Online fitness stars bank on virtual gyms being more than just a phase

Melas’ move into the world of hybrid in-person and digital fitness is an example of a broader trend, which sees Australians now saying will continue virtual workouts having tried them throughout the pandemic.

New research from fitness class scheduling and booking app Mindbody has found that, while most prefer in-person fitness classes over opening their laptops to get the endorphins flowing, over half (51 per cent) anticipate continuing virtual workouts once a week, and 37 per cent expect to keep working out virtually two to three times weekly.

New features

Earlier this year, Mindbody itself added on-demand and livestream features for use by the 5000 Australian gyms, yoga and dance studios, and other fitness operators that use its software.

Its study found that yoga (32 per cent) was the most popular class to do from home, while pilates (28 per cent) and strength training (26 per cent) had been the classes most Australians had returned to in-person during the July period when restrictions eased in most of Australia.

Mindbody’s 2020 New Normal survey was taken by 702 people across Australia about their pre-COVID-19 and current fitness habits. It was conducted between August 11 and August 20, with respondents aged from 18 to 65.

Mindbody Asia-Pacific vice president and managing director Hema Prakash says more Australians will now expect both the studio and virtual fitness experience to be available post-COVID.

“We’re saying to everyone this hybrid model is not a new normal, it’s going to be your absolute normal,” she says.

Mindbody’s customers – gym owners and fitness operators – are on average reporting revenues down around 25 per cent on the previous year due to COVID-19.

Prakash says the businesses faring best were doing so because of extensive customer surveys and having already built up a strong sense of community.

Sydney-based Pilates instructor Bianca Melas has attracted a loyal base of clients to her online platform. 

“If you are a business person that accidentally came into this world of wellness, and you’ve relied on luck, you may not survive this next six months. If you didn’t build the community aspect of your brand and business, it’s going to be super hard to start from scratch again right now,” Ms Prakash said.

In April, around 800 of Mindbody’s then 3000-strong global workforce were laid off or furloughed. The company has since re-hired some as pre-COVID fitness spending levels have rebounded.

In fact, the Mindbody New Normal survey found that the majority of respondents planned to spend the same amount or more on fitness compared to pre-COVID.

In NSW, 87 per cent of respondents felt this way, in Victoria, that figure was 75 per cent, in Queensland, that figure was 89 per cent, and in Western Australian, that figure was 80 per cent.

Melas says her shift to hosting virtual classes had required her to pay attention to details, like virtual room aesthetics and compiling accompanying Spotify music playlists. She says the snappy 30-minute classes have resonated well with clients.

She launched Balanced By Bianca in June, as her own online fitness platform, which provides on-demand classes and three live classes a week.

“[Doing virtual well] is also about having touchpoints to be able to reach out to clients and speak to them and make sure they are okay, and that they know I’m there to support them, and they can ask any questions that they have to maintain that connection,” Ms Melas says.

The digital fitness industry has become increasingly competitive in the COVID era.

There are popular mobile app subscription services like Keep It Cleaner and Kayla Itsines’ SWEAT, alongside YouTube workout stars like Cassey Ho of Blogilates fame and a raft of social media-linked running and cycling tracking services like Strava and Peloton.

The industry also has to contend with the latest player in town: Apple Fitness+.

Apple Fitness+ is a subscription fitness service for $119.99 per year that offers an array of workouts with a meticulously cast group of diverse trainers from around the globe.

Apple has said it launched Apple Fitness+ with the expectation that people will do many of the classes at an actual gym, not just at home.

It’s an example of what will increasingly be the expectation within the fitness industry-technology blended with physical infrastructure.

If one thing is clear, it’s that consumers will now expect access to both physical and virtual fitness programs.

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