One legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic is a shift in the way we choose to stay fit. The shutdown of exercise facilities in the spring of 2020 and the continuing resurgence of COVID-19 variants such as delta and omicron have ushered in a new era of something industry experts call hybrid fitness — a blend of in-person and virtual workouts.
Think of it as the best of both worlds.
You can go to the gym when it’s convenient and other days you work out from the comfort of home. Hybrid fitness is not a totally new phenomenon — a decade ago, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade association serving the global health club and fitness industry, reported 67% of people who had a gym membership also had at least one piece of home exercise equipment, but the pandemic has dramatically accelerated the popularity of home fitness.
“Hybrid is how it’s going to be,” said Colleen Logan, vice president of PR and Corporate Communications at iFIT. “Hybrid is the way forward.”
The hybrid approach goes well beyond fitness, too — it’s now how we work, purchase groceries, attend school, enjoy entertainment and visit the doctor.
In the spring of 2020, The Courier Journal spoke with Jeff Howard, an internationally recognized fitness instructor and businessman who calls Louisville home. Two months into the lockdown he had already recognized the importance of the shift of consumer habits.
“The lockdown has shown us that people want what they want when they want it,'” Howard said at the time. “I’d say it will be a smart move on the part of fitness facilities to continue offering streamed workouts as part of their package in the future.”
Prior to the pandemic, Howard was a popular instructor at a large fitness facility in St. Matthews. When his gym temporarily closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Howard immediately began streaming workouts from his driveway. His clients appreciated the convenience of this online option and his audience rapidly grew. Within weeks of launching his virtual classes, Howard had more than 1,000 people popping online to follow him through workouts, some tuning in from as far away as Australia.
While some were ready to get back to the gym as soon as they reopened, many people had embraced the convenience of working out without the commute or exposure to disease. According to a 2021 International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association study, 68% of Americans that started using an online fitness service during the pandemic plan to continue to do so in the future.
Howard never returned to his previous job at the large fitness facility and he’s never stopped streaming his workout classes.
“So here we are two years later. I am teaching much smaller class sizes and stream every class I teach from a cellphone attached to the mirror in my fitness studio,” said Howard. “My clients tell me they prefer the option of combining smaller in-person classes a couple of days a week with online classes when that option works better into their schedule.”
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Chris Thompson, owner of Elevate Fitness in the Mellwood Arts Center, 1860 Mellwood Ave., had tried several times to add an online component to the facility’s membership. For people who traveled or didn’t have time in their day to make it to the gym, Thompson felt like a virtual option would be a benefit, but he said, it was rarely utilized.
“People’s habits really changed when gyms were forced to shut down,” Thompson said. “We immediately started streaming our classes in the spring of 2020 when that was the only option. We continue to do that today as well as offering all of our classes in-person here in the studio.”
Additionally, Thompson sends out daily emails with details of the workouts so that members can follow along from home.
“Some members are still much more comfortable with this virtual approach,” he said. “I don’t see us ending the virtual option in the future.”
The surge in sales of at-home fitness equipment in 2020 also played a major role in the popularity of the hybrid fitness model. Consumers wiped store shelves clean of simple dumbbells and jump ropes. Pricey high-end fitness options such as Peloton and NordicTrack brand treadmills, rowers and stationary bicycles were on backorder for months.
It wasn’t only the convenience of working out on their own schedules at home that motivated people either. For the first time, many sampled specifically designed software programs on their new fitness equipment during the spring of 2020. People found a variety of personal trainers leading the workouts, some recorded in interesting locations around the world, and exercise equipment that automatically adjusts the speed, incline, or resistance of the machine.
“It’s like a personal trainer is standing next to you adjusting the intensity of your workout,” Logan, of iFit technology, said.” As you get stronger, the software challenges you by increasing resistance or speed or incline and decline depending on which piece of equipment you are using.”
Consumers who bought brands of equipment with video screens or used their own devices to stream workouts could take a guided hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro or Machu Picchu or train for a 5K race or even the New York City Marathon. Logan explained how virtual software offers similar programs for rowing machines and stationary bicycles and can take consumers through various guided challenges in different parts of the world.
“What is now being offered has advanced beyond simply exercising on a piece of equipment to include progression and engagement to reach your goals,” she said. “Our goal is to provide a holistic approach to wellness, which means we are also adding transformation stories to listen to and watch as you exercise, and information from experts in nutrition, mental health and resilience.”
In another major pandemic lifestyle change in American habits, homeowners realized they need plenty of space for their new hybrid lifestyle.
The National Association of Homebuilders found nearly half of all recent and prospective home buyers — 47% — rate an exercise room essential or desirable, according to NAHB’s latest survey on consumer preferences, What Home Buyers Really Want. That percentage is up from 27% of buyers in 2003 when homebuyers rated home theaters as their top priority.
As you might have guessed, home workspaces are the top request for new home builds and remodels.
From dedicated space in your home and new fitness technology — to gyms that offer in-person and virtual classes — hybrid fitness is proving to be more than a flash in the pan. The pandemic forced consumers to try new avenues to achieve their fitness goals and for many, it’s been a positive shift that seems here to stay.
“Looking ahead to 2022, people have gotten used to the convenience of working out from home but they also want the social aspect of working out with others,” Howard said. “The future of fitness as I see it will require businesses that can accommodate both and in a safe and effective way.”
Reach Kirby Adams at [email protected] or Twitter @kirbylouisville.