Streaming Video is Taking the Fitness World By Storm

Brick-and-mortar gyms are sweating how fast live-streamed workouts are catching on. Fitness buffs are taking direction from top-notch fitness instructors…from their living rooms via live online classes.

Gym owners worry that customers will start ditching memberships in favor of these at-home online classes. The 36,540 fitness clubs in the U.S. attracted 57 million members in 2016, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group. Globally, health and fitness clubs pulled in $83 billion in 2016.

Fitness videos are nothing new. But those old Jane Fonda VHS tapes were prerecorded, as are many of today’s popular online workouts. The new crop of live broadcasts can be streamed to phones, tablets or TVs and have become appointment viewing for gym rats. The live aspect lures eyeballs with an extra dose of excitement and urgency.

Credit startup Peloton for sparking the phenomenon. The company, founded in 2012, has raised more than $400 million in venture capital and ushered in the streaming revolution about two years ago. It sells a $1,995 indoor bike that includes an attached tablet to watch live spin classes. Peloton charges $39 per month for access to its workouts and now boasts one million members. It recently launched a treadmill, too.

Another fitness app, Zwift, lets bicyclists go on virtual rides with friends from their basements for $15 per month. Bikes are hooked up to indoor trainers that wirelessly connect to a screen that displays a virtual road. The trainer adjusts to conditions, such as making it harder to pedal uphill, and translates the rider’s pedal strokes to the rider on the screen. Users can go for a solo joy ride or race others in real-time on courses in areas such as London, Richmond, Va. or even in made-up worlds.

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter are also increasingly popular destinations for livestreamed workouts. The social media sites make it easy for anyone to broadcast themselves to the masses and are especially popular with younger digital natives.

The trend is putting pressure on traditional fitness equipment sellers. “We’re not a hardware company,” Peloton’s CEO said in January. “Those companies are yester-year.” In response, equipment sellers will have to adjust. NordicTrack now sells treadmills with large video screens that play prerecorded workouts. Its tagline: “A true club membership in the comfort of your home.”

Gyms are racing to jump on the bandwagon. Gold’s Gym has an app with prerecorded audio workouts to use at the gym or at home, for example, and 24 Hour Fitness launched an app in January that includes personalized video workouts. “In the fitness industry, competition is at an all-time high already with explosive growth of new entrants to the fitness market,” according to Brad Weber, CEO of FitCloudConnect, a streaming video platform catering to gyms.

Jumping into livestreaming can cost traditional health clubs an arm and a leg. Gyms must invest in software and video production, an especially tough prospect for cash-strapped independent gyms. Reliable, fast Wi-Fi is also a must-have because users often want to stream workouts at the club. Weber argues that “existing fitness clubs do not have the time, money or technical expertise to respond to the Peloton threat with a streaming offering.” Buyers of FitCloudConnect’s software can bet on the livestreamed or recorded workouts increasing membership retention, or they can charge extra for access to trainer classes.

Look for more gyms to partner with streaming fitness outfits and mobile apps, either working closer with fitness-tracking apps, such as Strava or MyFitnessPal, or adopting equipment that includes livestreaming capability. “There are thousands of Peloton bikes in hotels, residential developments, college campuses, professional sports team gyms, social and country clubs, and other ‘commercial’ environments,” says Tim Shannehan, Peloton’s chief revenue officer. Shannehan says the consumer market will always be the primary focus, but that the company “sees loads of opportunity” in commercial settings.

Even if gyms can stem defections, they still risk losing high-priced fitness class customers. Head to a gym these days, and you may catch someone consulting with smartphone exercise apps to tell them the next exercise. That’s a lost opportunity for a class run by the gym itself. And if clubs adopt streaming fitness equipment in their gym, they could be introducing members to a viable alternative.

What comes after live streaming? Companies are already working on virtual- and augmented-reality workouts. BoxVR lets VR-wearing users spar with animated targets flying around. Black Box VR has users grab cable pulleys to go through a stamina-tracking video game. The market will gain traction as headsets become lighter, cheaper and more powerful.