The rise of virtual gyms: sport is reinvented
Covid-19 has managed to bring sport to our homes. Since the quarantine, gyms and sports centres have had to adapt to an exceptional situation that has left them with no alternative but to reinvent themselves.
Physical activity has been the great ally of Catalans as a result of the pandemic. Some out of necessity and others by surprise but, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone has joined what, more than a fad, was a vital necessity at the time. The virtual gym has brought sport closer to thousands of people, as illustrated by a study by Asics, according to which 36% of respondents say they exercise more now than before the pandemic. The reason for these figures is also included in the study: for 80% of respondents, even from home, it is a considerable physical and mental improvement that helps them control their emotions and keep their minds busy. Online exercise is still an upward trend of which gyms have been able to take advantage.
Subscriptions to virtual gyms grow by up to 400%
The quarantine opened the doors of home to a whole series of applications and influencers which became popular through social media. Virtual gyms came to stay. The advantages are many: flexibility concerning exercise place and time, no commuting, cost reduction, or avoiding the feeling of insecurity, shame, or lack of initiative of going to the gym. This is how Sergio Recio, founder and director of Ictiva, one of the few virtual gyms created in Catalonia, describes it.
For them, the quarantine was a turning point in their growth, which by 2020 soared to 400% in number of subscribers. They sought to encourage sport as a direct mechanism to improve our mental health and, in order not to leave anyone behind, they lowered all prices by 50%. Eight years of experience, more than a thousand classes, and 21 disciplines guarantee that Ictiva’s virtual formula works, but the company is not equated with the many virtual training projects that have emerged as a result of the pandemic and that, far from being a virtual gym format, have been an adaptation of the face-to-face gym or another amusement during the pandemic. From his point of view, face-to-face gyms have a specific market, but it will not affect the increase in virtual gyms in the coming years: “just as teleworking has come to stay, online training is a habit that adds to our lives”.
Adapt or die: face-to-face gyms go digital
In Catalonia, virtual gyms are still a minority and, in fact, there is none exclusively Catalan. Here, the power still belongs to physical centres, and the trend, for virtually all, has been to reinvent themselves and adopt the online format to reach their users.
In the case of regular users, the response was mostly positive, influenced by the bond that many already have with their coaches, and by the importance of sport in their lives. Toni Marin, directed activities trainer at Ekke Lleida, highlights this social aspect that goes beyond what is purely sportive: for them, connecting at that time “was a way to adapt to the needs of the customers and keep in touch with them; we did not want them to feel alone at a time that was very hard for everyone”. It was similar for users like Maria (30), for whom keeping the gym routine included keeping part of her social life, and precisely doing virtual workouts together is what helped her pass the quarantine alone at home but feeling accompanied.
For those who had not stepped on a gym, the start was progressive and backed by a lot of research work. The range of activities and coaches to choose from is very wide, and being able to create an exercise routine requires willpower. In this sense, Pilar (24), a gym user for four years, highlights the rise of fake coaches on social media, who make workout routines that are not always suitable from a fitness point of view. Or, at least, they are not for everyone. Exercising for free and without professional supervision is within the reach of everyone, but it can create a significant physical risk that needs to be known.
Does the virtual world reach all customers?
A year after the quarantine, we can draw the first conclusions of what the digitalisation of sport has meant, and the answer is unanimous: the virtual format has come to stay, but always as a complementary part, as a reinforcement of the face-to-face gym. Sport is fully lived when it is shared or, at least, so it is lived from within, as Susanna Segura, head of directed activities at Ca n’Arimon, in Mollet del Vallès, explains: “the fact of having a teacher to whom you can explain what is happening to you, who knows how to correct and encourage you, will never be replaced by the online format”. For them, who are part of a group that operates throughout Spain, the online format has reached fewer people than they normally have as users, “but it has helped us to keep them connected with us and thus ensure they do not break away from the world of sport”.
For older customers, or those who were unfamiliar with technology, this was a challenge, and Susanna acknowledges that the response from this group was mostly negative. Despite adapting to home exercise routines done with household materials and with the main goals of activating the body, it was not possible to reach everyone. Little by little, however, everyone who wanted to do physical exercise found their space.
For some, digitalisation has opened the doors to expansion, as explained by Mònica, teacher and coordinator of El Taller de Ioga in Premià de Mar: “we have pupils from other towns or other countries who like our way of understanding yoga, and this is the way they can practice it with us”.
In the case of the Ictiva virtual gym, emphasis has also been placed on reaching the public from the most personal side, by means of the creation of live classes and chats from where they begin to build a community where teachers go beyond the screen to offer a customised service to users..
“In the face of adversity, we look for a solution and we go for it”
The ability to reinvent oneself, for both gyms and users, has been maximised, and the results are largely positive. A mixture of feelings for having done something innovative, learned to use communication tools hitherto unexplored, known oneself better due to many months of lonely home training, suffering, and overcoming, and the reaffirmation that sport is health, whether as an escape valve, to socialise, or to grow as a person. Sergio Recio describes sport as a “natural antidepressant” that directly affects our lives and, whether in person or virtually, the sector has shown throughout this year that, as Toni Marin describes, “in the face of adversity, we adapt, we look for a solution, and we go for it”.
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