The latest fitness craze is not CrossFit or functional training, or group exercise classes involving drums or ballet barres. And it isn’t about crunching abs. In reality, it’s more about crunching numbers.
The latest, fastest-growing, and, potentially, most disruptive trend is the explosion of so-called wearables: small, sophisticated, and mobile devices that can, among other things, count steps, track movement, and analyze sleep patterns for users with impressive accuracy. Analyzing data has become one of the most popular pastimes for fitness-minded folks. The implications for health clubs? Significant, yes. Understood—not very well, quite yet. The industry currently resides on the lower steps of the wearables learning curve.
An estimated 21% of the U.S. population currently owns a wearable
device, according to a recent report from Pricewaterhouse Coopers—that’s one out of every five citizens, or some 67 million people ... And another study puts the number at one in four.
Among the most popular devices is the Apple Watch, released in April, which offers a tempting assortment of health-and-fitness activity and tracking features. Also in great demand are dedicated fitness and activity trackers, such as the Fitbit product line, Jawbone’s UP activity trackers, and the Microsoft Band. Worn on the wrist or clipped to one’s clothing, these units can track factors such as the user’s physical movements, sleep rhythms, calories burned, and heart-rate function. Other wearables make use of earbuds, heart-rate belts, and even skin patches.
The data generated is generally delivered via a Website or mobile app, allowing users to set activity goals, detect patterns over time, monitor food intake, and make appropriate lifestyle modifications. In many cases, wearables also can be used to share results or engage in friendly competitions with friends owning the same brand of device.
Bottom line, wearables can quantify a user’s movement and dining activity; motivate them to move more and eat more wisely; set exercise and nutrition goals; and create a supportive, healthy-lifestyle social circle.
It’s easy to see why some club operators view this popular, and rapidly morphing, technology as the new competitive kid on the block. If someone can obtain all of this information, guidance, and service from a $99 device, why would they want to pay $99 a month for a club membership?
That’s the as-yet-unenlightened response to the advent of wearables.
However, the experts that CBI queried agree that anyone with that mindset is looking at wearables the wrong way. In fact, this technology, they say, could prove to be a boon for the industry.
A role for wearables
“The most important thing a club can do is to get involved, because wearables are here to stay,” posits Graeme Hinde, the founder of the Leisure & Fitness Exchange Network (LFX), a Warrington, England– based firm that produces business networking events. “These devices will evolve and change over the coming years, and clubs would be wise to embrace the technology and stay abreast of new developments.”
Wearables, in fact, will likely drive interest in health and fitness, suggests Casey Conrad, the president of Communications Consultants WBC, Inc., in Wakefield, Rhode Island. “When someone starts to analyze their stats on eating, sleeping, and exercise intensity—and all the other things wearables can track—they become more committed to a healthy lifestyle.”
That individual might be a sedentary prospect who wants to begin working out, or a current customer who’s looking to exercise more. In both cases, wearables could, conceivably, help out. “The reality is that people come to a club because they don’t want to go it alone,” says Conrad. “What operators need to do is figure out how to make this technology work with—not against—their business interests.”
One simple way to do that, she suggests, is by using the data wearables harvest to bring members together in group challenges and educational programs. “Sleep issues, such as insomnia, are one of the big- gest problems in the U.S. today; and we know wearables can track sleep patterns,” she observes. “So, why not create a program to help members sleep better by adjusting their exercise or other lifestyle factors?” Clubs could employ a similar approach to help members achieve their weight-loss objectives. Recently, Netpulse, Inc., a leading provider of club apps, published an instructive guide that suggests specific ways that fitness facilities can leverage seven different wearables, including the Apple Watch, Fitbit Flex, Jawbone UP 24, MYZONE MZ3, and Polar A300. To access it, conduct an online search for “Ultimate Guide to Wearables 2015: 7 Ways Wearables Help Your Club.”
A technology tutorial
If a club intends to become a beneficiary of wearables—rather than a victim—its staff needs to become familiar with the various devices that are currently on the market, counsels Conrad. “Do you expect your accountant to be familiar with the latest tax code? Of course, you do,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that you have to buy five wearables, but you’d better invest in at least one, so your staff can coach members on how to use it, and be able to have a good discussion with them.”
Hinde suggests encouraging employees to wear devices that relate to their club role. “For example, the strength trainer could wear a particular device and link to a specific app,” he offers by way of example. “In a sense, the club would then have its own informal ‘product-testing’ team to advise members. So, when someone was interested in purchasing a particular product, they’d be directed to ‘Joe, the trainer, who’s been using that device for months.’”
For now, at least, most trainers and other staff are left on their own when dealing with wearables, since most manufacturers have yet to offer advice on using them in a club setting.
One exception is Microsoft, which has partnered with Nuffield Health, a large, nonprofit health, fitness, and wellness provider in the U.K. The result of the collaboration is downloadable workouts that can be accessed from Microsoft’s wearable wristband; the user is guided through the workouts via on-screen instructions and vibrations produced by the device. While dedicated devices, such as those produced by Microsoft, Fitbit, and Jawbone, are limited in terms of what they can display onscreen, the Apple Watch offers more options. The iOS software it utilizes permits it to support apps, and app designers are seizing upon the watch’s potential as a fitness-tracking device.
One example is Fitnet, which delivers fit- ness video workouts created by trainers. The videos are displayed on smartphones or TVs, and the Apple Watch is used to con- trol the videos, and to monitor the user’s performance via the watch’s heart-rate monitor and accelerometer, which measures motion.
The Fitnet app lets users access videos for free, but, if they want to connect with a trainer and create a workout plan, they pay a monthly fee. The trainers receive a percentage of that fee, but, more importantly, says Bob Summers, Fitnet’s Chief Geek, they remain connected with their clients when the latter can’t make it to the gym.
“I really think the clubs that embrace technology will have an advantage over those that don’t,” Summers observes. “Nothing I’ve seen can replace the personal touch. A trainer provides variability and accountability. When they meet you in person, they’re assessing you, making sure you’re there, and pro- viding you with the right activity: technology is nowhere close to replacing that.
“But trainers who start using digital tools for delivery and assessments will have the upper hand,” he continues. “Asking you to do as many pushups as you can in one minute is a common assessment tool. But what if we were to use a heart-rate monitor at the same time? That trainer obtains a better under- standing of what’s happening with their client, and helps them to decide what to do next.”
No turning back
MYZONE offers a special take on wearables. Its products, sold primarily through clubs, track data via a chest-strap heart-rate monitor, and the results are displayed on in-club screens, or, utilizing mobile apps, on smartphones.
Emmett Williams, the president of CFM, Ltd., MYZONE’s corporate parent, suggests that the device sits in the sweet spot between consumer-level items, e.g., Fitbit and Jawbone, and products for more serious or elite athletes, such as those produced by Garmin USA and Polar Electro, Inc.
“At one end, you have the Fitbits and Jawbones, which are great for people who need to move more. But they typically measure movement at your wrist, so you can get more credit for blow-drying your hair than for a box jump,” he explains. “At the other end, you have the Garmins and Polars, which help advanced athletes train smarter, but may represent overkill for many gym-goers.
“We’re in between: We deliver really accurate results, but we’ve made things really simple.”
Making things simple and fun for users has paid off for clubs that have adopted MYZONE, attests Williams. Members who used it at The Atlantic Club’s two locations, in Red Bank and Manasquan, New Jersey, visited their club 25.4% more frequently in one month than they did in the same month the previous year before the system was introduced. MYZONE was especially effective at getting infrequent users to visit more often. Studying, carefully strategizing, and intelligently capitalizing on wearables, the experts suggest, could well produce equally rewarding results.
“Technology isn’t going to go backwards,” Conrad promises. “These devices may evolve, but they’re not going to go away. If you regard them only as competition, and try to ignore them, you’re going to make things difficult for yourself and your business.”
Conversely ... well, that’s up to you.