The COVID-19 Fitness Shuffle
The COVID-19 Fitness Shuffle

Locked-down audiences are exploring new ways to work out, and the industry competition is fierce.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like a massive economic PAUSE button. Everything physical shut down, yes, but people simply are not prioritizing many of the things they would ordinarily spend money on. No one “needs” a spring wardrobe for people they can’t see and places they can’t go to, so it isn’t a matter of shopping online instead. It’s not time to hire a landscaper while money is tight and jobs feel insecure. Brake pads can wait; where are you going anyway? Sure, you could do a manicure at home. But who cares?

One exception to this rule, however, is fitness. In the face of lockdowns and isolation, people have more time on their hands, they are more stressed, they are more aware of how much more time they are spending in the pantry (or at the home bar), they have more time for introspection and thoughts about self-improvement, they are specifically concerned about health in the face of a pandemic, and they are looking to fill their time (or their kids’ time) productively. It’s a perfect storm for the fitness industry to thrive, theoretically speaking.

But as an industry that relied heavily on physical spaces reels and tries to learn in real time how to hit SHIFT while everything else is on PAUSE, the competition for audiences is both fierce and clumsy. Technologies are being used that couldn’t have been tested, business models are threatened and everything we knew about why and how people work out has changed in the space of a snap, and we don’t know how temporary or permanent it will be. This article from Forbes in November of last year feels like opposite day: “Working out at home is not a trend.” Well. It is now.

Marketing in this climate is more or less a blind bet. And it’s a bet that has to be made. Even as demand rises, the bottom lines of this $30 billion industry are suffering almost as much as bottom lines across the board. Moreover, the deck has been shuffled. With rising demand and limited options, audiences are more primed than usual to explore new methods and services to fit their circumstances, so businesses that fold now run the risk of losing their audience in the shuffle.



We at AM Insights are watching the gyms, studios, influencers, manufacturers and producers involved react, sometimes ingeniously, as they play Capture the Audience. Here are some of the strategies and trends that we think are working well and some opportunities we see to win new audiences in the chaos:

Home fitness is not a new concept. There has always been an audience that “belonged” to these businesses: people who did not have the time or the money or the interest in gyms or studios for one reason or another. But right now the home fitness audience is potentially every single person impacted by COVID-19 (read: everyone) and they may be looking for reasons for some time after the immediate crisis to save money. If home fitness brands can emulate some of the attractions of the gym and studio space – such as a sense of community – for new audiences trying their products, they have the potential for enormous growth even after the dust settles.

  • Make it free if you can. There is an abundance of free fitness content on the internet. Fitness influencers like Fitness Marshall and Dance Fitness with Jessica have extensive libraries of content that attract their millions of followers, many of whom pay for additional paywalled content, buy their merchandise or come to their live events on tour. Established home workout brands like Beachbody almost uniformly offer free trials. And now that big box gyms like Life Time and boutique chains like Orangetheory are joining the game with well-produced video content that is NOT exclusive to members (read: entirely free), brands that are charging off the bat will have a difficult time competing with that during an economic crisis.

Audiences are shopping around; many of those affected by COVID-19 do not have established fitness routines and don’t yet know what they like. Those who do have established routines may not like doing what they did at the gym at home. Others just want to take the opportunity to explore since their routines have been disrupted anyway. Free samples are key.

  • If you can’t make it free, call in reinforcements. Nike will easily survive dropping its subscription fee from NTC Premium while Jim’s Yoga Studio is struggling to pay Jim, much less a team of content producers and managers making content no one will pay for. That is where ClassPass comes in: as they are invested in studios like Jim’s for their larger brand to survive, they are now investing in Jim, streaming his content, giving him 100% of the proceeds and encouraging donations to him, which they will match. Meanwhile, it has the appearance of the free trial since ClassPass has 2,000 of its own videos now available for free on the platform where the smaller studios are advertised. BurnAlong has a similar model.

Aside from ClassPass or BurnAlong, smaller fitness businesses that are locally owned also have #supportlocal movements on their side, especially if they band together as a small business/fitness community with a wider variety of offerings and content for a collective fee. In the short term they might make less already-dwindling revenue, but in combining forces they are each bringing in audiences they might not have tapped individually.

  • Loyalty is a two-way street. Some small, locally owned fitness studios and businesses are asking their members to continue paying their monthly fees. This might help them limp along in the short term with their most loyal members, but as lockdowns drag on for months, as free fitness content is abundantly available and as many causes are vying for limited budgets, it is unlikely people are going to continue donating to these businesses with no guarantee of return, especially when they are struggling to stay afloat themselves.

In contrast, studios with loyal followings who are offering some online content, even if it is not up to the standards of Barre3 or Pure Yoga in terms of production value, and even if the content costs enough to pay the overhead of an empty brick-and-mortar, are better positioned to keep their members engaged. For one thing, a little effort to ease the pains of lockdown for loyal customers goes a long way. Moreover, especially on platforms like Zoom, members are more likely to maintain the sense of community that attracts them to these classes in the first place. While this strategy may not attract new audiences among a sea of free content, it has a good likelihood of weathering the storm.

  • Accessibility and usability are more important than production value. Facebook Live is an excellent platform for fitness videos. It is free, and the content automatically becomes available on demand following the livestream that generally goes off without a hitch. However, if the stream happens to bump up against Facebook’s copyrighted music algorithm, it can be interrupted and/or lost to users in the process.

Zoom is also a great platform for studios to stream to established communities that are used to working out together. It also makes it easier to charge for classes by limiting access to paying members. However, video quality is not always great, and streams hiccup with the slightest of connectivity issues and often freeze or lag altogether.

In contrast, larger gyms like Orangetheory, Barre3 and Life Time that are streaming videos on their own platforms are not investing their money in large casts, copyrighted music, set design or other expensive production, the main difference is in the platform. Quite simply, users can view the content easily without interruption.

YouTube is perhaps the most effective lower-budget/accessible platform, but it doesn’t offer the branded community feeling of Zoom or a private platform. A combination of both might be a solid option for smaller studios and gyms.

  • If you get the kids, you’ll get the parents. While many grownups have found themselves with more time on their hands to work out in lockdown, for parents that is not necessarily the case. Schools have closed, parks have closed, playgrounds have closed, trampoline parks have closed, daycare centers have closed, baseball seasons have been cancelled – literally every outlet for the most energetic members of the household, the ones with less established coping mechanisms than anyone else. THEY need home fitness content more than anyone. And parents are desperate for it.

Until now, online fitness for kids like Go Noodle and Cosmic Kids Yoga has been centered around the idea of “brain breaks” or technique instruction, not as a solid and sustained way to get exercise. Kids have always had other options for that, so there was no need. But now parents are looking for videos that either hold children’s attention for longer than ten minutes OR that can be done together as a family with a reasonable level of challenge.

A few attempts have emerged, most notably Peloton’s new family-oriented content and P.E. with Joe Wicks. Over the three weeks he has posted half-hour-long workouts for kids and families, Joe appears to be trying new, more kid-friendly methods such as “what is different in my living room today” and even dressing as a frog on the April 10 episode.

When this is all over, we expect fitness as we knew it to be disrupted, at least to a degree. Some people will discover they prefer working out at home and saving their gym membership money. Some long-established home equipment users will be disillusioned with the companies they gave their business to. Many smaller boutiques, studios and franchises will close, while new brick-and-mortars will emerge in their places, perhaps led by the more successful influencers in the game being played today. And many people – perhaps even millions more – might prioritize fitness since they finally had the time to experience how good they can feel.

But wherever the cards fall, this industry isn’t going anywhere. And we may emerge with a better understanding of its potential.

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