Arguably, 2021 peaked in the pilot episode of And Just Like That… when a Peloton bike unfairly took the rap for a character’s death. And, for the second time since 2019, for better or worse, the fitness giant was having a cultural moment. However you look at it, though, Peloton would become one of the most relevant fitness brands—dare we say brands, period—of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, clever founders in the direct-to-consumer (DTC) fitness industry watched consumer trends closely and acted swiftly, with retail businesses hustling to pivot to a virtual model and reach clients in their own homes. Some survived, some didn’t. The question remains, though: Will any or all of these trends persist through 2022?
Brands built on the in-person experience struggled to pivot to a virtual model and reach clients and customers in their own homes. Some survived, some didn’t.
Now, even Peloton is suffering the effects of the “return to normal,” reporting a recent waning of interest and sales. The brand’s arc proves that being in the right place at the right time to cash in on collective isolation may not itself be enough to sustain long-erm success. The way we shop, and the way we engage with brands, the world, and each other has all changed.
Here, we take a deep dive into the DTC fitness industry to glean insights into modern workout trends and uncover what aspiring founders need to do to future-proof their businesses. We look to the past for clues, examine successful brands, consult the data, and speak to experts from across the fitness industry, including founders, athletes, trainers, and marketers.
The trends that shaped at-home fitness as we know it today
Working out from home isn’t a new concept. Early “home gyms” emerged in the late 1800s via rudimentary resistance machines, although the concept was still quite rare. As television sets became commonplace in households in the early 1950s, so did living room fitness. Workout programming like Jack LaLanne’s broadcast aerobics show reached millions.
The 1980s ushered in the first version of a widespread health and fitness craze. Gyms, once almost exclusively patronized by serious bodybuilders, now welcomed a new clientele in the general population. The VHS tape was a win for home fitness, becoming a popular format for celebrity fitness instructors to reach wide audiences. Eventually, a slew of gimmicky As Seen on TV workout inventions from the Shake Weight to the ThighMaster dominated late-night TV ads.
While tech innovations were a win for self-guided fitness, they couldn’t replicate the community, camaraderie, and friendly competition offered by IRL spaces.
Chain gyms exploded in the next two decades, spanning from no-frills suburban mini-mall options to high-end studios with VIP perks like chilled eucalyptus towels. But home fitness held its own, too. Stationary bikes and compact treadmills upped their offerings with more gadgets and electronic trackers, like heart-rate monitors. Body resistance techniques gained popularity, and anyone with a $20 yoga mat could exercise from home.
The early 2000s kicked off a boom in fitness tech, as mobile apps, interactive video game platforms, and wearable tech dominated the trends in the space. While these innovations were a win for self-guided fitness, they couldn’t replicate the community, camaraderie, and friendly competition offered by IRL spaces.
It’s only in recent years that DTC at-home fitness businesses have aimed to tackle this gap, incorporating these important elements into their software and services. Peloton and Barry’s became leaders in the space, even before 2020.
Then, the pandemic landed. Gyms became unsafe, leaving your house was out of the question, and solo at-home fitness was no longer an option—it was the only option. One study on year-over-year fitness trends saw online training move from the number 26 spot in 2020 to the number 1 trend in 2021.
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How the fitness industry responded to lockdowns
Peloton and the like reaped the benefits of pandemic safety measures that cut scores of fitness buffs off from their communities. The company announced a 172% surge in sales in the third quarter of 2020. It introduced new models and more workout content, and even dropped the retail price of its flagship product to access more budgets.
Elsewhere, fitness brands—especially those built on a critical in-person element—were scrambling to emulate Peloton’s business model to recover from the damage. At the same time, new products, tech, and services (think 1:1 virtual training) popped up to address the gaps.
Former pro basketball player and coach Jasmine Maietta launched table tennis brand Round21 and was one such founder who seized opportunity. In the summer of 2020, Jasmine noticed basketball nets were being removed from playgrounds to discourage gatherings. “We wanted to give people ways to still find joy in playing together, safely from home,” she says. “So, we accelerated our R&D and launched new Round21 mini-hoops.”
Case study: Ride Cycle Club
Taylin Wilson is a spin instructor at the Toronto arm of Ride Cycle Club, a Canadian spin studio brand spanning multiple locations across the country. Ride responded to provincial mandated lockdowns by renting bikes out to local members on a monthly basis, but bringing the signature atmosphere of its classes—darkened room, candles, vibrations from the bikes and the music—to a remote audience proved more challenging. “We did a bunch of video tests, where we’d go in and try different lighting setups,” she says. “We were building it from scratch, really.”
A lot of instructors didn’t want to do the online classes. There’s no energy in the room. You’re teaching to a camera.
The logistics of production were also difficult in a COVID reality. “That was stressful,” says Taylin. “How are we going to come in and film when you're not supposed to be in a room with anybody else?” Ride solved this safety issue with a ready-to-go setup, allowing its instructors to set up lighting and record classes with the hit of a button.
While Ride reacted quickly to solve its logistical issues and reach its audience in a new way, the psychological shift was another hurdle. “A lot of instructors didn't want to do the online classes,” says Taylin. For her peers, feeding off the class was essential to their teaching. “There’s no energy in the room,” she says. “You’re teaching to a camera.” In the end, incorporating live rides brought life back to teaching, and the company has made virtual a big part of its strategy moving forward,
In some places in the world, even as Omicron’s effects are uncertain, there has been a move to return to normal. While virtual and at-home fitness will have its place for years to come, supporting digitals nomads and workplaces that have gone fully remote, some cooling is happening. The survey that reported online training as 2021’s top trend recently dropped its 2022 report, noting that the trend had already slipped to number nine.
Peloton too seems to have tapped out its new audience. This year, as the company’s stock dips, it signaled it would be halting production of its bikes and treadmills to curb costs after a drop in interest and sales.
It’s important to look at why brands like Peloton hit cult status and where they may have stumbled. The lessons of other founders of the past can guide you. Now, let’s look at what this means for the future.
8 DTC fitness industry trends to watch in 2022
The pandemic and the changes left in its wake will forever impact the fitness industry. Some year-over-year trends, like smart gear and apps, continue to hold their ground, but the increase in remote work and other societal shifts have uncovered new opportunities for aspiring fitness business owners.
1. Wearable technology is still thriving
Wearable technology has maintained a stronghold in the top fitness trends in recent years, landing in the top spot for 2022. While leading brands like Fitbit, Garmin, and Apple continue to dominate in the sport watch category of fitness trackers, there’s still room for innovation in this space. Brands like Bellabeat and Oura differentiated with products that resemble classic jewelry—yet pack a punch—to blend more seamlessly with everyday wear.
Other innovations in the industry of wearable fitness tech include connected clothing. Under Armour’s smart shoe line, for example, syncs with the brand’s own Mapmyrun mobile app to track running data to give users insight into performance.
🥇 Takeaway: While the sport watch category has some stiff competition, innovative founders can find ways to reinvent timeless athleticwear and gear with a connected component.
2. Home gyms and equipment are sticking around (for now)
While Peloton’s recent decline indicates that this phenomenon may be waning, it still emerged as a top trend for 2022. This may be due to the continued spread of COVID and related safety measures. However, remote work is here to stay. While many will return to gyms and fitness studios, others will find that home gyms better align with their new working style.
There are still limitations to this industry, however, found entrepreneur, product designer, and bodybuilder Helen Tran. During the pandemic, she purchased gear like dumbbells and a bench to continue her training at home. “I was really glad I did that because, very quickly, heavier weights were sold out worldwide,” she says. But as someone working toward more aggressive fitness goals, her home gym didn’t cut it. “I quickly outpaced the set of equipment I have.”
🥇 Takeaway: For brands looking to enter this space, find your differentiator. There is opportunity in customers like Helen who require expandable equipment to accommodate increasing weight and training needs. Price will also be a factor in convincing customers to purchase at-home gyms versus a gym membership. Increased competition in the market has contributed to lower retail prices. A community component—think virtual leaderboards, in-workout chat, and livestreamed classes—will be key.
3. Flexercise enters the scene
Pinterest identified “flexercise” as a trend for 2022. The term refers to alternate means of moving your body, including low-impact workouts, stretching, and nature walks. At the core of this trend is making fitness more accessible and convenient—and less daunting—with emphasis on moving your body however, wherever, and whenever you can.
At the core of the flexercise trend is making fitness more accessible and convenient—and less daunting—with emphasis on moving your body however, wherever, and whenever you can.
Flexibility can also apply more broadly: think extending offerings to add lower impact or shorter versions of existing classes. Peloton led this with content focused on workouts as short as 10 minutes. “As so many more people are working from home,” says Taylin, “it’s nice to have that option to be able to squeeze in a high-quality quick workout when you can’t make it to a class for an in-studio experience.”
🥇 Takeaway: For brands, flexercise translates to more choice and flexibility. Think extended apparel sizing, content and services tailored to a wide range of fitness levels, flexible memberships, and gear focused on low-impact home workouts.
4. Live and on-demand classes and virtual personal training are here to stay
Exercising from home will never fully replace the dopamine-fueled workout you’d get in a room packed with your peers sweating toward a common goal, but virtual fitness is very much here to stay. Even Taylin, who is itching to get back to in-person teaching, has bought into the benefits of a virtual offering. “We have people watching in Australia, in Europe, and in places we never even thought we would reach,” she says. “It changed the way that the business is thinking about expansion.”
Bustle recently named hybrid memberships as one of its top fitness trends of 2022, indicating that even as we return to in-person sweating, virtual models will continue to be an option. Taylin notes that Ride Cycle Club is still mulling how to combine memberships across virtual and IRL for more flexibility. “I think that’s going to be a really interesting thing, to see how the pricing models actually pan out,” she says.
Virtual fitness options not only replaced the in-person experience to those already active. They also made fitness more accessible.
Although the concept isn’t new (Helen notes that Layne Norton paved the way in the trainer space years ago), the increased demand opens opportunity. “During the pandemic, a lot more coaches and trainers moved their businesses online,” says Helen. “I do believe we’re at the beginning of this all, though, and there’s lots of room for more innovation and better tools to support this exponentially growing field.”
Virtual fitness options not only replaced the in-person experience to those already active. They also made fitness more accessible. Barriers to access like living rurally, having no access to a vehicle, or the high costs of in-person training were reduced or eliminated in many ways.
🥇 Takeaway: Consider how a virtual offering might open your brand to new audiences. Can you attract guest instructors or more training staff with a remote-first model?
5. Community is an essential component of fitness and mental health
“Bodybuilding can be an extremely isolating hobby,” says Helen, “so athletes join teams—even though we compete as individuals—hire coaches, or find community at our gyms or through social media.” When Helen was cut off from her community due to gym closures, it impacted her mental health, she says. Even as the world opens up again, fitness businesses have an opportunity to tap into the community aspect of working out.
“A lot of my friends who weren’t into fitness before started to do classes as a way to stay connected with people,” says Taylin. How can your business create a new market for a fitness product or service by targeting exercise skeptics?
Studios have realized that there are all these customers that cannot physically be here in person or might be intimidated to do it in person.
Emily Hsu is a former professional dancer and actor who now runs her own fitness and dancewear brand, Emily Hsu Designs, which she launched in 2015. When she started a family and moved outside of the city, she was cut off from the community she built at her favorite dance studio. But the pandemic opened an opportunity. “Suddenly, I was able to go back to dance at these studios because they were doing the Zoom classes,” she says. “Studios have realized that there are all these customers that cannot physically be here in person or might be intimidated to do it in person.”
🥇 Takeaway: Leaning in on community by connecting customers through social media and virtual live classes/experiences is a way for brands to cast a wider net or retain existing customers who experience lifestyle changes, like moving or growing a family.
“There’s a demand for more guidance and community,” says Helen, “and software that can break down goal-setting and keep people connected to others doing the same thing.”
6. Mobile fitness apps and gamified workouts ramp up
It’s no surprise that mobile apps still make the list of fitness industry trends to watch. During the pandemic, many offered connection to a community. Taylin noticed an uptick in adoption in her fitness circles. “So many more people got on Strava for the social aspect,” she says. “Everyone is praising each other for workouts and posting more often.” Apps run the gamut from simple workout tracking like Map My Fitness to gamified worlds.
Zwift is one such app that integrates with hardware to adjust tension on a bike trainer while you cycle through virtual cities. “Zwift has a leaderboard, and you can use it in real time with your friends,” says Taylin. “And there are new cities that get released every week.” Bustle cited “fitness as gaming” as one of its top fitness trends of 2022.
🥇 Takeaway: If you’re designing a mobile app, consider tying in a social or community aspect from the get-go. Brands selling physical goods can also tap into this trend—can your product integrate with existing apps to extend its functionality?
7. Fitness is for everyone—period
Once, fitness Instagram pushed an impossible ideal dominated by overproduced images of thin or muscular bodies. As body positivity and conversations around fatphobia, ableism, and toxic wellness and diet culture become more mainstream, the content is shifting to become more inclusive. This is not so much a trend as it is a welcome societal shift.
The flexercise trend is another shift away from the gatekeeping in many fitness spaces and communities. Influencers of all shapes and abilities are emerging to push the message that fitness is for everyone.
🥇 Takeaway: Fitness apparel brands can reach wider audiences with extended sizing. For other businesses in the fitness space, representation in social and ad content matters. Emily is working on an ambassador program for her brand and focusing on surfacing more user-generated content that hones in on real customer experiences. “It's not like they have to set up a beautiful shot that looks like it’s out of a fashion magazine,” she says. She shares her customers’ raw moments interacting with her products. “People respond to it.”
8. Fitness creators and personal brands are exploding
Fitness influencers aren’t a new phenomenon. But the pandemic forced more instructors and fitness professionals to try their hand at on-camera and live virtual work. The increasing number of tools, from TikTok to Patreon, continue to support the creator economy and make it easier for anyone to monetize their skill or passion.
The shift to virtual classes changed how instructors saw themselves. Online teaching required a new skill set: an on-camera presence. Many saw that they had a knack for it, supplementing lost income from studio closures with creating content on their own channels. “I love how there have been so many fitness instructors building their own personal brands,” says Taylin. “It’s really empowering for them to have a continued extra stream of revenue even after COVID.”
🥇 Takeaway: There is opportunity for founders to get behind the camera and humanize their brands. The trend also gives brands access to more emerging fitness creators for sponsored content and partnerships. And brands that count fitness pros among their customers should seize the moment.
Emily’s business flourished during the pandemic because of the shift. “Instructors all of a sudden had to be on Zooms. They had to record stuff for YouTube, for their websites—things that were going to be out there permanently,” she says. “So they wanted cute outfits.”
Broader commerce trends—and how they impact the fitness industry
Recently, Shopify released its annual Future of Commerce report. Within it, we look at upcoming trends that will impact businesses of all sizes and across many industries. As a DTC fitness business owner, you can take away some key learnings to help you plan ahead and avoid surprises.
Social selling is on the rise
In fact, it’s exploding. It is predicted that sales through social media channels will triple by 2025. Fitness brands can hop on this trend by offering liveshopping experiences (think equipment demos), virtual fitness apparel try-on apps, AR/3D product views for home gyms, shoppable videos, and virtual showrooms.
Brooklyn Bicycle Co. was ahead of the curve, using interactive and virtual solutions to replicate the customer experience in its New York showroom. The move allowed it to personalize the buying experience, reach buyers across North America, and increase conversions.
Acquiring new customers will keep getting more expensive
Brands that focus on customer retention and fostering long-term relationships with their biggest fans can win here. Personalized shopping experiences like 1:1 online assistants and customer accounts with perks can help keep your customers coming back.
Keeping people engaged beyond a few good intentions is a constant challenge for fitness brands. In the best of times, gym memberships lapse and dust gathers on home gym equipment.
Brands that operate on a subscription model—think class content to accompany physical equipment—can guarantee repeat purchases from existing customers.
“It's really easy for people to be excited about something for a short period of time,” says Alexa Collins, former marketer for fitness brand Tonal. “We’ve all started a fitness regimen only to set those weights down and never pick them up. How do you keep them coming back? How do you keep them interested in your product?”
Brands that operate on a subscription model—think class content to accompany physical equipment—can guarantee repeat purchases from existing customers. Future is a brand built entirely on this model, offering unlimited virtual personal training for a monthly fee. Free content can also be a useful tool to keep existing customers engaged between purchases.
We’re venturing outside again
The return to in-person shopping is already happening. And although some pandemic-born virtual trends are sticking around, there is an appetite for tactile experiences after rolling lockdowns. Our report uncovered that 81% of Gen Z consumers in the US prefer to discover new products in a physical store. But customer expectations have increased, too.
Experiential retail is reported as being a priority for many brands, and consumers are welcoming it. For online fitness brands, dabbling in IRL experiences is possible with pop-ups or retail partnerships. Retail brands can invest in appointment booking for 1:1 shopping experiences or equipment demos, or in-store events like yoga classes.
Supply chain woes persist
Supply chain challenges affected many businesses worldwide during the pandemic, with a trickle-down effect that caused frustrating delays for consumers. Experts anticipate that logistics systems won’t normalize until at least 2023. Alongside the headaches on the business side, consumer expectations for shipping are increasing due to competition.
But shipping and logistics already posed challenges for some fitness brands even before the pandemic. Alexa recalls these challenges all too well. “Because Tonal, Peloton, and other major at-home fitness brands have such big pieces of equipment, shipping and fulfillment usually can’t be done in house,” she says. “You have to partner with a shipping logistics company.” This sometimes causes friction around customer expectations when the brand has little control over the trajectory of its product once it leaves the warehouse.
“I think that’s why Peloton ultimately built their own shipping system,” says Alexa. “You see their cute little Peloton vans around when they deliver.” Realistically, most businesses won’t be able to achieve this level of end-to-end ownership. Fitness brands can help ease the friction by setting customer expectations up front, building high shipping costs into retail prices, or adopting an assemble-on-delivery model that can reduce package size—and therefore reduce shipping costs.
Consumers care about sustainability (no, really this time)
Early in the pandemic, we reported that although consumers told us that they cared about sustainable business practices, there was an intention-to-action disconnect. Many of these same survey respondents also reported that they often opt for faster or cheaper shipping options. Recently, there has been a shift. In the past year, 44% of customers chose to buy from brands with a clearly stated commitment to sustainability.
Here’s where smaller brands can win. Emily made the personal choice to manufacture locally, but it resonates with some of her customers looking for a more sustainable option. “I would say Made in the USA is important to my customers,” she says.
In the past year, 44% of customers chose to buy from brands with a clearly stated commitment to sustainability.
And, being small allows her to pivot quickly to meet customer demands. “I’m in the business of activewear,” says Emily. “It has to be synthetic, it’s got to have stretch. I’m struggling with how to lessen my impact.” She responded with a sustainable collection of leggings and tops made from a biodegradable polyamide.
Future-proof your fitness business
Truthfully, we can’t predict the future. But keeping an eye on trends that drive the fitness industry and commerce as a whole will help you avoid surprises.
Your strategy for growth should include a clear plan to keep your customers engaged both with your brand and with the fitness community you build around it. Lean into experiences—both virtual and IRL—to meet customer expectations and guide them to make informed purchases. And, finally, plan for the best-case scenario: if your product takes off, be sure you have the logistics and infrastructure in place to handle the demand.
Launching a business is much like starting a new fitness journey. And growing one requires the same level of dedication to reach your goals. Founders who will have endurance in the fitness space are those committed to sweating alongside their customers.
Feature image by Daniel Faro