How technology enabled fitness during the pandemic

Author: Aaron Green LLB CIPD, Operations Manager.

Even prior to the pandemic, Fitness Tech was a growing industry across the world, and particularly in developed nations. Between 2015-2020 London led the way amongst global cities in the number of Fitness Tech startups (https://sportstechx.com/Fitness Tech)

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the Fitness Tech market, as it has with many other tech related activities (think remote working, cloud storage). In March 2020, we were all given the order to go home, stay and home and only leave the house for an hour a day for exercise outdoors. Gyms and swimming pools up and down the country closed and fitness fanatics were forced to find an alternative in working out remotely as well as working remotely. 

They weren’t the only ones looking for alternatives. The number of people furloughed or bored and desperately looking for some fun activity to do in addition to the DIY that everyone started, as well as the number of people who were more sedentary during lockdown and once restrictions started to ease needed to lose the lockdown pounds, gave rise to a perfect storm of people looking for fitness alternatives. By perfect storm, I mean the unseasonably warm weather that we experienced during the first lockdown! 

How tech has supported fitness can be split in to 4 categories:

  • Tech to complete the activity
  • Tech to record/monitor the activity 
  • Tech to assist with recovery from the activity 
  • Supporting tech in a holistic approach 

Tech to complete the activity

With gyms closed and most people facing a lack of space to create a home gym, equipment purchased needed to either blend in to the home environment or have the ability to be hidden away after use. This gave rise to a massive increase in both budget and high spec tech purchases throughout the pandemic. 

Those on the budget end of the spectrum flocked to steppers, weight benches and exercise bikes shown by a 6,500% increase in steppers and 4,130% increase in weight benches (Statista) 

Those on the higher spec end had a wealth of new toys to chose from, from the Peloton (who saw a 172% year on year increase in sales) to the very fancy Echelon Reflect 50” touchscreen mirror – retailing at a budget busting £1,799. 

Alongside the new equipment, people also needed training and coaching. Again, this was a universal from the fanatics who were using the global “downtime” to improve their technique to the newbies who needed introduction training. Gyms were quick to roll-out online coaching sessions to keep their members involved and interested during the pandemic, as well as celebrities such as Joe Wickes whose online workouts reached up to 1 million people per broadcast.

This is where tech really helped during the lockdown. No fancy tech was needed – a smartphone, tablet, or smart TV enabled millions of people to access coaching and training to learn or improve a skill – and Fitness Tech such as Peleton and The Echelon leveraged their online platforms, already in place, to lock-in new customers. 

Tech to record/monitor the activity

Wearable tech was already becoming common place with the number of devices worldwide exceeding 722million in 2019 and revenue topping $46,194,000. Gartner expects this to more than double in 2022 to $93,858,000 thanks to a boom in Smartwatch and Ear-worn technology. 

Whether it’s been posting your latest run using Strava or RunKeeper or tracking your heart rate, calories and distance using a Fitbit or Apple Watch, wearable technology has revolutionised how we work out, and in the Social Media age, how we get kudos for it! 

Even the humble weight scales have seen a facelift with scales that monitor BMI, water, muscle and body fat mass as well as bone density to give a full body composition analysis now common-place. 

Smart Clothing appears to be the next iteration of wearable technology. Without even needing a phone or device, smart clothing can monitor our heart rate, emotions and even pay for that post-run bottle of water, but it is yet to reach the mainstream. With yoga pants that help with your form, to Ambiotex that measures fitness and stress levels as well as the all-important anaerobic threshold it seems we can now ditch the devices. This tech isn’t cheap though and will be out of most people’s budgets for some time to come – Carv, for example, the digital ski coach that tracks ski movements through sensors in the boots, costs £349 per boot sensor. 

Tech to assist with recovery

There’s no doubt that wearable tech can help to prevent illness and injury when working out. Smartwatches that monitor heart-rate will tell you when you have exceeded your tolerance. Apps that guide your workout will give you much-needed rest and warmup/cooldown exercises that may be missed and online coaching can demonstrate the right technique for the exercise, but none of them are fool-proof. 

With more and more amateur exercise fans relying on tech to assist their workouts, the number of injuries has increased with Bupa estimating a staggering 7.2 million injuries occurred as a result of exercise during the pandemic. 

Luckily, tech can help with that too! Not just from prevention as above, but if you are one of the 75% of people who did not seek medical help for your injuries – either because you were embarrassed or too scared to go to hospital or didn’t want to burden an already stretched NHS you may have turned to one of the hundreds of recovery tools out there. 

From the Theragun deep muscle relief to the Hyperice Vyper 2.0, tech was there to massage those aching limbs and cool you down post workout but for the more professional athlete, missing the sports therapist, equipment such as the NormaTech stockings helped boost their recovery. Some athletes even had endless pools built in their back gardens to make the most of space. 

Tech to support healthy lifestyle.

Why did people workout during the pandemic? What was their driver? For most it was to improve their mental health as well as their physical health and to use the forced pause to reflect on their goals. This cannot be done by just exercising alone. 

Any sports psychiatrist will tell you that being fit and healthy is a lifestyle choice and includes diet, nutrition and mindfulness. Luckily, tech can help there too! 

Food and calorie tracking apps allowed users to record what they were eating by using cloud technology to access calorie databases based on taking pictures of their food. Whilst often hit and miss, it gives a good indication of calorie consumption which can be assessed against your basal metabolic rate (as determined by another app and fitness tracker!) Going even further some apps, such as Noom, not only advise on the nutritional content of food but add exercise and mental health into the mix for a holistic approach designed to change behaviours. 

There’s no getting away from the fact that mental health was at particular risk during the pandemic and again apps such as Calm and Headspace took prevalence during the pandemic with free content and partnerships encouraging users to take paid subscriptions. 

So, tech has supported health, well-being and fitness during the global pandemic, but now that lockdown is easing, will we see a decline? 

The industry doesn’t think so and the gyms are worried too. The Gym Group for example, lost 178,000 customers up to July 2020, even as gyms were beginning to reopen, but why were people not rushing back? There are a number of reasons.

Fear is a top contender. The pandemic crept up and changed our every day life and it will not leave overnight. People are worried about being in confined spaces with lots of people sweating and panting, whereas they can use their Fitness Tech at home or outside and reduce the risk of transmission. A lot of people are still working from home or furloughed also, so they are not close to their gyms which are often located near their offices for the pre/post work workout. If they aren’t travelling to work, they aren’t travelling to the gym. 

There is a cost element also. People have invested in to their new equipment and will be reluctant to spend money going back to the gym whilst their expensive tech sits getting dusty at home. That doesn’t mean though that they won’t continue to invest in tech – with foreign holidays off the cards and less money being spent eating out, there is a budget there to spend on improved new Fitness Tech and with summer just around the corner, more of an appetite to enjoy the weather outside.

The weather – although anecdotal evidence suggests more people returned to the gyms when they reopened in April, due to the unseasonably cold weather, once the weather improves it remains to be seen if this continues 

So with Fitness Tech now becoming the routine, it remains to be seen what the next generation of Fitness Tech will produce.