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Implementing a Strategy to Convert Fitness Services to Virtual

As COVID-19 forces health clubs to close their doors, an alternative for keeping a steady flow of business has arisen. Learn how to make virtual exercises and classes available for members.

Clubs have been offering virtual classes for some time, but the widespread closure of fitness centers in many parts of the world has made virtual offerings essential. In this new reality, clubs are mobilizing to vastly expand existing virtual offerings or build them from the ground up in a matter of days.

Staffing Your Virtual Classes

The first thing you will need to do is identify all the services that you can convert to virtual. Group exercise classes are an obvious option, but personal or small group training can also be a consideration because the one-on-one sessions allow the trainer to adapt the workouts to what the member has on hand in their home.

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You will need to think through which classes and exercises are suitable for a virtual experience, and which aren’t. Review your group exercise schedule and identify which classes can be easily converted for streaming, which types need adapting, and which sessions will require suspension until the gym reopens.

Also, do what you can to make sure members have what they need to take group exercise classes and participate in personal training at home. Some smaller gyms and studios are renting out equipment to members to use during closure. Others are renting equipment on the agreement that membership would continue through a specific date, or pausing membership while renting out items for a small weekly or monthly fee. Although, according to Aaron Moore, director of operations at VIDA Fitness, renting equipment could potentially lead to legal or insurance trouble. If the equipment is not cleaned properly before returning and the virus is living on the surface, it could infect others. On the other hand, if someone sustains an injury while using the equipment, that could lead to insurance problems.

Renting equipment may not be an effective strategy for larger fitness facilities with thousands of members. When equipment rental is not an option, trainers and instructors can create recommendations for household items that can substitute—for example, detergent bottles, water bottles, or cans for dumbbells.

Once you’ve decided what classes and other services you can offer online, identify which of your instructors and trainers will lead virtual workouts, as well as any additional staff to support virtual offerings. These can include video/audio, IT, marketing, etc.

You will also need to decide on a teaching location for classes, which will depend on country, state, or city regulations. For example, in areas where closures of nonessential businesses are taking place, instructors likely need to teach from their homes. In contrast, other areas may allow instructors to go into the club alone or with minimal support staff to teach the class. Find an updated list of regulations on IHRSA’s coronavirus resource page.

If staff are compelled to teach from home, ensure they are equipped with the right fitness tools and equipment to teach their classes at home. This may require instructors to borrow benches or dumbbells, for example.

Music is another important consideration. Due to music copyright laws, it can be expensive and time-consuming to secure the synchronization rights to the songs used in group exercise classes. If copyrighted songs play during sessions published online, service providers like Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube (among others), will typically remove the videos. Consider prioritizing classes that can be offered without background music or finding music that does not violate copyright laws. Clients can, of course, play their music as they attend online classes.

Dietitian and health coaching services can also be an online offer. Providing these services remotely, especially when combined with virtual fitness offerings, can help members stay on track with their goals—and engaged with another feature of your club. These are doable by video chat, phone call, or even email check-ins. Just make sure email, call, and video communications are on secure services to protect patient privacy. More resources on protecting patient privacy during telehealth consulting are available on HHS.gov. During the extent of the COVID-19 public health emergency, dietitians can accept Medicare for telehealth services.

Technology Support for Virtual Offerings

In determining how to stream classes, the first question you will need to answer is whether this content will be available only for existing members, or free for anyone to access.

Clubs have approached this from two directions: prioritizing existing members and using this opportunity to focus on community outreach. The strategy a club chooses depends on a number of factors related to each business’ economic situation, target audience, community, and brand.

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Clubs prioritizing existing members will want to choose a medium for streaming that is private, such as Zoom. Keep in mind that the free version of Zoom limits calls to 40 minutes, which may require class timing adjustment. An advantage of Zoom is that it can help create a small group atmosphere compared to Youtube or other more abundant social media streaming options.

Clubs focusing on community engagement may prefer the social media route. Many clubs are streaming classes on Facebook, Instagram Live, and IGTV. For information on using Facebook Live, see this guide from HubSpot. To learn about video options on Instagram, download our free toolkit.

Check with your group exercise programming provider to see what they are offering for your members to use. Many fitness providers have opened up their classes to wider audiences during this time.

Two other things to consider include providing a guide on camera setup, sound, and other factors, and doing a dry run with each instructor to give feedback.

For example, make sure the area you are streaming has good lighting to prevent the video from coming out grainy. Also, that the instructor either has a microphone or is close enough to the camera that the internal mic can pick up their voice over any background noise or music.

Tips for Successful Virtual Classes

Maintain some normalcy and consistency. Life has turned upside down, but exercising at the same time you usually do can provide some structure. Consider offering familiar classes at usual class times.

Engage clients before and during class. Greet participants as they arrive on the video conference call or live stream and make small talk. Call participants out by name to encourage them during the workout.

Prioritize instructors with large followings, and focus on offering the most in-demand class formats to maximize engagement.

Avoid making training sessions or classes too hard or complicated. These are challenging times, and it can help to strike the right balance of fitness and fun that is appropriate for your target audience in terms of skill level, equipment availability, and so on.

Make sure members are well-prepared for the class at hand. Consider posting the workout ahead of time, or share an equipment list—with suggested substitutions—so participants are ready to go when their class or session starts.

Remember your high-need populations, including people with disabilities or chronic diseases, older adults, or even people with injuries. You can provide this by modifying exercises for different ability levels or ensuring that classes address a range of levels.Universal Fitness Innovation and Transformation (UFIT) has created resources for at-home exercises to accommodate people of all abilities.

Other Virtual Fitness Resources

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Author avatar

Alexandra Black Larcom @ihrsagetactive

Alexandra Black Larcom, MPH, RD, LDN, is the Senior Manager of Health Promotion & Health Policy for IHRSA. She spends her days working on resources and projects that help IHRSA clubs offer effective health programs in their communities, and convincing lawmakers that policies promoting exercise are an excellent idea. Outside the office you'll most likely find Alex at the gym, running on the Charles River, or, in the fall, by a TV cheering on the Florida Gators.