Fitness is going digital in a big way

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December 2, 2020

In an unpredictable and stressful year, people around the world have been on the hunt for ways to stay physically and mentally well, and the fitness industry – from yoga studios and gyms to fitness coaches and personal trainers – is delivering with the help of digital tools. 
For many, this has led them to yoga. Along with building physical strength, the practice has long been a go-to way to destress.
“Yoga is a wonderful stress reliever,” said Christine Laurion, a Vinyasa yoga teacher of 15 years based in Paris, France. She has found the practice can provide relief for those feeling lonely, isolated or overwhelmed, allowing them to pump the brakes and take time for themselves.

Christine Laurion
Christine Laurion shares the benefits of practicing yoga during the pandemic.

When lockdowns began in France, Christine set up virtual classes, using PayPal to make payments simpler. “The payments are automatic with a historical overview, including student names,” she said. “It’s efficient, inexpensive, and has made digital life easy for me.”
Turning to online classes let her not only keep business afloat, but also support her community – a core part of her philosophy as a yoga leader. She has continued offering in-person yoga classes at a local hospital to keep morale up among healthcare workers and helped raise funds for the Make-A-Wish campaign for one of her local clients. 
“[The] world over, people have become more conscious of their health and fitness and this has led to a surge of interest in yoga and related mind-body modulating activities,” added Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani of India’s Yoga Jivana Satsanga, which runs several yoga institutions in the Chinna Mudaliyar Chavadi region. Like Christine’s practice, the 52-year-old organization recently began offering virtual sessions to clients around the world. 
“We do miss the person-to-person direct contact, but through proper use of online resources [we] have been able to create what our students describe as the 'Zoom womb’ where they feel nurtured and protected in these upsetting times,” Ananda said.

At-home workouts take off

Yoga studios aren’t alone in embracing digital technology to virtually serve longtime clients and reach new customers. 
Digital wellness platform Mindbody polled its app users in May and found that virtual fitness has quickly become the “new normal.” In 2019, just seven percent of users were using livestreamed workouts, but during the pandemic, that has climbed to 80 percent, according to Mindbody. And many of these virtual exercise enthusiasts don’t plan to stop their online workouts even as gyms and fitness studios reopen, according to the poll.

Rupert Hambly
Rupert Hambly's clients were apprehensive about virtual coaching, but now many prefer it.

Rupert Hambly Health and Performance, a health and fitness coaching business based in London, started virtual coaching sessions to continue servicing clients. 
“After the initial shock of the lockdown, most people were apprehensive about virtual coaching if they hadn’t used our online system before, but ultimately through effective communication and demonstration, they loved it,” said founder Rupert Hambly. “The vast majority are now virtual and believe it or not, many often prefer it due to all the benefits it gives them: more time, less hassle leaving their home and access to our advanced online system.” 
The trend toward virtual fitness even set the stage for some entrepreneurs to reinvent their businesses. Ciara Madden, who is also based in the U.K., was already an established personal trainer and fitness instructor at gyms around London. Her fitness brand, Body by Ciara, is popular with celebrity clients like Rita Ora and Maya Jama.

Ciara Madden
Ciara Madden has found success after launching a subscription service for livestreamed workouts.

When the pandemic hit, she launched the Body by Ciara Squad, a subscription service offering livestreamed workouts. Thousands signed up wanting to join her for live, virtual workouts. Since then, Ciara has brought on nearly 30 other trainers, offering about 60 classes per week – from yoga and meditation to Pilates, barre and dance classes. And each of those classes can have hundreds, or even thousands of students at a time.  
With revenue from her online classes, Ciara has doubled the refurbishment budget for her gym and paid the rent for a year upfront. She’s also planning to diversify her revenue stream by introducing nutrition plans and adding a product line of workout mats, resistance bands, apparel and accessories.
Crucially, “I’ve been able to give 20-plus of my friends and family a job through this tough time,” Ciara said.

Growing communities beyond borders

This massive shift toward digital fitness is also helping businesses expand their communities on a global scale. Rupert Hambly, for instance, is launching a new online membership program to make its now-popular virtual services more accessible globally.
And Yoga Jivana Satsanga is now reaching clients around the world, an expansion made easier by having a secure digital payment solution. “PayPal has been a godsend for us, as it enables the students to pay us without incurring exorbitant bank charges and also makes it so much easier for them to pay whenever they want and from wherever they are,” Ananda said.

 Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani
Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani looks at virtual yoga sessions as a bright spot in the troubled year.

Similarly, Body by Ciara has built up an “international squad” – thousands of online members from around the world. “Without PayPal I wouldn’t have been able to take payments from all my international squad members,” Ciara said. “PayPal has been an inclusive and accessible payment platform for me, enabling me to extend my reach.”
As the world heads into a new year, there’s a good chance virtual fitness will be here to stay.
For Ananda, the shift has been a bright spot during an otherwise difficult 2020. “Even a year back, if someone had asked me about the effectiveness of online lessons, I would have been very skeptical. However, this pandemic has changed my perspective and I am enjoying the way we can connect in the virtual world and support each other.”
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