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Wearables Continue to Transform the Fitness Industry

Club operators and personal trainers are leveraging fitness trackers to great advantage.

Fitness technology—in the form of apps, smartwatches, heart-rate monitors (HRMs), GPS tracking devices, and wearable activity trackers—is transforming the fitness industry at an unprecedented speed.

The devices, emerging and evolving over more than a decade, now have become as synonymous with health clubs as treadmills and free weights. They’re being used not only to track members’ performance and progress, but to attract prospects, engage members, and increase retention.

The groundbreaking Fitbit tracker was introduced in 2009, and since then the numbers associated with wearables—applications offered, total users, and tech giants leveraging—have multiplied rapidly. According to Statista.com, a major business-data platform, some 222 million units were shipped, world­wide, last year; and that figure is projected to hit 302.3 million by 2023.

In November, Google, the tech behemoth, made an offer to purchase Fitbit for $2.1 billion, a dramatic endorsement of wearables’ potential in a number of markets, including fitness, wellness, medicine, and healthcare.

And, with respect to applications, the new Series 5 Apple Watch provides both a glimpse at what’s already available and a sense of what’s to come. It tracks steps taken, heart rate, calories burned, time spent sitting, and sleep duration and quality. It also has an electrocardiogram (ECG) function that can indicate whether a user is experiencing atrial fibrillation, a serious irregular heart rhythm.

Employing fitness trackers in the club setting may not be new—who can forget the Polar HRMs and the Nike+ Fuelband?—but, today, they’ve achieved a special status. The Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2020, compiled by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), based in Indianapolis, IN, has awarded wearables the No. 1 spot.

As these devices become even more sophisticated, and are customized to serve new markets, their use, popularity, and utility will continue to increase—hard to imagine when you’re already No. 1.

The Heart, Soul, & Foundation of Wearables Is Data

Talk to tech providers and club operators, and two comments surface regularly: “You can’t monitor what you don’t measure,” and “Data is the new currency.”

Most of the operators that CBI spoke with reported that they gather data on traditional factors—e.g., steps, calories expended, time spent in HR training zones, average and maximum HR values, and frequency and dura­tion of workouts. All, they agree, provide real value both for members and their trainers.

“Talk to tech providers and club operators, and two comments surface regularly: 'You can’t monitor what you don’t measure,' and 'Data is the new currency.'”

“We love having access to this data, which we use in different ways depending on the individual we’re working with,” says Robin Cortez, the director of team training for Chuze Fitness, a San Diego–based chain with 31 locations in four states.

Clubs use the results to motivate clients, design regimens, monitor progress, celebrate personal achievements, and, sometimes, as the basis for competitions or special events.

The data quantifies the current state of things and changes as they occur, but at the moment it’s not predictive. Though the technology collects a vast amount of information, it doesn’t crunch it to suggest how users could do better. That task remains the purview of the trainers and coaches.

However, given advances in personalization and artificial intelligence (AI), wearables will begin to offer advice on how to improve everything from athletic performance to one’s sleep habits.

Today, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Shai Neiger, the CEO of CoachAi, has developed and introduced an automated, AI-driven software solution that’s designed to improve member engagement with the use of a virtual companion. However, he cautions that, no matter how sophisticated the possibilities become, the information that clubs decide to track should depend on the member’s level of knowledge and experience.

Tracking Chuze Fitness column

“Data needs to be simple and binary—what people can really understand—not complicated numbers,” he says.

“People are already overwhelmed with their lives, and joining a gym and working with a trainer can be additionally overwhelming,” says Cortez. “We provide a safe space for our members and the right tools for success. Our HRMs are easy to use, and our members feel that they’re worthwhile and introduce an element of fun.”

From the Edge of Group Exercise to the Center

For quite a while, fitness tech has played a key role in group exercise and small-group training (SGT) classes at many clubs, including those of Chuze and Orangetheory Fitness. Both make use of HR perfor­mance trackers for the basic, but essential, tasks of setting goals and monitoring clients’ progress.

“They permit our members to see their heart rates in specific training zones,” says Matthew Taub, a coach at an Orangetheory facility in Toronto. “This allows them to work within their limits and train accordingly.”

At Chuze, members wear the devices during the cardiovascular segment of their HIIT workout, which takes place on bikes, rowers, or incline trainers. Their heart rates are displayed on a screen in real time; and trainers work with them to keep them in their optimal training zone, maximizing benefits.

“The HR displays provide members with an easy, color-coded tool to gauge whether or not they’re working at ideal intensity levels throughout the sessions,” Cortez says.

Technology OT Beat Orangetheory column

Trainers Plus Trackers Equals New Levels of Personalization

Although individuals often utilize wearables on their own, there’s a general consensus that they do better when assisted by an instructor or trainer.

“I believe the only way trackers can help clients achieve their goals is if they’re com­bined with personalized human coaching,” says Dennis Mathias, the general man­ager of the Healthplex Sports Club in Springfield, PA.

Mathias, who’s been working with trackers for the past six years and tested most of those on the market, eventually developed a unique cardio coaching program that incorporates them. However, he attributes much of the program’s success to human intervention. “My experience suggests that, if you educate the client, walk them through a progressive, strategically coached plan, and they come to understand what the data means, they don’t quit, because they see positive outcomes,” he says.

“HRMs are incredibly valuable in our training sessions, as well as for members working out else­where—on the gym floor, for example,” adds Cortez. “But they don’t have the experience or provide the service offered by our team of trainers and the rest of our staff. … The HRM display helps trainers by providing them with important feedback on how, specifically, to coach members.”

“I believe the only way trackers can help clients achieve their goals is if they’re combined with personalized human coaching.”

Dennis Mathias, General Manager

Healthplex Sports Club - Springfield, PA

“At Orangetheory, our coaches are trained to coach throughout the workout. They’re part of the entire process,” says Taub. “The OT Beat Performance Tracker is a tool they use to help members reach their goals.”

Winning the Member Retention Game

Wearables’ purpose is providing data for initial assessments and the monitoring of members’ physical progress, but they also have a distinct impact on a club’s fiscal condition.

In highly competitive markets, with endless exercise options, operators are always looking for ways to differentiate their offering and keep their clients and members engaged and coming back.

Used appropriately, and imaginatively, fitness tech is proving, among other things, to be an important—possibly essential—retention tool.

Kevin Doyle, the general manager of Westpark Fitness in Dublin, Ireland, is a firm believer in the abil­ity of trackers to grasp and hold on to members. “In September, we saw a 16% increase in retention from the same month in the previous year,” he reports. “We’re seeing better visit frequency, and, now, people who participate in group exercise tend to stay longer.”

Doyle credits the improvements to the competitive and gaming aspects of the programs. “Members love the challenge of hitting their monthly MEP (movement energy point) target,” he explains. “The Myzone system, which awards a new status at different stages of their training, helps them focus on advancing to the next fitness level. Those who hit their target receive a T-shirt proclaiming their status. It’s a real favorite for them.”

“I don’t think that you can win the game if you don’t know the score,” says Carrie Kepple, the co-owner of Styles Studio Fitness, in Peoria, IL, and an IHRSA board member. “And trackers are great at scoring the game that someone has just played. This elicits a sensation of satisfaction—a feeling that becomes the reward—which helps people remain engaged.”

Neiger notes that gamification definitely comes into play when members receive digital—or real—rewards at different levels of participation. “Small wins are rewarded—for instance, work out for two weeks, and you win your first award,” he says. “Some clubs also add physical awards, such as gift cards or discounts on products.”

Kepple also employs trackers to tempt prospects into the club. “To attract new members, we use Myzone belts as a promotional giveaway, and include some of the company’s marketing in our ads.”

Tracking Future Successes, for Members & Gyms Alike

“Getting people into the club,” Neiger reminds, is the bottom-line name of the game. “Behavioral science shows that increased accountability encourages adherence,” he says. “It’s not about the weights and counting sets and reps. The primary goal is simply to get people to use the facility.”

His AI-driven system focuses largely on beginners and members who, for example, haven’t come in for a while or may be on vacation. Synced with a common messenger app—such as Messenger or WhatsApp—it dispatches personalized text messages that encourage them to visit the club for a workout. The ongoing conversation provides positive reinforcement that leads to greater utilization.

Neiger reports that his clients are showing promising results. “We recently published a study conducted at a club in the U.K.,” he says. “After 12 weeks of utilizing CoachAi, there was a 21% increase in visit frequency; cancellations decreased by one-third; and monthly direct debit increased by 35%.”

And, with new developments in fitness tech constantly appearing on the horizon, the figures generated by wearables will continue to improve in the future.

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