Today, if you take any measure of exercise, it’s highly unlikely that it’s in complete isolation. At one end of the spectrum, many of us have the ubiquitous smart watch or fitness tracker, keeping count of our steps and automatically recognising if we run, cycle or even swim. At the other end, we have elite athletes, who are also subject to scrutiny from worn sensors but produce data that is assessed by other means too. Their movement and form are captured on camera and analysed through machine learning. Vitals are monitored with precision tools and athletes’ bodies undergo rigorous assessment by medics using advanced imaging techniques.
Somewhere in the middle are health clubs, gyms and fitness studios. Places where people go to attend to their health and train their bodies using the kinds of specialist equipment that most couldn’t keep at home. It is, to all intents and purposes, a significant part of the service industry, so providing an environment that makes members feel elite is all part of the experience. And for today’s gyms, a high level of customer service means also using the very best available technology to support their members – both in and out of the building.
Creating a happy space
If you’ve ever feared finding yourself next to the strongest, fittest, most seasoned gym-goer, or even just don’t like the idea of being in a packed facility or waiting your turn for machines, you’re not alone. Even before Covid, gym anxiety was a very real thing and fitness centres were already turning to digital ecosystems as a means to manage memberships and prevent loss. Built-in AI tools flag usage patterns connected with membership cancellation, for example. However, these ecosystems also help to connect with new members and reassure prospects. Most use a simple RFID check in/check out system, via an app or dedicated wristband, that connects to users’ accounts and creates real-time usage data for the facility and machines, as well as trend reporting that shows the gym’s busiest periods.
Regular fitness testing
Body composition and fitness testing are often included as part of a standard membership package, and they provide an important baseline for goal setting and performance analysis. Body scanning technologies can play a part in this, accurately capturing vitals like weight, bone density and fat (although most personal trainers wisely counsel their clients to base their progress on how they feel, rather than the data), basic body measurements and even posture and balance data. These scans often use Bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), which simply sends a harmless low-level electrical current through your body and uses its rate of travel to estimate your body fat percentage. However, 3D body scanning is gaining popularity for its ability to swiftly make an accurate image of the body using ‘structured light’. The results then translate into a calculation of body surface area and volume. The digital visual, can be also overlaid with subsequent scans and together they create a rounded report against which progress can be tracked.
Personalised goals and new experiences
Crucially, when this information is connected to the member’s account within the digital ecosystem of the gym, a new dataset is born. Members are able to add to it daily, building their version of professional performance analysis. This data can come from a number of sources – wearables like FitBits and Apple watches, certainly, but also the gym’s own connected equipment and heart rate monitors. It is even possible to buy smart clothing for specific sports to gain detailed biometrics, such as altitude, temperature, heart rate and blood oxygenation. It’s a long way from simply recording your reps. At this year’s CES, there was an interactive smart yoga mat that tracks movement and analyses performance, so it can give you feedback on form and technique. Exercise machines are now highly interactive by design, and many are beginning to use AI to generate personalised training programmes. It is also likely that we will see the kind of 3D scanning mentioned above integrated into treadmills and such like. Also on the horizon are exercise machines featuring huge immersive OLED curved touch screens, creating indoor experiences that are as close to VR as you can get without a headset. And speaking of VR…
It wouldn’t be 2022 without mentioning the M word…
The gamification of fitness is already in full swing, so (from a cultural perspective, at least) slipping a workout into the metaverse shouldn’t present any significant problems once the technology is in place. However, the current wave of VR headsets are not yet ideal for most workout purposes and it goes without saying that immersive technologies can be expensive. These issues are unlikely to present a lasting problem as more and more investment is made into the mainstreaming of the metaverse. From the perspective of a gym, the ability to offer group workouts in an immersive space that can also be joined from anywhere in the world is an ideal way to keep members connected and loyal to their brands. What we are looking towards, overall, is a blurring of the lines between gym and life.
Staying in the game
The wide availability of mass market fitness technology, beyond wearables, means gyms need to take the long view. While their future, of course, continues to lie in convenient locations and providing products that members cannot access elsewhere, it is a thoroughly competitive market and driven by high consumer expectations. Hybrid services, first seen in ‘online’ classes and personal training provided during the height of the pandemic, will certainly need to evolve into a metaverse state. It’s not outside of the realms of possibility for bricks and mortar gyms to offer their own versions of a Peloton-style home subscription service with equipment included. Connectivity equals loyalty and creates volumes of precious member data, and the creation of online communities and the gamification of fitness brings endless opportunities for social sharing. The successful gyms of tomorrow are undergoing a narrative shift and working to fit neatly into people’s lives, not the other way round.
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