Mashable’s series explores how the challenges of today will dramatically change the near future.
Annika Kapur used to go to the gym five or six days a week.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Stuck at home, she started using Tempo Studio. The nearly $2,000 fitness machine features a 42-inch display, room for 16 weight plates, and a 3D sensor that gives users feedback on their form.
“For the first month, I felt like, ‘Wow, I never need to go to the gym again,'” Kapur said.
Not into lifting weights? Former gym rats can buy smart rowers, boxing gloves, mirrors, kettlebells, and even vertical climbing machines. And, of course, there is Peloton, which just released a new exercise bike and treadmill and saw sales increase by 172 percent over the last fiscal quarter.
Meanwhile, gyms and other fitness studios are struggling. Since the pandemic began, both 24 Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym filed for bankruptcy protections, and YogaWorks permanently closed its New York City locations. And those are large chains, which are typically better prepared to ride out a pandemic than a small, independent studio.
Some people are scared to go to the gym — and for good reason. Wiping down fitness equipment with disinfectant isn’t enough to protect people.
“I would be more worried about how long microscopic respiratory particles linger in the air,” said Henry F. Raymond, associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health.
Raymond suggests looking for a gym that takes health precautions. That could include crowd limits and spacing machines at least 6 feet apart.
Still, some people won’t be comfortable working out indoors until a vaccine becomes available. And that provides an opportunity for tech companies.
The future of working out
In past decades, consumers may have bought treadmills and exercise bikes only to watch them become places to hang laundry. Why should this new generation of devices be any different?
First of all, users can regularly download and stream new content. They can analyze their performance over time. And they can get recommendations from AI and human trainers.
“That makes it a lot more appealing and engaging for end users,” said Jonathan Collins, smart home research director at tech market advisory firm ABI Research. “It’s something they will use, rather a piece of equipment that just sits in the corner.”
Kapur, a mother of two in San Anselmo, California, loved Tempo’s interactive challenges and leaderboards, which let her compare her accomplishments with others users.
“When I first bought the machine, I was using it for probably an hour and a half a day,” she said. “I would happily stand in front of it for ages and try like three or four classes.”
New classes and workouts keep users engaged, and their subscription money flowing. After dropping around $2,000, Tempo owners are expected to spend an additional $39 a month for a membership, which gives them access to live and on-demand classes and the company’s AI trainer. Peloton’s all-access membership also costs $39 a month. Mirror charges the same amount.
Those monthly fees add up — but they’re comparable to gym membership fees, which, in large cities, can exceed $100 a month.
There are cheaper options out there. Apple’s new Fitness+, for instance, costs $9.99 a month, and “only” requires an Apple Watch Series 3 or above. And plenty of fitness apps require no equipment at all.
If COVID-19 doesn’t relent (and there are plenty of reasons to believe it’ll stick around for a while), it’s easy to see how smart fitness equipment sales might grow.
And there plenty of ways the technology might develop. Collins suggested that future fitness equipment might be better integrated with other smart home devices. Imagine an exercise bike communicating with Nest and lowering the temperature when someone is in the middle of an intense workout. Or a smart mirror adjusting a smart speaker to blare the perfect tunes for a virtual HIIT class.
Obviously, people who live in small city apartments (hello!) don’t have the room to build an entire smart home gym. But in the suburbs, they can be set up in a garage or spare bedroom.
That doesn’t mean gyms and yoga studios are doomed. Human beings are social creatures. For many people, going to CrossFit is as much about making friends as it is getting jacked. And here’s the problem with virtual trainers: You can pause them and walk away.
“After a while, I realized like, I think I need somebody staring at me, because I’m cheating now,” Kapur said. She’d pause the workout and look at her phone. Or maybe not squat as deeply as she would if classmates or a real-life instructor was watching. So her plan now is to return to the gym, but keep the Tempo Studio and use it about three times per week.
The market for smart stationary bikes, treadmills, and other devices looks bright. But even the most advanced algorithm can’t match the motivational power of a judgmental friend.