Editorial: Staying fit and healthy in the time of corona

Additions to the vernacular are big indicators of local mindsets – and coronavirus has inspired a deluge. ‘Coronaspeck’ is the somewhat waggish German word for the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing. Across the border, ‘rester en forme, restez chez vous’ (stay in shape, stay at home) has been popular fodder for the vainer French media.

Closer to home, a combination of morbid headline shock, boredom evasion, and the need to keep physically fit and mentally sane has inspired us to think harder about both our bodies and our mortality. Google searches for wills (check out the fantastic service at Farewill) and life insurance have spiked in recent weeks.

At Piper, we have welcomed the arrival of a new office shower (whenever we are allowed back) with the setting up of a Strava Running Club. Since corona started and while the novelty hasn’t yet run out, we have notched up dozens of miles of runs, supplementing our woeful step counts. We’re not alone. WhatsApp groups across the country are dedicated to bragging about runs and cycle rides – staying fit has never been so socially competitive.

Having hit 50m users in February, Strava has done an impeccable job of capturing the zeitgeist. Although no figures have been released, Google searches for Strava have doubled in the last two months. For us, Strava sums up the future of fitness – a highly engaging, data-driven brand that motivates you to exercise through social competition. Through clever route planning, it has helped people discover local places to run and cycle, aided by consumers flocking to buy more bikes – Google searches for bikes have trebled in recent months.

Gamification in health and fitness was already prevalent pre-corona. The last few weeks will accelerate this further, especially given the link between obesity and corona-related deaths. One trailblazer in this space has been Vitality, using psychological incentives and behavioural economics to influence private health insurance plans. Yet it has always lacked the social element – tracking progress is not as fun on your own.

Consumers who have seen their gyms and studios shutter are lucky to find a huge array of choices online. Searches for ‘home gym’ have gone up five-fold and, on Amazon, sales of kettle and dumbbells have sky-rocketed, with Google searches up 10-fold.

The same is true of online classes. In our pre-corona nationwide survey, one in four were already doing more exercise videos at home in the last year. Corona has hastened this trend. In the last few weeks, Google searches for online fitness classes have risen four-fold. Those of us with kids at Piper, alongside 1m households around the world (a Guinness World Record), have been bouncing up and down in our living rooms to Joe Wicks’ free 9am livestream YouTube PE classes, getting on our neighbours’ wick.

At our partner brand, Frame, demand has surged with 9,000 current active users of its online classes. Frame’s mantra is that exercising should be fun and fit around your life – from A&A (Ass & Abs) to G&Ts and some late-night R&B. Incredibly customer-centric, the team have always understood how exercising fits into Framers’ lives. Last year, they ran a customer survey in which more than half said they did classes at home using a video or app, with one in five doing it at least one a week. The brand’s pioneering digital Mumhood pre and post-natal programme has been a big river of loyalty over the last few years and is even more relevant now.

We have also always admired Frame’s PAYG model that not only disrupts the tired subscription model that encouraged zombie memberships (traditional gyms call emailing their customers ‘waking the dead’, preferring to keep them ‘dead’), but also uses data to drive a more holistic fitness repertoire across the wide range of classes they offer. For us, data will become important across all consumer sectors, but especially in health and fitness as people seek insights that can drive better outcomes.

Although attitudes to data privacy have changed since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, brands offering consumers something in return for their money, rather than just benignly siphoning it, will prosper. The corona tracking apps that are being developed could make it a daily part of our lives. For us and our brands, gathering and keeping customer data is a trade-off – you let us understand you better and we will use it to improve our service. To help, our brands are increasingly hiring data analysts that feed into all areas of the business – Bloom & Wild has five with two more on the way.

And yet many brands will choose to diversify beyond the pureplay digital experience. Our friends at Wattbike are helping to push people to their limits both in gyms and at home, plugging into Zwift in a Peloton-style model. On the roads, innovative Dutch ebike brand VanMoof have been using data to promote a healthier way to commute to work, all the more relevant as people bypass public transport.

For most people, team sports and group training (the non-digital kind) will always be the most enjoyable way of staying fit. Pre-corona, visiting a gym or studio was a big part of consumers’ lifestyles and, in our national research, one in five (30% of 18-24s) say it’s one of the main things they want to return to after the lockdown.

Our investment in Frame a few years ago was predicated on consumers enjoying exercising with others. When we speak to Framers, they love Frame because it makes staying fit fun, complemented by a friendly, welcoming and supportive atmosphere that motivates them to come more often. For a significant number, it’s a way of socialising with friends. This will be ever more relevant when we are allowed out.

We believe that, as content is professionalised to rival the droves of free online videos, in-home fitness will become a core part of consumers’ fitness repertoires. However, people will always have a desire to go to classes in gyms and studios. For those living in cities, finding space in their homes that feels comfortable can be difficult. If anything, these services will appeal more to those outside big cities who have space to swing their arms and potentially less access to high quality trainers and fun studios.

Over the next few years, we will see a merging of the physical and the digital. Gyms will seek out more creative ways to engage with their customers, whilst struggling to recruit good quality trainers at affordable prices. The digital start-ups will need to find ways to disseminate their content beyond the global digital nomads. As an example of this, fast-growing fitness app FIIT has created single person fitness pods and holds virtual group classes in The Gym sites.

Whatever the case, we all need find a new way to confront the consequences of voraciously wading through our hoards and tucking into our parching drinks cabinets. The Dutch are using ‘hamsteren’ to describe this predicament, evoking the joyous act of stuffing food into our cheeks. We will all need to find a way to flatten a different kind of curve.

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