How the COVID-19 pandemic and discussions about inclusivity are changing the fitness industry for good.
Karina Inkster, MA, PTS
For most of us, 2020 and 2021 have been years of change—to say the least. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought many of us anxiety, uncertainty, and loss, it’s also resulted in several positive health effects that will last for years to come. Likewise, the fitness industry is going through a metamorphosis with long-lasting ramifications. The effects of the pandemic—as well as discussions of inclusivity in fitness—will lead to permanent changes within the wellness industry.
Although the pandemic will have long-term effects on our physical and mental health (worldwide daily step counts decreased by an average of 27.3% within 30 days of the pandemic declaration in March 2020, and depression rates have tripled during the pandemic among American adults), there is some good news!
A recent study found that although many participants were struggling with mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, stress, and loneliness, they were also making positive changes in their lives as a result of the pandemic. 62% of the survey’s participants say they’ve made significant healthy living changes, including spending more time outdoors, starting or modifying an exercise program, or improving sleep patterns. 34% of respondents say they’re eating healthier foods, and 28% say they’ve increased their exercise frequency since the pandemic started—possibly a sign that we’re embracing working out at home while gyms have been closed.
Pandemic-related gym closures have changed the fitness industry forever—for both fitness professionals and fitness enthusiasts. Two of the most recognized gym brands in the world filed for bankruptcy in 2020 due to COVID. On the other end of the spectrum, spin bike and workout-streaming company Peloton’s revenue increased by 172% for the quarter ending June 30, 2020 compared to the same quarter in 2019.
Jonathan Goodman, founder of the Personal Trainer Development Center, says that fitness professionals “have been forced to evolve into a better model for delivering their service. For years, the business model of the fitness industry was doing a disservice to the people who work in it, burning them out and not compensating them fairly.” Pandemic-related gym closures have forced those who work in fitness either to close their doors for good, or to evolve. “In the interim this has caused a lot of pain but coming out of it is a much stronger industry.”
Certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and nutrition coach Ren Jones notes that the pandemic has amplified the role of the internet in the fitness industry. “The same way the internet democratized small business and access to branding,” he says, the online fitness industry reduces the number of gatekeepers. “You don’t need a gym to ‘approve’ your identity. You can very simply set up a community and find ‘your’ people”.
The pandemic has also led to a collective realization that we don’t need commercial gym spaces in order to be active, and that it’s acceptable (and effective) to work out anywhere. Goodman says, “Never before have so many people felt comfortable working out in parks or at home with everything from resistance bands to backpacks full of cans of soup”.
In my own fitness coaching practice and among my training partners, I’ve seen much more creativity than in previous years. Folks are breaking out of the “gym is the only option” mold and having fun in the process! What may have seemed odd a few years ago (hanging your suspension trainer on a soccer field goalpost, doing lunges around a running track, taking your kettlebells to the park) is now accepted as the norm.
This shift away from commercial gym spaces has led to more people becoming active because they no longer see gym access as a barrier to working out. For many individuals, this collective acceptance of non-gym exercise is a better fit financially (e.g., no gym fees to pay) as well as socially (e.g., training in alternative environments that don’t trigger social anxiety).
Now that so many of us have been exposed to outdoor and at-home forms of exercise, coupled with an overall uneasiness about reentering crowded spaces, most of our clients don’t plan on returning to gym workouts after the pandemic is over.
Technology is adapting to accommodate the changing fitness industry. Home workout equipment that’s been around for years, like resistance bands and adjustable dumbbells, has been in extremely high demand, but many new offerings have also appeared in the marketplace, often focusing on connecting with virtual instructors, classes, and communities. Smaller-scale personal training, spin, and yoga studios that may never have built an online presence have been redesigning their offerings to cater to home workouts.
Heidi Morel, certified personal trainer, canfitpro instructor, and owner of Human Movement Works Personal Training, says, “Using technology to engage clients can be a powerful tool. We can use technology to provide remote coaching and monitoring, allowing the personal trainer to stay engaged with the client outside of in-person meetings.”
In most places around the world, at some point during lockdowns virtual fitness classes were the only option, and most instructors adapted quickly to the online world. Morel believes virtual exercise and coaching will be in demand long after restrictions are lifted. “The real questions will be how can we meld the virtual offerings and exercise apps with in-person training? Will we forever lose participants to training apps and virtual classes?”
In my own coaching work, I’ve seen the demand for online one-on-one coaching skyrocket. My business has been exclusively online since 2017. In response to pandemic-related demand, I expanded my team to include an assistant coach in late 2020, and a few months later her schedule is already at max capacity. Since the pandemic started, fitness enthusiasts are now more open to the concept of virtual coaching, and most personal trainers now run at least some (if not all) of their businesses online.
As the pandemic changes the fitness industry for good, so, too, will recent discussions about diversity and inclusion. Fitness and strength coach, writer, and speaker Chrissy King notices this development within the wellness industry, but for her, it’s bittersweet. While she’s glad the wellness industry seems more open to having conversations around diversity and inclusion in the last year or two, these issues have existed for much, much longer (she herself has been writing about these subjects for over five years).
King notes that having such discussions is important and positive, given that we need to address how and why racism is a public health issue. We also need to ensure we’re dismantling implicit racism and other biases in our own lives. “It’s uncomfortable, it’s challenging, and it may involve guilt and shame as you recognize some of the things you need to unlearn”, King says. Diversity and inclusion aren’t work you can merely “check the box” on. They’re continuous and long-term.
Keighty Gallagher is the founder of Tight Club Athletics, a fitness community built on spreading positivity and acceptance through movement. Some of the inclusivity-related changes she’s noticed recently in the fitness industry are found in “space design: apparel brands expanding their size offerings and becoming mindful around the language and music used in fitness”.
She’s seeing space design and company culture reflecting and honoring the needs of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities. More gyms are building non-gendered single stall washrooms for the safety of members who may not feel comfortable using public changerooms or washrooms. “At my gym, we'd start every class with a check-in question, and ask everyone to introduce themselves with their pronoun.”
Positive work is being done, but the wellness industry still needs a massive overhaul. There’s a lot of privilege inherent in the industry, and in order to make lasting, meaningful changes, we need to dismantle some of the systems and assumptions that are in place.
Ren Jones notes that we need an industry-wide push toward large-scale fitness organizations and certifying bodies providing training programs and certification courses on working with diverse populations. He’d like to see much more of a concerted effort into educating the many coaches who are currently underprepared to work with clients from diverse backgrounds. When one large organization gets on board, Jones says, “we’ll see a domino effect”.
King is hopeful that people will continue to engage in diversity and inclusion work in ways that are meaningful, rather than performative. She notes that, in an effort to be diverse and inclusive, people will often call on every BIPOC individual they know to talk about their experiences in fitness as someone with a certain identity. King says, “Diversity and inclusion means I'm going to invite people of all backgrounds to talk about whatever they're an expert at, not to talk about [their] X, Y, and Z identity.”
Many fitness professionals find that conversations within the industry often stagnate around just one or two concepts—usually race and gender. Fitness coach Zoe Peled says, “Gender diversity and racial diversity are two significant factors within the inclusivity dialogue, yet they are not the only ones. Are we creating athletic spaces and experiences that are taking into consideration a wide range of cultural, economic, and education backgrounds? Do we prioritize having the skillsets in place to support neurodiverse populations, folks who use mobility devices, and folks who may be navigating recovery or rehabilitation programs? Are there programs in place to support clients who are differently abled?”
King notes, “If people aren't coming into spaces and feeling welcome and seen and celebrated and recognized, and really feel like the space was designed with them in mind and not as an afterthought, we're not actually doing the work of inclusion.”
Fitness professionals and enthusiasts alike need to continue dismantling and restructuring the landscape of the wellness industry, to create something that is truly inclusive and affirming for people of all different backgrounds. “Put yourself on the hook to be a disrupter or an interrupter. Take the information you’ve learned and put it into practice”, King says.
Arguably, the fitness industry has transformed more in the last two years than it has in the last two decades. As we move forward with inclusivity work and the effects of the pandemic, we’re likely to see many more changes.
Personal trainer Emily Kennedy hopes that the fitness industry “transitions away from size and looks to something more focused on capability and feeling good. My body structure will never allow me to be a size zero, and I spent the vast majority of my life thinking that was something to be ashamed of; like it somehow linked to my value or worth as a human, overall. It didn't and it doesn't.”
Those looking to continue working out in gyms post-pandemic may prefer a boutique style facility versus a larger-scale commercial gym. Chris Austin, personal trainer and owner of BodyCo Fitness, says, “COVID has turned our industry upside down. People will require a visible change in cleaning protocols when it comes to returning to fitness. I don’t think this will ever go back to the carefree wander-in-and-out gym experience we all knew not so long ago.”
So, what does this mean for you? First, the good news: with so many coaches now creating online offerings, you can work with a trainer who suits your exact needs from anywhere in the world! Bear in mind, however, that with a more saturated market, you’ll need to make extra sure you do your due diligence when it comes to checking qualifications, references, and online reputations.
From seeing ourselves better represented by well-known fitness brands to having access to our favorite yoga instructors from the comfort of our own homes, and from non-gendered gym washrooms to online workouts with a friend in another city, the “new world” of fitness we’re experiencing allows for greater participation from larger segments of our population. Although we still need large-scale changes within the wellness industry, the pandemic and discussions about inclusivity have forced the fitness industry to reassess the systems and assumptions that have been in place for decades.