Health and Science

Lockdowns have changed the fitness industry forever — here's what to expect of post-pandemic workouts

Key Points
  • When lockdowns are lifted, some operators expect only 25% to 30% of people to go back to in-person classes, with the rest working out via online videos.
  • Booking app ClassPass wants tax incentives for corporates to provide fitness classes to employees, post-pandemic.
  • British instructor Joe Wicks hopes more children will be physically active in schools.
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How the pandemic changed fitness forever

When Indian entrepreneur Neha Motwani realized Google searches for "fitness near me" were growing almost 40% year on year in her home country, she saw a business opportunity.

"The gyms and studios themselves did not have a website and did not have the ability to be discovered online, because uniquely for the Indian market, the organized players only constitute 4% of the market — 96% of the market is unorganized and fragmented," she told CNBC by video call.

The business Motwani co-founded in 2014, Fitternity, is now the largest online marketplace for fitness services in India. Before the coronavirus pandemic, it had almost 500,000 monthly active users who booked studio and gym classes via its app.

But when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a lockdown of the country's 1.3 billion people on March 24, Fitternity had to pivot quickly to offer live online classes, recorded video sessions and one-on-one virtual coaching. It charges about 60% to 70% of the regular in-person fee for online workouts and has only seen about a 20% dip in active user numbers.

The way we work out may never be the same. Motwani does not think people will go back to in-person classes they used once lockdowns are lifted. (India's has been extended until Sunday.)

"We are not going to see January 2020 (attendance) back again in July or August or September, because there are going to be social distancing norms. We actually believe that only 25% to 30% of the members will be able to work out (in a gym) at any given point of time. We also believe that members will be themselves very preventive and may not want to step out and be in a gym or in a studio," Motwani said.

Instead, she expects a situation where an instructor will teach a handful of people in person, while simultaneously broadcasting that workout to people logged in online. 

One benefit of video workouts is that students can see how their bodies are positioned, which is useful for activities such as yoga, according to instructor Tom Wilson-Leonard. "Unless you've taken the time to video yourself and look at what you're doing and what your body is doing in space, it's very difficult to make changes. … Immediately, there is a response that's very different to what I would normally get in (an in-person) class," he told CNBC by video call. Wilson-Leonard teaches with London chain MoreYoga, which now offers around 25 online classes a day.

Those who work for large companies might also get a post-pandemic fitness boost. Fitternity has seen a 200% increase in corporate requests, as businesses look to offer staff working-from-home perks, a trend that the U.S. fitness booking app ClassPass has also noticed.

"I'm hopeful that our employer program where we allow employers — like Google, like Facebook, like Morgan Stanley — to subsidize fitness and wellness for their employees," ClassPass CEO Fritz Lanman told CNBC by video call. "I'm hoping that more employers adopt that program."

Lanman also expects ClassPass to mix online and offline workouts, once lockdowns are relaxed and hopes that the pandemic will push governments to provide tax breaks to companies that give staff fitness subscriptions.

And, along with your boot camp, it's also likely to be easier to book a post-workout massage. ClassPass, which operates in North America as well as Europe and Asia, will continue its push into wellness by adding more beauty parlors and technicians to its app post-pandemic. "Every small business in the world right now is looking for a partner who will help them monetize their excess capacity," Lanman said.

British fitness instructor Joe Wicks, who has become "the world's PE teacher," through popular weekday workouts for children broadcast on his "The Body Coach TV" YouTube channel, hopes kids will exercise more when lockdowns are loosened. "I'd also love to be working more with schools, so maybe I'm doing outreach programs or getting some kind of initiative in place within in every school so that they have a little Body Coach ambassador promoting the work and facilitating the group sessions," he told CNBC by video call.

Like Fitternity's Motwani, Wicks also foresees an increase in people using online workouts post-pandemic. "You do think, is this going to change the fitness industry, like will people start to do more online businesses and start to increase that digital offering? They are still going to have their physical premises, but maybe as a side (project), they also need to constantly evaluate are they doing enough in the digital space. Because it's amazing, you can reach millions of people if you get it right."