Fitness Changed Big in 2020. Here’s What It Means for Us Going Forward

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Without question, 2020 was utterly demanding across the board. From the COVID-19 pandemic to the long-overdue reckoning with the foundation of racial injustice in this country, last year rocked us to our core. It summoned us to be collectively agile. It required an increased level of resilience and strength. It compelled scores of us to be more compassionate and empathetic. And for the majority of us, there was no tiptoeing around or sugarcoating any of this—2020 said what it said, and we had to continually adjust.

For better and for worse, we changed, from the most intrapersonal shifts to the most global transformations. And things will continue to look and feel different moving forward.

For many of us, moving forward is both literal and metaphorical. Being rocked to our core, sharpening our agility, and increasing our resilience and strength is something we train for in fitness. Movement is a tool and a healer, but even that changed last year. The entire fitness industry, along with almost every other industry across the globe, has shifted rather quickly.

Sure, the fitness industry has been evolving dramatically over the last few decades. I have personally watched it morph from Jazzercise, aerobics, and VHS tapes when I first started teaching to the boutique fitness classes, digital platforms, and uprising of social media fitness influencers of today. But there was a difference with the 2020 shift: Like many changes throughout our lives this past year, these fitness changes were incredibly marked and abrupt. If you were an avid gym or studio goer, it might feel like you were in a class one day and never able to return the next. Because, well, that’s kind of what happened.

Now, with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, there is some hope of a return to shared physical spaces on the horizon, though most of us are still in some level of quarantine, and there are still vaccine rollout issues to contend with. So, what does 2021 hold for the fitness industry? The answer—and truly the biggest lesson I’m taking away from 2020—is that we have no damn idea what the future holds. We can, however, look at how all these fitness changes from 2020 could steer us as we move into 2021. Here are my fitness predictions for where I think we might be headed:

1. Digital and online fitness will persist.

Ironically, this time last year various media outlets asked me to comment on my fitness predictions for 2020 trends and the first thing I said was: Digital platforms and communities were going to continue to be increasingly influential, especially platforms like Peloton.

I swear that a pandemic and quarantine were not what I had in mind! But Zoom fitness was all the rage last year, along with Facebook and Instagram live workouts and, of course, Peloton. While there may be an overall sense of Zoom fatigue—we’ve been using it for everything from work meetings to school classrooms to happy hours—I truly don’t see this digital space going away. For those with access to equipment, Wi-Fi, time, and space, fitness at home has now become a habit for tons of exercisers. Many people with the means have decked out or upgraded their home workout spaces with enough varied equipment to forego the gym memberships they once relied upon.

And speaking of decked out and upgraded, 2021 is sure to bring us even broader options when it comes to these digital at-home workouts. Peloton, for instance, has been dropping more and more categories on its platform (most recently Pilates and prenatal classes), and I don’t see their domination of the space going anywhere. Other platforms such as Mirror, Tonal, and Tempo are also likely to follow suit with more offerings, not to mention the other brands that are sure to pop up in the coming months. As a result, more competition in this space may increase accessibility and reduce pricing as well.

We are only in the beginning stages of the coronavirus vaccine rollout, so the reopening of physical fitness establishments will likely occur at a slow pace. And because of this, digital will surely persist. Which leads me to number two.

2. Gyms and studios will reopen as hybrid digital/physical spaces.

Since reopening has or will still require a certain amount of regulations in terms of masks, social distancing, etc., gyms will probably look a little different than pre-2020. For one, there’s the likelihood that not everyone will be able to get into the classes they want, or even the gym spaces in general, exactly when they want to. Plus, some people may choose to wait longer to return to their gyms even once spaces do reopen.

However, I still see people clamoring to get back to the gym to use barbells, squat racks, and any of the CrossFit or functional fitness equipment, since this tends to be costly and takes up space, meaning they may not have made it into at-home workout spaces. The same applies for boutique classes that require special equipment like Lagree method classes, Pilates reformer, and treadmill or cycle classes (for those without their own equipment). As a result, I do think there will be quite the hybrid of studios and gyms—they’ll continue to utilize the digital space at the same time as the physical space to offer classes and workouts.

3. There will be an increased focus on inclusivity and racial justice.

In those same end-of-year interviews I mentioned above, this was the other major thing I highlighted as what I hoped to be a focus for the industry in 2020. Again, I had no idea that the events would transpire as they did, but the long-overdue focus on racial injustice is clearly needed in this country and, thus, in every industry within it.

This goes as much for the fitness industry as it does for the individual gym or studio goer. We must continue to dismantle the oppressive systems and social ideals that have long been the foundation for everything in the U.S., including the fitness industry.

Much like we need the changes to go beyond a post on Instagram or a letter from a CEO, I hope that our focus on anti-racism and inclusion of all bodies of all glorious skin tones in the fitness industry and across other industries goes beyond December 31. We cannot continue to cater to a dominant ideal that thinness and whiteness are “best”; we cannot continue to marginalize, exclude, ignore, or overlook. Movement should be accessible to all, and we have a lot of work to do in this area.

We need changes from the top in the fitness industry, with BIPOC in C-suite positions; better, more authentic representation in marketing; continued efforts in organizations to address anti-racism with workshops and policy changes; emphasis on and elevation of BIPOC businesses; and a focus on safe and accessible places for physical activity in all areas. And we need to support and assure space for movements and organizations like Fit 4 Us, which began in the fall of 2020 with the vision to empower Black fitness professionals and help end structural inequalities and health disparities. Like I said, we have a lot of work to do!

4. We will continue to appreciate how movement contributes to health—and work toward greater accessibility for it.

This is multifold. COVID-19 exposed many things to us, not the least of which being that the healthier we are, the better chance we have to fight many diseases. (Although 2020 also made it tragically clear that the coronavirus could also harm and kill young, healthy people, and that there is often a disturbing yet unsurprising societal message that this is somehow “worse” than the coronavirus harming and killing those who are older and/or have underlying illnesses.) Movement can contribute to health in a myriad of ways, and this year has provided a clear depiction of the benefits of movement that have nothing to do with aesthetics. Quarantine, social isolation, and the anxiety of everything from the virus to social unrest to the election also exposed the importance of our mental health. And movement, of course, can also contribute to an improved sense of well-being and better mood.

While we may have taken it for granted before stay-at-home orders and closures forced us to be cooped up, many of us now realize that physical activity and fresh air are truly imperative for our mental health. If we couldn’t get to our normal workouts, even just going for a daily walk could really make a difference in our mood.

At the same time, we have to recognize that not all populations have the same access, resources, environment, opportunities, equity, etc. to be able to put into practice many activities that contribute to better health. Inequities have long over-burdened Black and brown communities, as disparities in outcomes of COVID-19 exposure, incidence, and deaths have clearly demonstrated.

As those of us in public health know all too well, none of these disparities are new. But I do believe they opened many eyes in 2020. For many of us, all of this together lends itself to a deeper understanding of and appreciation of the value of health-prevention behaviors for all, including movement. I really hope that we continue to unravel how we can help more people move their bodies in safe, inclusive, and equitable ways.

Unlike previous years, what’s on deck for 2021 is, in my opinion, less about new gadgets and gizmos and trackers (although those are sure to await us as well) and more about keeping our bodies and our world moving forward when life throws us off track. Movement serves us in so many ways. Movement allows us to get from yesterday to tomorrow, yet somehow magically keeps us focused on today.

Yes, 2020 was heavy. But, as I’m sure you’ve heard your favorite coach or instructor say, we gotta pick up the heavy weights. We have to carry forward all that 2020 has revealed to us individually and collectively, including the inequities and burden placed on BIPOC communities, so that as a country we are literally and figuratively better able to move more freely in 2021. Fitness as we knew it might never be the same, but perhaps this yet-to-be-revealed “after” is exactly what the industry needed.


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