Almost Overnight, the $100 Billion Fitness Industry Goes Virtual

Reese Scott started boxing 17 years ago and dreamed of setting up her studio for almost as long. In 2018 she started Women’s World of Boxing, the first female-owned boxing gym in New York and, according to ClassPass Inc., the most popular workout in Manhattan on its app.

Last week, as social distancing measures took hold across the city—and then the country—she temporarily closed her 2,300-square-foot, exposed-brick studio and, for the first time, streamed her workout on Instagram. From her Harlem apartment she maneuvered lighting and camera frames to best display her full 5-foot-4-inch frame in a 2-by-3-foot space. Especially challenging, she says, is that clients need to be able to see her footwork.

“It is life-changing,” she says. “Going from having brick-and-mortar, an established clientele, and an established flow of business to all of a sudden I have to be very creative and launch a virtual online business in less than a week.”

Scott is one of more than 350,000 fitness instructors and trainers in the U.S. who’ve seen in-person studio classes and personal training sessions dramatically shift in the 10 days. To keep their businesses afloat, they’ve turned to streaming options, whether Zoom, Instagram Live, FaceTime, or YouTube. Many of these classes are being offered for free—for now—as a way for trainers to stay connected while they figure out how to get new and existing clients to pay for their services.

The results can be charmingly DIY, as when an instructor from Shadowbox demonstrated crunches by touching her toes with a container of Clorox in one hand. But depending on your tolerance for choppy video, poor lighting, and unflattering camera angles, they can be a maddening experience as well. The pivot to streaming has highlighted the difference between paying $30 for a class in a tightly controlled environment and one where pets can scramble your position on a downward dog and children need to be kept clear of kettlebells.

Boutique outfits have been the fitness industry’s biggest driver of growth for much of the past decade. The latest study by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association found that premium clubs made up the fastest-growing brick-and-mortar exercise category and pushed the industry to an almost $100 billion estimation this year. From 2013 to 2017, membership at boutique studios grew over 120% despite thousands of free instructional videos on YouTube and an estimated 250,000 apps devoted to fitness.