Pete McCall by Pete McCall

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced numerous changes to how the fitness industry does business, it is best to think of this disruption as a catalyst for changing how we engage our customers by creating new ways to deliver fitness solutions. As former Congressman and Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel once said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Health and exercise professionals have applied this mindset and responded to mandated facility closures by finding new ways to deliver workout solutions via video streaming services as well as making use of outdoor spaces that allow for proper social distancing. The question becomes: Are these adaptations merely a stopgap solution for dealing with the pandemic or will they become a part of the fitness landscape for the foreseeable future? And importantly: How will these changes affect the ability of health and exercise professionals to earn a living in the coming year?

While it is not possible to predict the future with any certainty, this attempt to see how we’ll be doing fitness in the coming year is based on conversations with colleagues who work for equipment manufacturers, have positions in health club operations or own fitness studios, both in the United States and all over the world. To help you plan for your business in the coming year, each prediction is also accompanied by what it means for health and exercise professionals and how it might affect your ability to conduct your business in the coming year.

  1. Streaming services that deliver workouts to any screen connected to the internet have become extremely popular and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The variety of workouts combined with the chat features that allow participants to engage with the instructors and each other really does create the studio experience from the comfort of home. According to Jessica Pohl Sinnarajah, a cycling instructor in Buffalo, N.Y., “The social online presence created by the streaming platforms help create a feeling of community, even while you’re working out alone. There is a sense of accomplishment when posting about workout achieving that also helps to build accountability to others who work out on the platform.” In 2021, class size restrictions will lead many facilities to offer hybrid services of streaming workouts directly from their studios. Thanks to technology, many facilities will create their own streaming services that will allow some members to participate live in the studio while others will be sweating from home. Fitness facilities that have not already done so will need to identify virtual solutions to deliver group workouts, which can help ensure retention of existing members while providing new opportunities to engage with coaches from the facility.


  1. Group fitness classes are going green. Governments have attempted to limit the spread of the virus through shelter-in-place orders and by restricting business operations; in many locations, fitness facilities are allowed to operate but only by offering outdoor workouts. Health clubs and studios in warm-weather locations such as Southern California, Arizona and Florida have responded by moving equipment and classes outdoors. Partly in response to the business closures that restrict popular leisure activities such as going to the movies or watching professional sports, many people are rediscovering the benefits of accessible activities such as walking and are making use of outdoor recreation spaces such as parks and hiking trails. In addition, activities such as cycling, roller skating and inline skating are seeing a resurgence in popularity. “Outdoor classes that include the whole family have become a popular option in for our members, says Christy Giroux, a personal trainer in Gaithersburg, Md., and co-owner of Prime Fitness. “In addition, we have seen many of our neighbors at our local parks because you can be active while remaining socially distant.” People seeking new ways to be active outdoors creates new opportunities for health and exercise professionals to help clients get in shape so they can enjoy those activities to the fullest extent possible.


  1. In response to business closures and restrictions on large groups, many consumers have been buying up all available fitness equipment to stock up their garage gyms. It’s one thing to buy exercise equipment for the home, it’s another to learn how to use it correctly. The explosive popularity of garage gyms should create a number of new opportunities for health and exercise professionals who specialize in in-home workouts to deliver their services to a whole new clientele.


  1. As mentioned above, due to a variety of reasons, including evidence suggesting a link between obesity and COVID-19 complications, it appears as if many individuals have become more physically active and have started to exercise for the purpose of improving health. According to the results of a United Kingdom-based study, the pandemic may be initiating a new interest in physical activity and exercise among older adults who are at greater risk of complications from the virus. As this recent CERTIFIED article on exercise and the immune system points out, it’s well established that regular exercise combined with other healthy lifestyle habits can strengthen the immune system. As new fitness consumers enter the market, it will create new opportunities for health and exercise professionals to design exercise programs to reduce risk factors and improve overall health.


  1. On that note, in 2021 social media will continue to be the primary way that many individuals search for and consume fitness information. As more consumers enter the fitness market, many turn to popular social media platforms to look for guidance on how to start an exercise program. Health and exercise professionals that have a strong social media presence and know how to leverage platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or TikTok to engage potential clients will have a distinct advantage for attracting this new business. If you’re a health and exercise professional who wants to develop a business that can deliver online workouts, now is the time to master the power of social media.


  1. Due to its ability to deliver results in a short amount of time, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) will continue to be a popular mode of exercise in 2021. The key difference is that as long-time fitness consumers become another year older, these workouts will need to be modified for participants of all ages. Keep in mind that many older fitness consumers have been exercising for most of their lives so they are more likely to do a HIIT workout than chair aerobics. In addition to benefits such as improving aerobic capacity, elevating the hormones that help promote muscle growth and managing a healthy bodyweight, research suggests that HIIT elevates BDNF, a protein that stimulates the growth of new brain cells. This means that older adults who want to reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s should consider adding one or two HIIT workouts per week to their exercise program. In response to the changing demographic of fitness consumers, Tricia Murphy Madden, the IDEA 2020 Fitness Business Leader of the Year, created Your Body 2.0, a group fitness program based on high-intensity exercise that is designed specifically for the over-40 body. Her program is just one example of how health and exercise professionals can address the needs of the older, extremely fit, consumer by delivering workouts that are high intensity yet able to be performed by participants of all ages.


  1. Partly due to an aging population that is remaining extremely active both in and out of the gym, in 2021 post-workout recovery protocols will remain extremely popular. Body-weight workouts that enhance mobility, the use of percussion guns and foam rollers for myofascial release and compression clothing are all useful approaches for enhancing recovery from exercise and will only gain popularity in the coming year. There will also be an increased emphasis on the health benefits of sleep, in part because of its positive effects on the immune system. From bed sheets that can help retain infrared heat to smart mattresses that can automatically adjust the temperature while monitoring biometric data such as heart rate variability, a number of products are being introduced with the promise of helping improve health through sleep. To meet this need, health and exercise professionals should brush up on their knowledge of recovery techniques so they can provide solutions to ensure that clients experience results from their workouts.


  1. Because it can help reduce overall stress levels while supporting a positive mindset, meditation and mindfulness will become more popular in mainstream fitness over the coming year. For example, Rob Kram, the director of content and programming at St. James, a health club outside of Washington, D.C., indicated that his facility is planning on meditation becoming a popular option for members in the coming year. When military special operations teams such as the Navy SEALs start mindful practices like meditation to achieve optimal teamwork in a high-stress environment, you know it will only be a matter of time before that filters down to the mainstream fitness consumer. Consider meditation as exercise for the brain and understanding more about the benefits of meditation along with how to practice it could help health and exercise professionals become an important asset to their clients in 2021 and beyond.


  1. One common theme that emerged from industry experts is that the past year has provided new opportunities for families to be more active together. In 2021, there will be growth in fitness programming for the entire family. Many youth sports have been affected by the pandemic, and parents have responded by including kids in recreational activities. Shana Verstegen, an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and TRX Master Trainer based in Madison, Wisc., says that she has seen an increase in families in parks playing old-fashioned games such as tag and flag football. “This creates an opportunity for a health and exercise professional to develop programming that is inclusive for the entire family,” explains Verstegen.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the general public is developing a better understanding of the role that exercise plays in promoting optimal health. This will, in turn, create new consumers who will need the guidance of ACE Certified Personal Trainers, Health Coaches and Group Fitness Instructors. How fitness is delivered will continue to evolve throughout 2021, but what will not change is the fact that exercise can significantly enhance an individual’s quality of life. Yes, 2020 was a year of challenge and change, but health and exercise professionals who have stepped up to the challenge and embraced the changes will see tremendous growth opportunities in 2021 and beyond.

ACE has created a course for Personal Trainers and Group Fitness Instructors to help navigate your next steps as an ACE Certified PRO. Check out these 1 credit hour courses to learn more about how to set up your career and clients for success.