John Hanc is a long-time contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and a former Contributing Editor to Runner's World magazine. His articles have also appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, Family Circle, the Boston Globe and Columbia Journalism Review. In the past year, two books co-written by Hanc have garnered a total of five major literary awards. Your Heart, My Hands: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Becoming One of America's Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons (Center Street Books), which Hanc wrote with Arun Singh, M.D., won four awards, including Gold Medals in both the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards the and American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing competitions. Fighting for My Life: Living in the Shadow of Alzheimer's Disease (Thomas Nelson), which he wrote with Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., also won a Gold Medal in the Nautilus Awards.
The Future of Fitness: Post-pandemic Trends and Tips for Success
Gyms are dying.
Fitness has no future.
The pandemic has shattered the industry beyond recognition.
That’s what some are saying—and they offer alarming evidence to back it up: A TD Ameritrade survey done last fall, and widely reported in mainstream media, suggested that most Americans will not return to the gym after the pandemic. As for the gyms themselves, IHRSA predicted at the end of 2020 that one in four gyms and health clubs would close permanently.
While acknowledging the harsh realities, particularly among clubs, ACE Certified Personal Trainer Pete McCall, MS, CSCS, has a different take—certainly different from, say, The Wall Street Journal, which observed—in a January 2021 cover story that, given the high-profile demise of several major health club chains, as well as the rise of Peloton and Mirror workouts, “it’s beginning to look like we'll never return to gyms again.”
McCall respectfully disagrees.
“I’m really bullish on the fitness industry,” he says. “People still want the socialization at the gym, even while they enjoy the convenience of working at home.”
Emma Barry, a long-time trend-spotter in the global fitness industry, takes a similarly upbeat view of the future. “The good news is we have a number of tailwinds behind us,” says Barry, the co-founder of Good Soul Hunting. She cites a convergence of factors, such as greater awareness of the importance of personal health, as well as emergent technologies, like the recently launched Apple Fitness +, that make exercise and healthy lifestyles more accessible. “We can start to see a world where we can move beyond motivating the motivated, to serving the other 80% we have not enticed beyond our doors,” she says.
In some ways, McCall believes, the pandemic is forcing some much-needed change. “The industry was set for a disruption,” he says. “The old model of a gym membership is dead. Going in and signing an agreement is going to evolve.”
“The gym we knew a year ago probably doesn’t have a future,” agrees Tricia Murphy Madden, national education director for Savvier Fitness and the co-creator of Barre Above. “Any gym that hasn’t stepped back and taken time to evaluate their business model probably doesn’t survive this.”
Opportunity is Calling
And what does all this mean for the survival of the fitness industry?
Opportunity. “I think the personal trainer is poised to become a totally different animal,” Madden says.
She notes that during the past year, many were forced to establish relationships with clients outside the gym environment. In doing so, she points out, “trainers cut out the middleman. Many more started training their clients directly.”
Indeed, many learned how to train clients online and developed outdoor fitness programming, because that’s where the training action has been centered the past year.
“I look it at this way,” says Bob Phillips, who has been a full-time trainer in New York for nearly 30 years. “The client, the trainer, the gym. In terms of the training relationship, who has been weakened most? The gym.”
As a result, trainers may now have greater leverage with gyms when it comes to customers.
“I think there’s more opportunity now,” says Madden. “And I know a lot of trainers who have thrived the past year.”
If you’re not one of them, don’t get discouraged. But do recognize if you haven’t already that at least part of your future is likely to involve some sort of online training.
“For those that have recently or even slowly dipped their trainer toes into the virtual training pool...well done,” says Matt Sulam, a New York−based trainer who over the course of a weekend last March, pivoted his entire business from in-person to online. Sulam now has more business than before the pandemic—including clients in other parts of the country he wouldn’t have been able to reach face to face.
But, he adds, the trainer who will flourish in the future must make themself not only accessible, but indispensable. That means you need to create a niche. “People won’t pay for a generalist,” says Sulam. “They will pay for a specialist. Become a specialist.”
Sulam’s training specialty could be described as “the guy with the latest.” He is a trainer who keeps abreast of all the latest gym tools and technologies, and can share them with his clients, thus bringing freshness and innovation to every workout. Some trainers may focus on young athletes, others on conditioning for clients who are competing in sports, such as running or triathlon, while still others specialize in working with seniors or new moms or those with special needs.
Don’t Overlook the Intangibles
But while trainers in the new, reimagined future of fitness may have their own niches, they still need to offer the basics, not to mention those oh-so-important, intangible benefits of training.
“A lot of people want an hour a day where someone else is making decisions,” says McCall. “They want to feel and look good, they want to work out, but they don’t want to think about it. That’s not going to change.”
Nor is the fact that a good trainer—encountered face to face or on a screen—can become a trusted figure in a client’s life. No, you’re not their therapist, or bartender—but in a good client-trainer relationship, you are someone they can rely on and trust. Continue to earn that trust and recognize that many of your clients may need you now more than ever. “It’s not just a workout you’re providing,” says Madden. At a time when many are feeling isolated, the trainer can be a friendly and welcome face.
That role may be accentuated in the years ahead, as some studies have shown that about half of American workers working remotely as a result of the pandemic would like to stay that way. Still, after hours in front of a Zoom screen, these folks will want to get up and moving.
You’re the person who can accommodate them.
In every sense, we are living thorough a transition—and, despite the awfulness of the past year, not necessarily a bleak and diminished one, at least not for those in the fitness industry who are agile, smart and determined.
And if a large segment of that industry—gyms and health clubs—is going to be transformed, you should be ready to continue pivoting, especially if you’re new in the field. “My advice to young trainers now would to be to use this as a transition time to develop your own business,” Phillips says. “You’re now confronted with [the question of] how to move most of your business to an in-person model or virtual, or some way in which the gym might no longer be involved.”
A Changing Landscape
Of course, no personal trainer or exercise professional is rooting for the demise of the neighborhood gym—for many reasons. Even though your future may involve more virtual training, and less time on a gym floor, they’re important.
Barry, for one, thinks gyms will survive in a fitness universe in which digital at-home workouts and technologies are playing a larger role. “There will be some sharing of the wallet, for sure, but this is a call to action for us to get in the hybrid game, lean into tech that serves to personalize our members' journeys, and [help us be] way more powerful when we do get together."
Madden agrees that collaboration between gyms and trainers and other health and exercise professionals is a key to the future. “I'm trying to really encourage trainers to stick with the local gym, in some form,” says Madden. “Go to your club owner and say `I want you to survive, how can we work together?'" Maybe it’s a more equitable financial arrangement between the trainer and the gym than it may have been in the past. Maybe it’s cross-promoting each other's services. “This is going to be a test of how we collaborate and work together as an industry,” Madden says. “It’s survival of the fittest, literally.”
No Shortcuts to Success—Before, During or After COVID-19
What should trainers be doing differently post-pandemic?
Nothing that they shouldn’t have been doing before it.
“There is no shortcut or secret to rising to the top, and that hasn’t changed with the pandemic,” says Julian Barnes, cofounder and CEO of Boutique Fitness Solutions and an industry thought leader and presenter.
Young trainers, he says, “need to perfect their craft,” while more experienced trainers need to continue learning. And Barnes’s view of what that education should encompass goes beyond learning how to model proper form on a deadlift. “I don’t mean taking every certificate program out there,” he says. “I mean, educating yourself”—about business, about psychology, about how to help people make change.
Barnes offers some specific and eclectic suggestions for personal trainer self-improvement:
Remember that training is personal—learn how to deliver that part of your service.
Barnes recommends reading The Nordstrom Way to Customer Service Excellence, by Robert Spector and Patrick McCarthy, originally published in 1995 and now in its third edition.
“A lot of people forget the first word in personal training,” Barnes says. “We are talking about a personal services business. So why am I recommending this book? Because it’s one of the premier books on delivering five-star, world-class service. And as a personal trainer, you need to become an expert in that."
He also recommends the Business for Unicorns podcast, cofounded by business coach Michael Keeler and fitness entrepreneur Mark Fisher (who Forbes magazine called “The Gurus Behind New York’s Wildest Gym”). “Do whatever he says,” says Barnes, about Fisher (although he might not mean setting up, as the latter did, a mannequin at the entrance to your gym, wearing a pink tutu).
If you don’t already have one, find a mentor.
It may seem obvious, but Barnes feels this is an overlooked factor in success. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “Find the mentor who is doing what you want to do, who is where you want to be. And ask them to commit to helping you.” If you’re not sure where to find that person, Barnes recommends Instagram and LinkedIn. “You’re no longer limited to the neighborhood you live in,” he says.
That said, your local community is a place where you can and should do business. Along with finding a mentor, Barnes recommends joining a local business networking group for potential sources for ideas, referrals and information from other successful people.
Learn what makes people tick.
“When I was in college, no one ever gave me a context for why I was taking psychology,” he says. “Thirty years later, I understand.” Successful training is about getting people motivated, keeping them accountable and helping them through the often-difficult challenge of making healthy changes in their lives. You’re not a counselor or a therapist, but you should understand something about human behavior.
If you don’t want to go back and re-take Psych 101, Barnes says, listen to the popular Work Life podcasts by organizational psychologist Adam Grant. Other good psychology podcasts, according to VeryWellMind.com, an online resource for mental health and well-being, include The Psych File and Hidden Brain.
Remember the product you’re delivering (it's not just exercises).
Workouts are becoming a commodity. “I can go on YouTube and find every kind of workout I want, for free,” Barnes says. “What I can’t get on YouTube is somebody who is willing to work with me, help build my confidence and help me achieve transformation.” That’s what trainers can provide. Recognizing what you are really selling and figuring out how to best deliver that to your clients—through good service, genuine caring, consistent and clear communication—is a key to success, now and always.