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The future of fit pros in the COVID era

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for gyms, which were one of the first businesses to shut their doors amid lockdown regulations.

But the pandemic has also driven positive trends around exercise as more people are now aware of the importance of health and fitness,” explains Paul Mills, Managing Director at the Health & Fitness Professionals Academy (HFPA).

As a consequence, more people are looking to start and maintain exercise programs. This new paradigm has created an interesting situation for fitness professionals, especially as many gyms and training facilities have struggled to survive due to the lockdown’s economic impact on their business.

With less physical capacity to train clients in person, growing financial constraints among consumers, and a hesitance by many members to rush back to gym due to concerns regarding infection risks, personal trainers need to embrace an augmented model to maintain their relevance and sustain their business.

The COVID catalyst

The transition to online training and coaching was already on the rise before the pandemic altered the way we live and exercise.

Adapting to the lockdown has merely accelerated the shift to the digital engagement model as the COVID-19-related lockdown forced gyms, studios and fit pros to pivot to an online service delivery model.

The lockdown was really challenging for fitness professionals. With no physical space, everyone needed to become digitally savvy overnight and shift their offering online to sustain their business and generate an income,” continues Mills.

The COVID-19 Fitness Industry Impact Report, compiled by Fitness Australia, showed that 81% of exercise professionals and industry players lost their job or main source of income due to gym closures and social distancing restrictions.

However, the survey findings, which are based on responses from 1,177 exercise professionals and sole traders, and 282 boutique and multi-service facility gyms, found that just under half of respondents were able to generate new sources of income by moving online or adopting one-on-one outdoor PT sessions.

The online pivot

This pivot to digital engagement took many forms, as personal trainers and fitness instructors found themselves at varying points on their digital transformation journeys.

While some had embraced bespoke or white-label apps before the pandemic, the majority leveraged video conferencing platforms to keep booked sessions with clients through the lockdown.

A survey of over 700 Mindbody app users affirmed that wellness routines during and post COVID-19 lockdowns changed in a positive way, with respondents reporting that they worked out more while at home, rather than less.

Specifically, a mere 7% of app users live streamed workouts in 2019, but that increased to over 80% during the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, 85% of survey respondents reported live streaming a workout on a weekly basis, with yoga and HIIT-style workouts like Tabatas or bootcamps the most popular modalities.

A new workout culture

But now that gyms have reopened, Mills expects members to make a gradual return to training in brick-and-mortar facilities.

People will return to gym, there is no doubt about that. The gregarious nature of people means that the more we work online and remain isolated from others, the more we want human contact. As such, people will return to gyms when they feel ready. And gyms across the globe have also seen an increase in new members as people prioritise their health.”

However, fit pros should maintain their online focus with a mixed business model because it is unlikely that gyms will see an immediate return to the attendance figures experienced before the pandemic.

For instance, 43% of respondents in the Mindbody app survey expect to blend their previous routines and virtual content or live streaming, even when the pandemic is over.

It has become clear that contemporary fitness professionals will require an augmented model going forward, offering some in-person and some online instruction,” elaborates Mills.

That means fitness professionals will need to adapt their offering to meet the demand for contactless or low-touch physical workout experiences, while delivering convenience and affordable online training options in response to the financial crunch clients are experiencing.

Potential benefits

But rather than posing a threat to their business, this shift represents a massive opportunity for fitness professionals moving forward.

According to Mills, the move to digital proved that clients are willing to pay for virtual workouts, and the digital marketplace opens up significant opportunities for fitness pros to reach a global marketplace, which broadens their potential customer base, and allows them to bill in a foreign currency.

Trainers can also use online sessions to reach clients at times when gyms are traditionally quiet, which effectively increases their billable hours,” he explains.

However, trainers will need to create innovative programs that leverage what clients have at their disposal at home.

But this also creates opportunities to start selling at-home workout equipment and up-sell programs as clients advance,” adds Mills.

In this context, the aftermath of the pandemic offers a significant opportunity for fitness business growth.

This is the first in a two-part instalment about the pandemic’s impact on fitness professionals. The next feature will look at how fit pros can successfully adapt and create a blended business model. 

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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