Much has been written about the demise of Peloton, which went from rapidly expanding business to an 80% drop in stock prices as COVID-19 now became rampant (Elting, 2022).
Like Peloton, many gyms offered online fitness classes or packaged apps to reach home users. It was a somewhat successful strategy – a World Economic Forum report showed that daily active users of online fitness apps grew by 24% globally during the pandemic (Clark & Lupton, 2021) – but unlike Peloton, it was to be a temporary measure until everyone could return to in-person fitness activities at gyms.
But is this necessarily the case? Online exercise classes, for example, Peloton, existed before gyms closed, and now more people have been exposed to “digital fitness” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Are all online courses now doomed to disappear? Does everyone really want to go back to the gym?
Not much is currently known about how users felt about the various workouts offered on Instagram, various fitness apps, or Zoom by gyms or individual instructors. There is evidence that they gained more followers during the shutdowns.
For example, Godefroy (2020) reported a significant increase in followers (up to 45% increase) when popular influencers in France started posting online exercise videos on their Instagram accounts. While no new digital technology was needed, influencers had to switch from pre-COVID-19 posts of carefully controlled still photographs to exploit less-used aspects of their technology, including moving images.
Ensuring an active online presence, video-recorded exercise routines have successfully connected with advertisers’ products needed for influencer activities. These influencers had no fitness qualifications, but relied on their staged online presence and attractive bodies to guarantee a good workout: their workouts were a fun way to achieve an ideal body.
As fitness studios in France also offered online classes, Godefroy compared their success to influencer workouts. His research focused on a large fitness chain that created an online fitness app. The popularity of this app increased dramatically – over 200% – during the April 2020 lockdown.
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As the app only targeted existing members of the gym, the actual number of subscribers was much lower than the average influencer subscription. Unlike the influencers, however, the instructors were all certified fitness “coaches” who offered classes for different levels and emphasized proper exercise execution.
The gym’s online presence was primarily designed to ensure continued service rather than to increase membership. With an earlier COVID-19 business model based on a fitness space, classes will likely return to their fitness facilities as soon as possible.
Godefroy did not indicate how subscribers rated their online exercise experience compared to live fitness classes. Did everyone want to get back into the gym environment in person?
Currently, there is little information on how users have used digital fitness services. In a rare example, Taylor and colleagues (2021) assessed the experiences of Pilates users during the COVID-19 lockdown in England. Similar to Godfroy’s fitness studio in France, online classes were offered to members who had previously attended in-person classes at the studio.
Instead of an app, the studio offered synchronous and asynchronous instructions via Zoom. The researchers sent a questionnaire to clients who participated in a course aimed at athletes aged 50 and over and now offered online.
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The mostly female participants who responded to the questionnaire most valued the ability to follow their exercise routines and maintain their fitness through Zoom classes. Participants also noted that the Zoom environment maintained their social connection with other users as well as with the instructor.
The expert instructor who provided quality instruction and continued to teach his Zoom course with the same energy and care as the in-person course was at the heart of a successful online course. The instructor was able to see the customers, learn their special needs, and stop providing online security changes and fixes.
Participants appreciated the flexibility offered by the Zoom courses. They have now thought about saving time when not traveling and finding parking to attend classes in person. One participant summarized the benefits of Zoom Pilates: “flexibility in choosing your classes, value for money, and multiple classes per week” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 183). Participants also commented on mental health benefits as they “felt calmer” or “had a boost” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 184) after the course. As a result, almost all participants (96%) were satisfied with their Zoom Pilates class.
The researchers concluded that several aspects ensured the success of the Zoom Pilates class. First, all of the clients had computer skills and really enjoyed updating their digital skills to take the Zoom courses. Second, the previous relationship with an experienced and expert Pilates instructor who provided personalized exercises to clients ensured a continued positive exercise experience. Third, as participants enjoyed their classes, they invested in their progress and wanted to maintain their physical competence through online classes.
Because of these benefits, the researchers concluded, participants “couldn’t imagine themselves going back to the classroom after Covid-19” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 187) when the same instructor was teaching online classes. . They preferred to continue exercising online or combine online and studio classes once they became available. The Zoom options have also allowed the studio to offer more frequent classes. Clients then had more flexibility beyond the fixed menu of in-studio classes with the same hands-on instruction and social aspects as in in-person interactions.
Why were these customers happy to continue exercising online, when Peloton’s popularity reportedly plummeted? Customers of a specialist Pilates studio and Zoom classes haven’t had to invest in the expensive, exercise-specific equipment that’s at the heart of Peloton’s digital fitness option. As existing customers, they had connected with their expert instructors before going online.
Compared to their positive experiences, investing in a Peloton bike without prior exercise experience may not attract continued following even if the instructors are professional. While these factors may explain some of Peloton’s recent decline in popularity, there are undoubtedly still some Peloton enthusiasts who won’t sell their bikes, although the main spike in new sales may be over.
Although initially set up to ensure business continuity, online classes may not need to remain a temporary detour to digital fitness. Clients who had previously exercised with a good instructor in a gym or studio seemed to appreciate the flexibility and time savings of online classes. Curiously, the long-awaited social element has not been lost as part of Zoom. More and more gym goers, beyond followers of social media influencers, now seem to have the technical proficiency with digital media devices to exercise online.
Therefore, there may be no return to “normal” that delegates fitness classes to the gym space. Instead, it could be the start of a new era of hybrid fitness services. No longer a forced strategy to maintain business, online fitness can provide positive, more frequent exercise experiences to a wider customer base and new employment opportunities for skilled instructors.
As a frequent participant of digital fitness classes, I certainly hope to be able to exercise online in the future!