Big Tech and Joe Wicks go head-to-head as digital fitness bulks up

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It is 9am on a drab Monday morning. Between desperate yawns and frantic gulps of coffee, tens of thousands of people are shaking off their lockdown fug by doing chest-pounding rounds of toe touches and mountain climbers. Putting them through their paces is a beaming, bouncy instructor cast onto their screens, alternating exercises with shoutouts to his virtual class. The stream will go on to clock up more than 300,000 views – the comment thread will feature more praise than an evangelical church service.
The instructor is Joe Wicks. “There’s been a massive shift in the use of technology in the fitness industry,” he explains, fresh from his latest ‘PE With Joe’ session. The YouTube series, which started during the spring lockdown, is now approaching its first birthday. It’s seen Wicks graduate from Instagram-famous celebrity to British fitness royalty. “I’m trying to inspire a younger generation. They’ll still consume gaming and makeup videos, but I want to use the platform to disrupt their time in a positive way.”

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This is fitness in 2021 – the workout from home generation. Since the pandemic hit, connected fitness has bulked up. An army of exercise enthusiasts has risen to meet the mental and physical challenge of lockdown. With gyms shuttered, startups have welcomed first-timers through their digital doors. A disparate, on-demand fitness industry composed of disruptors, sports giants and micro-creators have recruited swathes of the UK’s 6 million-strong gym membership – and converted countless newbies. When Peloton was launched on these shores in 2018, it was valued at $4 billion – the connected cycling brand now has a market cap of more than $40 billion.
And Silicon Valley has taken notice. Post-Covid, 2020 saw Amazon release its Halo health tracking device, Facebook introduce its gamified Oculus Move VR platform and Apple launch its Fitness+ streaming service. This month, Google announced that it had completed its acquisition of wearable startup Fitbit. In the race for subscribers, the fitness industry has been given a head start. But Big Tech is catching up fast. “These tech giants can pivot into so many different industries, they have the network effect,” explains Bryan O’Rourke, of the Fitness Industry Technology Council in the US. “Apple has 1.6 billion devices in the world. These companies have the access and resources to take those markets if they want them – few others can match that.”
It was in 2019 that Tim Cook claimed that Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind would be health. At any one time, a large proportion of the human race stares down at an Apple product. But according to its CEO, it’s altruism – not necessarily technology – which will be the tech giant’s legacy. “Ultimately, they’re just following the money,” contends O’Rourke. “These companies have to enter the health space to improve their valuations – there’s nowhere else they can go.”
In the US, boosted by medical insurance, the health industry is gargantuan. Fitness is merely a small slice of the trillion-dollar pie. “It’s why Big Tech’s move into fitness was always going to happen, pandemic or not,” explains O’Rourke. “They’re into fitness because of health – and health is the largest market in the world.” Alongside releasing wearables and training apps, Silicon Valley is investing in healthcare, too. Amazon Pharmacy recently launched in the US, while Google is collaborating with an American health service – meaning it’s handling the records of 50 million patients.

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But where does all that leave the smaller, fitness-focused players? Won’t Big Tech be muscling in on the startups, squeezing out the bright minds behind the digital training boom? Daniel Shellard, co-founder of subscription service Fiit – which saw a six-fold increase in its subscriber base last year – is confident opportunities will continue to grow. “Fitness is an industry which fended off technology for years – we’re still at the very early stages. With the likes of Apple coming along, it brings more eyeballs to the industry. It’s validation that this is the way things are moving. It won’t be winner takes all. Instead, there’ll be different digital fitness flavours for different audiences.”
Wicks agrees. Apple will be facing competition, too – he’s released his own workout app, The Body Coach. “No one is going to own the whole market – it’s like streaming with Netflix, Prime and Hulu.” He also believes that the disruption caused by Covid will help create a legion of tech-savvy trainers. “It feels like I’m starting my own tech company myself. It’s an exciting time for young coaches. Beforehand, it was traditional – PT clients and boot camps were as far as you could progress. Now, with social media and technology, you can have a digital product with huge international audiences.”
Making that shift to online is Yorkshire-based freelance trainer Emma Brayton. Like many in the industry, the closure of her brick-and-mortar gym left her unable to do her job. Now, the focus is on building a digital, lockdown-proof business. “It’s not been ideal, as I really like training in person. But the pandemic has accelerated what was going to happen anyway: online coaching. With the likes of Apple coming along, it’s an opportunity – more people will get into exercise and then want to progress with a trainer one-on-one.”
Trainers live-streaming workouts. Coaching cues via app notifications. On-demand workouts delivered via VR fitness games. In the new normal, will there be any room for the gym? Fiit has recently finished work on three studios across London. No trainer will be present. Rather, post-lockdown, gym-goers will pair their phone to a screen; a live leaderboard featuring their metrics will then play out over a pre-recorded class. “The bigger opportunity is combining the digital workout in the physical space,” explains Shellard. “That social element of the gym isn’t going to disappear.”

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O’Rourke, too, believes that the gym industry remains ripe for disruption. “In the US, with a chain like Planet Fitness, only 300 people can be there at one time, yet the average gym has 8,000 members. That’s not the best model. A hybrid set-up with online workouts – fewer gyms and a bigger market – would be better.” There’s innovation in the fitness gaming world, too. “You can already see it in Facebook’s app development community for Oculus – AR exercise solutions. I can see that being used for different health benefits. I’m a big believer that if Apple, Google and others get people to be more mindful of their health and understand the benefits, the market will grow.”
In the fiercely competitive digital fitness race – between plucky underdogs, bright hopefuls and giant household names – there can only be one winner. And that’s the consumer. Ever more affordable and accessible exercise, through a pandemic, brings more than just choice. With one in six deaths in the UK related to inactivity, it can feasibly save lives. “Before Covid, fitness was optional,” says Wicks. “Now, it’s essential for our mental and physical health. You don’t want to be overweight or have health conditions. If an app or a device gets you engaged, then that’s great. As a whole, it’s going to lift the concept of exercise – it’s all good for the world.”
Joe Wicks was one of the speakers at WIRED Live – the inspirational festival bringing the WIRED brand to life. Find out more about future WIRED Events here
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