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The Subscription Fitness Boom is Here to Stay

Bethany Biron

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, the head of research at the 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 said the on-demand fitness boom was 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, adding that 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 gyms across the US — wading into virtual programming during the pandemic helped to accelerate the company’s pre-pandemic push toward 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, as well as 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, which leaves 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 was enough differentiation in fitness programs for multiple types of platforms to thrive and prosper.

The indoor-cycling chain CycleBar was already in the process of building out a virtual platform — which includes a partnership with the fitness curator Xponential 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. So we fast-tracked something that we were already working on.

CycleBar President Trevor Lucas told Business Insider

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

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

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.”

But Neil Saunders, a managing director at the market-research firm GlobalData Retail, said membership levels were going to continue to fluctuate and may never return to pre-pandemic levels. According to him, the pandemic is likely to have a lasting effect 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 reactivate 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.”

This article was written by Bethany Biron from Business Insider and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected]

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