John Thangaraj
May 13, 2020

COVID and the changing face of fitness

SECTOR STUDY: Cramped, sweaty gyms may become less palatable as fitness becomes more closely attuned to daily lifestyle choices for more Indian consumers, says FCB Ulka's national planning director.

COVID and the changing face of fitness

I quite enjoy being quarantined. There, I said it. And while reams of newsprint around the world have been dedicated to exploring the social, emotional and financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the truth is that for me, life hasn’t been that bad. Not having to deal with Delhi’s crazy traffic, taking client meetings in a pair of shorts and getting to walk my dog every single day are all things I could get used to.

The only thing I haven’t been able to deal with is this: it’s been 54 days (and counting) since I last picked up a weight.

The first time I walked into a gym was in the summer of 1996, and I haven’t looked back since. As I’ve grown older, I’ve grown more circumspect and realistic about what my body can and cannot do, but for the past 24 years going to the gym hasn’t become something I do; it’s become a part of who I am.

Which is why the pandemic has caught me (and millions of others like me) wholly and woefully unprepared. While my wife has turned to online yoga sessions for her daily fitness fix, I’ve been reduced to using a resistance band, a pull up bar and frantically Googling ‘how to use your furniture for at-home workouts’. It hasn’t been fun.

There’s been much talk around the world about how the multi-billion-dollar fitness industry (perhaps more than any other) has reinvented itself, literally overnight, in the face of Covid-19. Thousands of fitness chains are now live streaming classes to their millions of workout starved members.
Peloton, the world’s leading manufacturer of digitally connected exercise cycles has seen a massive surge in both sales of their bikes as well as participation in their web streamed spinning classes.
Barry Jay, founder of global celebrity fitness chain Barry’s Bootcamp spent an entire weekend personally renovating his garage to recreate the look & feel of one of his chain’s infamous ‘Red Rooms’ for online streaming sessions.

And while the fitness industry’s rapid plunge into digital streaming will form the basis of many case studies in the years to come, I’d like to explore the impact of the pandemic at a more human, more behavioural level- not just from a consumer, but from a business point of view as well.

India's body business

In India, unlike in the West, physical fitness is still far away from being a widespread lifestyle choice. According to Rishikesh Kumar, founder & CEO of fitness company Xtraliving, only 2 to 3 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people visit fitness centres and gyms. 

This is especially telling in a country where harsh weather, hugely crowded public spaces and a severe paucity of designated running tracks & trails make gyms the primary source of fitness for most Indians.

The pandemic of course, will irrevocably change this, driven by that most fundamental of human truths: we always want what we can’t have. The quarantine has thrown the need for fitness into sharp relief. State mandated house arrest tends to make the prospect of physical activity especially alluring.

A few, leading edge brands such as Cult.Fit have thrown their hat into the live streaming ring with much aplomb, even going so far as to recruit celebrities such as TV host Mandira Bedi and South African cricket legend Jonty Rhodes to host their online ‘masterclasses’ for them.

Such at-home workouts, currently niche- will soon explode as consumers are offered increasing options (Cult.Fit sessions for example, already range from dance fitness, yoga & high intensity interval training to meditation, psychological counselling, conscientious eating and much, much more)- all tailored around their personal fitness levels, aspirations, budgets and time. More than anywhere else, fitness will move online.

The rise of home-gyms (space & financial constraints notwithstanding) will drive a spurt in business for fitness equipment manufacturers.

The traditional notion of ‘bodybuilding-based fitness’ still hugely popular in India, as evidenced by the surfeit of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone & Ronnie Coleman posters seen in thousands of small, 'mom and pop' gyms across the country – will soon give way to the more contemporary, global notion of functional fitness.

Reinventing the gym

Why? Because even as the fitness industry evolves, the old school brick & mortar gym will have to reinvent its business model, layout and operations to survive. While post-COVID germaphobia will hit the travel and hospitality industries hard, I’d argue that the fall out with regard to gyms may be even more severe- and rightly so.

The ‘Blood, Sweat & Iron’ narrative of the traditional gym looks great on muscle vests and in protein supplement commercials, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen as far as communicable disease goes. On their best days, gyms are hot beds for germs and the sweaty, hands-on culture that gym rats (this writer included) take such pride in is the very antithesis of this new era of physical distancing.

None of which is to say that gyms are going anywhere. What will change however, will be their approach to business. The global approach to gym membership has long been defined by ‘the more the merrier’ philosophy- drive new sign ups at all cost. This will require a fundamental rethink, as crowded gyms will be viewed as a sign of susceptibility more than success.

New business models will be created: smaller, more premium, appointment-based gyms with a fixed limit on the number of members working out at any given point of time. Pay-per-workout models where peak times (mornings & evenings) cost more than off peak sessions. 24 hour a day gyms so as to spread out the usage of members over an entire day.

Hygiene will be another challenge for the brick & mortar system to surmount. Daily deep cleaning of all equipment will be made standard. Usage of disposable gloves may be made mandatory and will come to replace the leather lifting gloves that form such an important part of the gym goer’s ensemble. New innovations such as single use equipment covers (similar to the toilet seat covers we often see in public restrooms) for benches and seat backs will not only cut down on the spread of germs but will also fundamentally change in-gym etiquette.

We will also see the rise of more functional, CrossFit-style, fitness areas which will replace the cloistered, cramped environment of an indoor gym with a more airy, outdoor feel.  

But for the vast majority of consumers, the pandemic will lead to a recalibration and redefinition of the very idea of ‘fitness’. It will become more holistic and fluid, and less dependent on regimented, appointment-based interventions such as The Daily Workout or The Morning Walk.

Fitness and wellness will begin to inextricably intertwine, built on the twin pillars of eating healthy and staying active. Consumers will begin to realize that fitness is not ‘something you do’ but rather ‘the way you live’.

A new brand workout 

So, where does this leave brands? Will they struggle to survive or slowly revive? I’d argue that the fitness industry is set to thrive like never before. Contingent on some fundamental recalibration, of course:

  • Focus on the specifics. Are you a super niche, HIIT brand or are you a ‘something for everyone’ fitness ecosystem? Regardless of the answer, having a sharply defined value proposition will be critical in the face of burgeoning competition. ‘Generic fitness’ as a category will cease to exist.
  • Experience over equipment. The industry will shift from a capital intensive, hardware-based model to a service focused, digital one. In such a reality, the fitness experience a brand delivers will far outweigh all those shiny Life Fitness machines.
  • Germ-free gyms -- the holy grail. The first brand to figure out how to run a truly sanitized, brick & mortar gym will be off to the races. More than any other category, the traditional gym needs to move on from its stuck-in the-70s model and embrace the new, post-COVID reality.

And as for me? I’ve just started my free, 7-day trial of Centr, Chris Hemsworth’s at-home fitness program. Whoever said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


John Thangaraj is national planning director at FCB Ulka in New Delhi

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