A Fitter Future

Jon Alling

Current State

Fitness is full of opportunity — monetary and otherwise. At this time, more so than ever, fitness is sparking people’s attention. Products, services and even entertainment reflect our obsession with food, weight and body size. Televisions shows like “The Biggest Loser” draw millions of viewers. Fitbits and Fuelbands fly off the shelves. Your friends post every meal to Instagram, every workout to Facebook, every calorie to MyFitnessPal. You can follow a different diet every day of the week. South Beach Sunday. Paleo Tuesday. Gluten-Free Thursday. Fasting Friday. Looking beyond basic trends, something more lasting is brewing that could indefinitely enrich people’s lives — if only, as an industry, we can pull them in.

The athlete’s practice of eating well and training in a variety of ways to excel in a specific sport is becoming more common for the average fitness consumer. Classes that combine movements like Piloxing (Pilates and boxing) are more widespread as the demand for a fresh fitness experience increases.

Despite all of the attention and commerce, the needles on the scales continue to creep. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78.6 million Americans — more than a third of U.S. adults — are obese. Four of five adults do not meet recommendations for aerobic and strength training, and a full quarter of us get no exercise at all. This inactivity can, at worst, double risks for cardiovascular disease and increase chances of cancer related mortality up to 29% according to the University of British Columbia. The only bright spot — if it is one — is that just over half of us get at least enough aerobic exercise, amounting to 2.5 hours of moderate and 1.25 hours of vigorous activity, per week.

Globally the outlook is no brighter. The World Health Organization reports that obesity rates have doubled since 1980, and the most recent data suggests that 35% of adults are overweight and 11% are obese. Exercise rates are a bit better — 69% of adults meet WHO’s less-stringent recommendations of 2.5 hours of moderate activity per week. Even so, obesity continues to challenge nations worldwide and contribute to the burden of diseases including diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.

It is well established and widely accepted that regular exercise is a component of a healthy lifestyle.

Yet huge portions of the world’s population struggle to achieve the recommended minimum activity levels or are overweight. Many are both.

Yes, there are plenty of products and services already on the market, but the stubborn health data suggests that none of them is making much of an impact. If we are going to make a dent in the worldwide obesity epidemic how would we do it?

First, let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.


Exercise data is not new. Athletes logged their training in notebooks before computer spreadsheets came along. Runners counted their cadences in their heads and used their watches to calculate their paces and splits. Pedometers counted steps. Heart-rate monitors recorded exertion levels.

Plotting all that data and drawing conclusions was not impossible. But it was cumbersome. So only professional athletes and serious amateurs bothered to do it.

Now everyone from your neighbor to your grandma is tracking their workouts with a gadget or device. Recent estimates show that one in ten Americans has some kind of wearable to capture fitness data.

So what has changed?

First, thanks to phone apps and wearables, you can collect all sorts of data at the tap of a finger. In an instant, the once-time-consuming, manual process became a passive service. You can have your data without really doing anything to get it. In other words, it’s easy now.

Second, the same apps and wearables have features that deliver the data in visually appealing charts and graphs. They recognize achievements and milestones with badges. Some even offer supporting content to provide context and help you interpret your results. And the race is on for who will be the central hub for all of this data, i.e. Google and Apple. As you can imagine there are some pretty powerful insights to be gained with Big Data.

By making data collection more effortless, these tools increased access to the process. By making the results more meaningful and relevant, the experience of tracking becomes more worthwhile. The result is that individuals who wouldn’t have bothered to collect and analyze data before do it now because it’s not a bother.

Plus, people are willing to pay for the increased ease and experience. A dime-store stopwatch or a dollar-store pedometer can capture some of the same information that the hundred-dollar wearables do. They are not, however, crafted into fashion statements by some of the world’s most popular designers. The best of the wearables, on the other hand, have elevated both form and function, and more people are tracking more fitness metrics than ever before.

But there are some caveats.

First, although Americans are quick to rush into relationships with data-collection tools, we’re not so great with long-term commitment.

While humorist David Sedaris documented the instant love affair he developed with his Fitbit — one that propelled him to log tens of thousands of steps, or the equivalent of 25 miles, every day — most of us do not remain enamored with our devices. Industry reports have found that half of current device owners no longer use their gadgets, and a third had abandoned their efforts within six months of purchase.

The novelty wears off, and we’re back to where we started: The people tracking their fitness with devices are pretty much the same folks who were tracking their fitness without them — either manually or in their heads.

The new ways to capture and present data definitely improved part of the experience, but not enough to inspire long-lasting behavior change.

Clearly capturing and presenting data isn’t enough alone, no matter how easy the capture or how stunning the presentation. Data has to do more.

Consider Disney and their MagicBands. These are all-inclusive wearables — adjustable, removable wristbands — that store all of the information you need for a visit to a theme park or resort. Your park passes. Your meal plan. Your credit card. Your room key. Your FastPasses to shorter lines for rides. Many of the experiences are accessed with a tap at a touch point, but some register automatically via radio frequency. Add a fingerprint scan, and that gets you into the park. Add a PIN code and you can charge purchases (and send them immediately back to your resort so you don’t have to carry them with you) or access your meal plan when you’re ready for a snack.

MagicBands update in real time so they always contain accurate balances. They also communicate relevant personal information so you get personalized experiences. On-ride cameras can take your photos, which are delivered automatically to your account. Theme park characters know your name.

Plus, the bands eliminate some of the most common inconveniences of the park experience. Paper tickets that could be lost or stolen? Gone. Same for wallets. Meal vouchers? They’re gone, too. Bags of souvenirs? You get the picture.

A wearable might seem like a departure for the entertainment company until you consider how much the MagicBands can transform a park or resort visit. Disney shows the power of merging data sources and employing live updating and personalization to deliver a vastly improved experience. Because that is what they are selling.

Not rides. Not souvenirs. An experience. Ultimately, that is what entertainment is, and what Disney is great at. Disney’s experiment can teach every industry about the power of digital integration, including the fitness industry.

Connected Consumer

Health and fitness tracking starts with data, but it doesn’t end there. While wireless technology enables the connectivity that links user activity to some kind of device and then again to an Internet- or app-based service, there is also another kind of connectivity built into these tools that may be just as powerful, particularly in the realm of nutrition and fitness.

In addition to connecting users to their data, these tools also connect users to each other.

They can share their achievements and activity with their existing social networks, such as Facebook or Twitter. They can do it selectively, choosing to post certain results to certain networks. Or they can do it automatically by choosing settings that enable the services to communicate user data with other apps, networks and services.

The services also usually contain their own communities as well. Some users choose one or the other. Some rely on both.

This social element is critical in that it creates a support network, encourages accountability and fosters friendly competition. This element of community — either through general social networks or through dedicated fitness ones — is proving to be a powerful ingredient in successful outcomes. MyFitnessPal even has the research to back it up. Earlier this year they published their Fitness Tribes Report, which found that people who engage with each other socially lose twice as much weight as those who don’t.

This social element is proving so powerful that some emerging services are solely social. Fitocracy, for example, is a popular fitness-focused social network. Users, or Fitocrats, cheer other’s accomplishments, create positive peer pressure and offer encouragement after setbacks.

But this connectivity doesn’t just link us with peers. It can also link us with experts that help filter the vast amounts of information available so that we know how to access just what we need. Plus, it can connect us directly to those individuals who can guide us to a goal, whether it’s losing weight or running a faster 5K. All that’s necessary is a mobile device to facilitate the relationship, which usually happens through texting, app messaging, video calls, or email. Other tracking tools are helpful, but not always required.

Retrofit, for example, combines behavioral, exercise and nutrition coaching, and it emphasizes the accountability that comes with checking in with experts on a regular basis. Syncing with digital scales and activity trackers eliminates the need to spend time sharing information — all of the interactions are hard-working and tooled for results. Plus, the experts and the clients can be anywhere. A teacher in a remote Alaskan town can benefit from the guidance of a trainer in Chicago or a behavioral coach in Atlanta.

This is where data, connectivity and accountability converge.

And it’s not just the specialty services that are getting in on it. MyFitnessPal is going to start offering its 65 million users access to personal athletic coaching delivered via mobile devices and facilitated by apps and wearables.

The reason? According to MyFitnessPal, the data isn’t meaningful until we layer context and interpretation onto it. The vast connectivity that characterizes much emerging technology makes that easier and easier to do.

Studio Lifestyle

At the same time this virtual experience is gaining foothold, an on-the-ground fitness equivalent is taking shape as well. Self-selecting communities are working out together under the tutelage of a charismatic expert every day in the boutique gyms and niche fitness studios cropping up on corners and strip malls throughout the country.

Consider yoga, which has matured from the new-age fringe into the suburban mainstream. The ancient discipline is now a multi-billion-dollar global industry, with some 20 million Americans among its practitioners.

And it’s not just yoga. In 2005 there were just 13 CrossFit affiliated gyms in the entire world. By 2014 that number had swelled to 9,500. Interval-workout chain Orangetheory Fitness has opened 400 studios in the past four years. And Americans can now endure the Pure Barre’s intense ballet-inspired workouts in one of 200 studios that have opened since 2009.

These fitness experiences are in many ways quite different from traditional gym experiences. The smaller size enables the owners and instructors to cultivate greater intimacy with members. Also, since class options are intentionally limited, instructors can specialize and pursue advanced training within a narrower discipline range than they could if employed at a gym that would expect them to teach everything from Pilates to Zumba to TRX. This gives members access to more advanced training and insights. Class participants are self-selected, so they inherently share similar fitness interests and sensibilities in instruction style and even music. Relationships forged in class often extend beyond the studio and become true social networks, not simply virtual ones.

For many individuals, it is a rich rewarding experience. And one that delivers results for many. It is not, however, inexpensive. Crossfit memberships can easily cost $200 a month, and it isn’t uncommon for boutique classes to ring in around $40 each. Even though IHRSA reports that consumers say expense is a barrier to exercise, boutique gyms are proliferating. There must be something in the combination of quality, personalization, intimacy and socialization that creates an experience that trumps cost.

It is clear from the growth that boutique fitness is something that a segment of consumers want and they will pay a premium for it. What is unclear is who comprises this segment of consumers. Are these studios attracting individuals new to fitness or are they simply drawing high-end customers interested in a specialized luxury experience away from traditional health clubs?

Whether that matters depends on what we’re trying to do. If we are trying to create products and services for people who already like to exercise, the lesson is clearly that a high-quality experience in an intimate, social setting can trump high expense. The lessons are murkier if we’re trying to create products or services that convince people who don’t exercise to give it a try. Will people begin their exercise journeys with expensive boutique experiences or do they find their way there after they sample broadly and refine their preferences?

What if there is a way to deliver the experience without the expense? Since social connections are so critical, is there a way to capitalize on existing communities rather than creating new ones? There is another benefit of taking the experience where the groups already exist. Breaking into the boutique communities can be difficult and take time. Some individuals give up before they break through. By bringing niche fitness to existing groups, individuals can discover exercise in a safe environment where they already belong.

Rise Of The Corner Gym

During roughly the same time period that we’ve seen the rise of the boutique studio (and the boutique class price), we’ve witnessed a proliferation of “corner gyms,” which now punctuate cities and towns across the country. These are at once the antithesis of both niche studios and large health clubs. While there are several different franchises, they seem to be variations on a theme: A small footprint packed with equipment that’s available around the clock, and often minimally staffed.

If you haven’t noticed them, you haven’t been paying attention. Two of the largest small-footprint franchises, Anytime Fitness and Snap Fitness, have over 4,200 clubs combined worldwide. Another leader, PlanetFitness, has tripled in size in the past five years.

The appeal for most of these is that they offer low-price, low-judgment, low-risk memberships.

PlanetFitness advertises a $10 monthly fee with no long-term contracts to sign. That’s certainly appealing to the U.S. consumers who cite cost as their main barrier to health club membership.

The 24-hour corner gyms, tucked conveniently between the bank and the dry cleaners, also appeal to individuals looking for greater convenience and flexibility. A workout is never more than ten minutes away.

In one sense, this is what consumers have been asking for all along: greater access through increased convenience and decreased price.

And yet it’s still not enough for many of us. According to recent industry data, retention rates average around 58%, so just over half of the members stick around for the long-term. The traditional multi-service clubs still do better by holding onto 74% of their members.

However, the fact that many clubs lock members into long-term contracts for favorable pricing may explain the gap. Only 47% of traditional health club members are considered “core” members, or those who visit their clubs around twice a week. In other words, there are twice as many members on the roster than members who actually set foot in the gym. And if you do the math this way, big gyms may not be any better at maintaining membership levels.

Access alone may not be enough. Planet Fitness’s success suggests that experience still matters, even at low-cost gyms. The Planet Fitness brand is built around its Judgement Free Zone. Here, exercise is a risk-free, accessible and non-intimidating experience, which should appeal to individuals who are hesitant to invest in membership and who may feel insecure about their abilities. Intimidation is not an insignificant obstacle for many people new to exercise. Planet Fitness promotes ways of removing both barriers of cost and comfort to offer a better experience for that market segment.

The Best Of All Worlds

What most of the trends show is that appealing to one sensibility or removing one barrier can create interest in a product or service, but it cannot sustain it. Highly designed wearables are attractive and we buy them, but we don’t use them. Corner gyms are close but we don’t go. Boutique fitness classes are great but they’re really expensive and can feel exclusive.

But what if you could combine the best features of all these trends? What if you could blend the power of data, the enrichment of connection, the experience of studio fitness and the affordability of the convenient corner gym?

That’s where we might be able to deliver a product or service that makes a real impact and helps reverse some of the dangerous health trajectories we are on.

And it might look like a real-time, personalized solution that helps individuals embrace their own versions of fitness but without incurring excessive expense. You know, the best of all worlds.

It’s not at all impossible. The reality is that technol ogy has already vastly democratized luxury. Who needs a chauffeur with Lyft and Uber? Who needs a personal shopper when there’s Zappos and Amazon Prime?

Service is taken to another level with Fabletics or Trunk Club, two online retailers that send you monthly selections of clothing and accessories tailored to your size and preferences. You don’t have to search hundreds of sites, or read the reviews. The perfect outfits arrive before you even know you need them.

You can even forget the personal banker. Skip straight to your very own cadre of angel investors with Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing start-up that lets you generate financial support for your great ideas. It’s already connected more than 70,000 projects with $1.3 billion in pledges, and you don’t have to have a minimum net worth to get through the door. There’s not even a door — just an app.

In fact, these low-cost, high-service and personally tailored services and retailers are fast becoming the norm, not the exception. And when their experiences fall short, there’s a new start-up ready to move in and take over.

Not convinced? You must not be a cab driver.

The Future

The barriers preventing lasting behavior change can be broken down, and it’s happening right in front of our eyes. Data is making it easier to see what it means to be healthy or fit. Wider awareness of credible information and instruction is growing. And new conveniences are being introduced every day, largely with the help of technology.

But to truly make any progress we need to overcome our own inertia. We need to internalize our motivation and make exercise something we choose to do over our other daily responsibilities. We need exercise to be fun.

We need to be mindful, and the evidence stands, that the future of the industry is probably not going to revolve around a new wearable gadget, a better treadmill belt or even a new machine or exercise craze. It’s going to be better fitness experiences delivered in a new ways and to wider audiences. Exercise is always going to take effort, but if we can make these experiences easier to access and truly pleasurable at the same time, then we may finally be able to see that needle move.

Just How Big Is This Opportunity?

The World Health Organization reports 1.4 billion adults are overweight and more than 40 million children under five are overweight or obese. The CDC says that type-two diabetes is on the rise in all age groups. Exercise is critical to battling these and a host of other ailments and afflictions.

And in many ways society’s economic progress may be working against us. Between 50 and 70% of Americans spend six or more hours a day just sitting, something that undermines our fitness efforts and shortens our lives. The research is mounting and the findings are startling. For example, every hour of sitting erases 16% of the gains we make through moderate exercise. And if you don’t exercise? The damage of prolonged sitting is even worse.

On top of that US census data shows our population is rapidly aging. In just 15 years there will be 71 million American senior citizens — an increase of 73 percent since 2010 — and they will live, on average, two years longer than their parents. The number of people using long-term care services is expected to double by 2050. During this same time period the number of patients with dementia will triple. Exercise can maintain independence as we age. Some studies show it can even help delay the onset of dementia.

It’s clear that the opportunity for products and services that redress obesity and maintain fitness has gotten the attention of the technology industry. Health technology accelerator Rock Health estimates that venture funding for digital health exceeded $4 billion in 2014. That’s more than 100% year-over-year growth. Many of the world’s tech giants — including Google, GE, Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm and Intel — have acquired or invested significantly in digital health products in this past year.

The need for sustainable fitness solutions is not a trend that will fade.


A work by the Advanced Development Group, a curious division of Johnson Health Tech Inc., written by these real people: Jon Alling, Hanna Tsuhara, and Jennifer Garrett, with help from many others.

Jon Alling

Written by

Engineer… Product Designer… Founder Human | Crafted.

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