access to 14 live classes a day and 4,000-plus on-demand classes for $27 per month or $199 per year.

“We have seen a considerable increase in membership across the US in the last few weeks,” Obé Co-Founder Mark Mullett told CNN in an email. That sentiment was echoed by MIRROR CEO Brynn Jinnett Putnam, who noted that sales have doubled in the last few weeks — an impressive feat since MIRROR’s product is expensive and hasn’t officially launched yet.

The startup's team, she said, “has been working around the clock to launch our digital product earlier than originally planned.”

Consumers, it seems, are investing in building home fitness regimens — and in some cases spending quite a lot of money. And early anecdotal reports indicate that at least some of them like the new way of doing things more than they thought they would — that commuting to their Peloton in the living room is turning out to be a major time saver when compared the time they used to take getting to and from the gym.

Will that convenience win out, even when gyms are re-opened, particularly among consumers who’ve already dedicated a lot of time and money to resetting their routines? Hard to say — as ClassPass CEO Lanman noted, there is something about being with workout buddies in the same room that means a lot to exercise enthusiasts, something he suspects many will want to return to when they can.

But some will likely stay home, working out in front of the MIRROR, or on the connected equipment with their virtual gym buddies even when they no longer have to.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.