The Smart Gym Is Here

Leveraging the right technology in your club can put customers more in control of their health and provide personal trainers with increased efficiency. In the gym membership of the future, remote coaching, streaming workouts at home and highly targeted recommendations from wearable data will become standard, say industry watchers and researchers.

One in six U.S. consumers currently own a wearable, according to Statista and eMarketer reports, with even greater numbers — almost one in three — in the 18- to 34-year-old population. Wearables have made the average person more interested in hitting fitness targets, according to Dr. Steven Feyrer-Melk, director of lifestyle medicine at Optimal Heart Center and Nudge LLC in Scottsdale, Arizona. Selling wearables, or at least offering the consumer a chance for their trainer to access its data, will be a huge revenue generator for health clubs, he said, as will be selling remote-coaching packages that include offerings such as trainer text check-ins and access to the customer’s full week of activity both in and out of the club. All this means members will begin to feel more personally engaged with their gym, Feyrer-Melk said.

“Customers and clients are getting data, but they don’t know what to do with it,” Feyrer-Melk said. “Gym coaches are the go-to people who will let you know what all that data means. The club industry is missing the boat on that.”

More people wearing devices that track the steps on, say, their evening dog walk will mean an uptick in a desire to access guidance outside of an hour of personal training, according to David Shaw, vice president of Growth Fitness Marketing in Orange County, California. Within a few short years, most group-exercise rooms will be recording workouts for people to stream at home at their leisure, which will also draw in customers wary of gyms, Shaw predicted. The ROI is in allowing more people in the facility who wouldn’t normally be comfortable there and maintaining the ones that may be at risk of cancelling, he said.

“Maybe someone who is starting to do more of their cardio outside, perhaps you bring them in suggesting they get back to their strength training routine,” Shaw said.

Basic costs around integrating these options is in the setup of the health-coaching platform, which include messaging capabilities, Feyrer-Melk said. With apps, it takes less time to monitor a large number of people based on the way data is presented to the trainer. NudgeCoach, which is white labeled for each gym that uses it, lets a trainer monitor 200 people with an hour and a half of work a week, Feyrer-Melk said. He can sort members by age, name, scores or last point of contact.

“This is about developing a relationship, not pushing people out the gym,” he said. “This pulls them back in while also valuing what they’re doing on the outside.”

Experiences outside the facility need to evolve, so people can take advantage of a mobile, cloud-based and in-gym combination membership, Shaw said. The benefits for gym owners go even further. Products such as FitCloud Connect can collect back-end data about who is doing what classes at what time of day. Experiencing a class at home could intrigue some people into coming into the physical club eventually, Shaw said.

“It’s a gateway,” he said. “And different than just putting a video on YouTube.”

Streaming options are relatively inexpensive, according to Shaw.

“New equipment comes out at such speed now, and their buying cycles might be increasing for hard good products,” he said. “That’s where a lot of the cost is going to come from, but it’s going to be difficult to see which ones to invest in first.”

Such on-the-go coaching and classes aren’t the threat to the brick-and-mortar gym that it may first appear, said Grace Pinegar of G2 Crowd, a Chicago research firm. Her research has shown that professional advice and accountability are still a major draw for people serious about improvement.

“Even those who work in tech don’t want to lose that human touch,” she said. “Technology will give gyms context. It won’t replace the quality of a trainer but will use machines to be an asset and result in fewer injuries.”

Smart weight machines that store exercisers’ previous routines and take into account their biometrics may encourage users to add a few pounds of resistance to prevent a plateau and will help trainers look at their clients’ forms to suggest improvements, Pinegar said. With this technology and the data that comes with it, trainers can more easily view their clients as individuals, which will help gym retention.

Gamification of workouts also remains at the fore: Competitions between members, friends or coworkers is becoming more commonplace, Pinegar said.

“The gym experience has been on a plateau for a while, and overall, the customer experience hasn’t changed a whole lot,” she said.

But what if you could ride a horse during indoor cycling class? Life Fitness teamed with VirZOOM, maker of virtual-reality games, to retrofit upright and recumbent bikes with virtual reality technology. They have hosted competitions at select fitness facilities.

“Games include multiplayer games like traditional cycling, horse racing, F1 racing, tank battles, and even flying on the back of a Pegasus,” according to a report in virtual reality magazine Road to VR.

“This is all coming,” Shaw said. “It’s just a question of when, as the headsets are  becoming ever smaller, lighter and easier to wear.”
As the club industry continues to service people who Feyrer-Melk called “high performers,” technology — perhaps in some part, he said, due to an uptick in confusion about the future of health care — “is making our population more interested in being proactive in ways to be healthier,” he said.

The common place to go for that is still a club, and technology provides several ways to bolster the ways customers can feel they are being well cared for.

“If you felt like your gym had context about who you are and what you do and could provide you with affordable resources to use to accomplish your goals, I think there would be higher levels of gym loyalty across the board,” Pinegar said.

In addition to smartening up health clubs for members, efficiency-boosting tech for health club operators also is here with more on the horizon, according Pinegar. Already, some broken machines, a common customer gripe, diagnose their own problems, and equipment integrated with this cloud-based software sends out an alert and prompts a swift call to the right vendor for a replacement part or scheduled maintenance. Another common annoyance, key cards, will give way to other check-in systems, such as fingerprint or facial-recognition check-in software, leading to fewer people passing themselves off as a friend to use the club, she said. (INTEL has an overview of what these and other options might look like.)