Technology is transforming the fitness industry but what does it mean for the people being priced out?
Welcome to the Dazed Beauty Digital Spa. From the role of placebo in extreme wellness to the problem with our cannabis obsession, here we explore the complexities of the wellness industry and how it might evolve.
The pursuit of wellness can often feel overwhelming. 7am hot yoga, 7pm bootcamp, weekend 10km park runs - it sometimes seems as though the world is participating in a perpetual spinning class. It is certainly true that people are more active than ever before. In the US, more than half of Americans are now exceeding the recommended amount of physical activity for the first time since the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started keeping records, over twenty years ago. In the UK, gym membership has reached an all-time high in terms of market penetration, with one in seven people now belonging to a gym, according to the State of the UK Fitness Industry report. This increased demand means fitness companies are investing in innovation, with a view to integrating fitness, in a more holistic sense, more easily into our lives. But, of course, technology comes at a price.
Defined as the condition of being physically fit and healthy, fitness has historically comprised three core dimensions; health (which relates to your lean/fat body composition, flexibility, cardiorespiratory and muscular endurance/strength), skill (agility, speed, balance, coordination) and physiology (your biological resilience, including immune system). But today our understanding of fitness is broader than ever, with increasing consideration being given to the emotional - a result of the wellness industry encouraging a more holistic approach to our health, taking into account everything from the physical to the psychological, the emotional and even the spiritual.
“Healthy living and fitness has really expanded beyond the standard ‘exercise more, eat in moderation’ mantra that has dominated health and fitness for years,” says Victoria Buchanan, Senior Futures Analyst at The Future Laboratory, “today’s model of fitness is no longer an unattainable physical ideal.” Gone are the days where the ideal body type is a waif-like Kate Moss, as we see a shift from “Nothing Tastes As Good as Skinny Feels” to #StrongNotSkinny, with brands like Nike driving the idea that physical prowess is symbolic of both emotional and physical strength. We even dress for the active lifestyles we aspire to, as we’ve seen with the recent rise of athleisure. Today, fitness is millions of consumers making small choices, “getting together and tweaking everyday routines to wake up healthier tomorrow,” Buchanan explains.
This holistic approach to exercise is paying off. The global fitness industry is currently valued at over half a trillion dollars and growing rapidly (the activewear market alone is valued at fifty-five billion dollars, accounting for nearly one-quarter of U.S. apparel sales). In fact, in the UK, fitness is deemed the fastest growing business sector, expected to grow 8% each year, in the next five years. This growth reflects the fitness industry’s’ attitude to innovation, with companies willingly adopting new technologies and seeking to push the boundaries of what a holistic fitness experience looks like.
"But holistic health does not necessarily mean inclusive health"
Leading the charge on holistic health is boutique fitness club Equinox, whose mantra “it's not fitness, it’s life” has taken the gym chain through twenty-five years of expansion. “Brands like Equinox, known for their high-tempo classes are placing a greater emphasis on movement, nutrition, and regeneration,” explains Buchanan. “They’ve integrated mindfulness practices into classes as well as employing sleep coaches that can help to improve your fitness from home by trying to affect your habits and circadian rhythm outside of the gym.”
But holistic health does not necessarily mean inclusive health. Last year, the fitness group announced the opening of the exclusive Equinox Hotels in the upscale Hudson's Yard, New York with the intention of integrating their premium fitness experiences into everyday lifestyles. They are “redefining luxury experiences”, the brand explains, “as a seamless extension of a life well-lived, elevating fitness, culture, and community for those who rest and play as hard as they work.” While the prices are yet to be announced, at £200 a month for an Equinox gym membership it is likely the Hotel rates will price out most consumers.
Nonetheless, ‘integrative fitness’ seems to be an emergent theme in the wellness space. A host of new wellbeing companies are utilizing technology to offer home-based fitness, helping consumers who are struggling to fit their workouts around their hectic schedules. “We often think of digital technology as the enemy of wellness,” says Buchanan, “but digital platforms are being used as a tool to make wellness habits more accessible.” Mirror is an ordinary full-length mirror when off, but when turned on, doubles as a fitness device with virtual trainers, a library of hundreds of exercise classes and real-time personalised feedback (you can thank the mirror’s algorithm for that). In a similar vein is Tonal, a strength training device developed after founder Aly Ordy struggled to find time to keep fit. Combining new technology with more traditional fitness machinery, Tonal has a design similar to a wall-mounted television and uses an electromagnetic engine to create resistance akin to regular pull-down weight machines. The training device has a library of more than 200 exercise routines and like Mirror enables consumers to personalise their fitness goals.
No fitness company has leveraged technology more successfully than Peloton. The Peloton Bike connects riders to world-class workouts, live and on-demand, led by world-class instructors. The bike features a 22-inch touchscreen with access to a library of over 10,000 classes and live metrics (cadence, resistance and output) so consumers can track their progress on each ride. Much like Mirror and Tonal, Peloton’s Founder and CEO John Foley started the company because he was struggling to fit classes into their busy schedules. “The inspiration behind Peloton is simple,” explains International Managing Director Kevin Cornils, “people want to work out - but there are a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of their ability to do so. Peloton brings studio-style, group fitness classes into the home, so you can access the motivation, power, and intensity of these classes anytime, anywhere.”
Increased accessibility is at the core of these fitness innovations. By bringing the gym inside the home and leveraging personalised technology, Mirror, Tonal and Peloton are all striving to offer a completely seamless fitness experience. Seamless that is, for those who can afford this equipment.
At £1,995 for a Peloton Bike, £1200 for the Mirror exercise device and over £2,000 for Tonal, high-tech fitness is a luxury and certainly not accessible to everybody. In fact, there has been a recent uprising of critics who argue that wellness is only available to a privileged few. “How many of us can really afford a £100 personal training session or a £200 cryotherapy treatment?” asks Buchanan, “the quest to achieve fitness for most people requires a lot of money invested.”
"Perhaps in the future, if artificial intelligence becomes more commonplace, brands will be able to harness the power of innovation for all"
In fact, these high-tech fitness innovations draw attention to some deeper socio-political issues around health inequalities. “Almost without exception, public health researchers will tell you that social determinants are the biggest factors in health,” says Anthony Warner, author of The Truth About Fat. Warner explains that things like exercise and self-improvement are strongly linked to a sense of identity and so for many, fitness is just not the sort of thing “people like them do”. Exercise requires you to believe in the value of investing in yourself long term (which may mean forgoing less healthy behaviours in the short term), something which research shows is harder to do when you belong to a lower social-economic group. A future of high-tech boutique workouts may run the risk of reinforcing barriers to fitness, broadening the gap between those who are privileged to access this kind of healthcare and those who cannot.
In response to this health disparity, the UK is witnessing the rise of the budget gym, with a growing crop of brands at the outskirts of the fitness industry challenging the current fitness-as-exclusive-luxury zeitgeist. Leading the charge across the pond is Everybody Gym in Los Angeles. Billed as “non-traditional movement”, Everybody Gym aims to create wellness for everyone catering to “all bodies, genders, races, nationalities, faiths, classes, sexualities, sizes, ages and abilities”. The gym features non-gendered locker rooms and hosts an array of community-specific activities, such as its ‘Fat Kid Dance Party’. The gym also offers sliding-scale memberships with fees beginning at just £23 per month for low-income members. Similarly, web-based fitness community Mission 360 is using the power of the internet to democratise access to high-quality fitness by offering on-demand exercise and wellness at a reasonably priced $19 per month (the price of a single class at some studios). Since Mission 360 takes a holistic approach to wellness, subscribers can stream a range of video content from in-studio workouts to yoga and mindfulness session in the comfort of their own homes, with little to no equipment and at a fraction of the price of some fitness studios.
Technological innovation is driving the future of fitness. From Mirror to Peloton, digital-first technology is streamlining access to health with help from smart algorithms which are personalising workouts and fitness goals for optimal exercise experiences, making it easier to exercise than ever before. Easier for some, we should caveat. Given the high price points of these luxury devices, these are available only to the privileged few. As we’ve seen this disparity could have adverse effects on widening health inequalities.
Perhaps in the future, if artificial intelligence becomes more commonplace, brands will be able to harness the power of innovation for all. But for now, it is important brands look to cater to the ordinary consumer and don’t lose sight of the importance of accessibility and inclusivity in fitness. “I think brands need to be more conscious to make wellness work for everyone,” concludes Buchanan, “once the preserve of the rich elite, the wellness sector must ensure that it transcends all social and physical barriers to become accessible to all.” Health should not just be for the few who can afford it and fitness is an essential part of that.