Are fitness AI and automated trainers the next big thing in wellness?

The pandemic-driven digital revolution led to the launch of several AI-enabled fitness products, including in the virtual medium. The Omicron threat just upped the ante

author_img Noor Anand Chawla Published :  12th December 2021 01:32 PM   |   Published :   |  12th December 2021 01:32 PM
Holistic wellness has certainly taken over the fitness industry.

Holistic wellness has certainly taken over the fitness industry.

Every morning, homemaker Siya Wadhwani stands in front of her mirror and asks herself, “Am I fit enough?” And her mirror responds, “According to your current BMI, you could lose five kilos more.” When the pandemic hit, a lissom Wadhwani lost her job and packed on the lockdown kilos while stuck at home in Mumbai. Her mental health was severely affected, and the premature death of a close friend from Covid-19 proved to be the last straw. She forced herself to take stock of her health and made a drastic overhaul of her lacklustre fitness routine. At first, she turned to the plethora of free exercise videos on YouTube and other apps but found herself unable to keep up.

“Then I hired a personal trainer who would conduct sessions virtually. He was effective but at 2,000 bucks per hour, he was working out to be too expensive—much more than my previous annual gym membership. That’s when I read about Portl, a newly launched smart mirror-based personalised fitness and wellness device. Its price was steep but far more cost-effective in the long run,” she explains. Now, even after the pandemic dialled down, she remains hooked on it. Portl’s easily programmable technology gives her access to a variety of workouts conducted by many different instructors—both on-demand and through live classes. Its smart sensors even correct her posture while she exercises. The fact that the mirror is equipped with biosensors to measure vitals like blood pressure, glucose, ECG, respiratory rate and more makes it a cutting-edge find.

 

A digital revolution is ongoing for the past two years in the field of fitness with a gamut of AI-enabled fitness gadgets and devices entering the Indian market, many of which are homegrown. According to the Indian Sports and Fitness Goods Market Report published in Research and Markets in September 2021, the market for fitness goods will grow at a CAGR of 8.6 percent in the financial years 2021-2026. Repeated waves of Covid-19 and now the onset of the Omicron variant—predicted to reach its peak in India with 1.5 lakh cases by February 2022—have spurred the demand for fitness at home. Apart from concerns regarding future variants, the report describes the growing focus on being fit in the backdrop of the rising incidence of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, stroke, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and atherosclerosis as a catalyst. 

Fitness = Wellness

Covid-19 proved a reality check for many with health taking centre stage. There was suddenly a heightened awareness of the different ways one could be healthy, and a wider acceptance of the concept of holistic health, which includes physical, mental, and emotional health, instead of just aiming for six-pack abs and beach bodies.

Sahil Bansal, Co-founder and CEO of Fitelo, an AI-powered wellness app that identifies people’s habits and curates personalised health programmes, says, “There has been a strong shift towards preventive healthcare. People now understand the importance of a strong immune system, the effects of stress and the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle. Further, there has been a surge in healthcare providers offering online health-focused solutions.” The popularity of apps like Fitelo represents this shift in perspective. Through customised ‘Weight Loss’, ‘Disease Management’ and ‘Lifestyle Management’ wellness plans, users are encouraged to build long-term habits. The programme doesn’t require access to a gym or any fitness equipment. Plus, no fad diets are recommended nor are the use of supplements and medicines.

Holistic wellness has certainly taken over the fitness industry. According to research conducted in 2020 by Hotelivate, a hospitality consulting firm, the wellness economy in India was estimated at $0.1 trillion in 2017, with a break-up of the different components of wellness being led by the personal care, beauty, and anti-ageing sector with a 35 percent market share, followed by fitness, body and mind at 18 percent, with the remaining 47 percent being attributed to various smaller aspects.

Specific to the fitness industry, there was a giant leap in the sale of wearable tracking devices, which grew over 144.3 percent in 2020, with 36.4 million unit shipments, according to recent data released by the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker. In the first quarter of 2021, it grew further by 170.3 percent.

Though everyone jumped on the bandwagon, not everyone was pleased with what they got. Hyderabad-based Lakshmi Rao bought an affordably priced fitness tracker watch for herself in early 2020 but was sorely disappointed. “I would forget to wear it and I disliked the ‘pressure’ of having to complete a certain number of steps. Then I downloaded an app to track my health vitals and that worked much better for me.” She turned to Aaiena Fit—an app that tracks body health in real-time, relying on accurate BMI and body structure. Based on these real-time measurements, the app updates users on whether they are overweight or not. Rao also appreciates their individualised diet and exercise plans, daily progress trackers and other state-of-the-art features like water intake measurement and the detection of abnormalities in the body that may require medical attention. 

E-Bikes for the Win

Delhi-based couple Rhea and Raunaq Singh Anand were caught off-guard when the first lockdown was imposed in March 2020. As true-blue fitness enthusiasts, they felt caged indoors, which affected their wellbeing. Having earlier lived in the US, they had the experience of innovative fitness solutions like Peloton, which were unfortunately not available in India. Rhea says, “Once the pandemic hit and all gyms shut down, we had to look for fitness products for home use. It was shocking to see that nothing existed in the Indian market—we were restricted to either bad quality products available at mom-and-pop shops or imported equipment that cost lakhs of rupees. So, we decided to build Flexnest, which would offer a portfolio of premium fitness equipment exclusively for home use, while integrating AI solutions along the lines of Peloton, Mirror, and Tonal, which were widely-used technologies in the west.” Flexnest retails 15 products in four categories—Endurance (Flexbike), Strength (adjustable dumbbells, kettlebells, bench, etc), Mobility (yoga mat, blocks, foam roller) and Accessories (scale, resistance bands, gym flooring, etc).

The Anands’ entry into the market was certainly well-timed. According to the India E-Bike Market Report published by Mordor Intelligence, the value of this industry segment stood at $1.02 million in 2020, and is expected to reach $2.08 million by 2026, projecting a CAGR of 12.69 percent in the forecast period.

Bengaluru-based e-bike brand Tread.fit launched last June and their widespread popularity led to them being acquired by fitness giant Cult.fit. The flagship product of this association is their Cultbike.fit. Aditya Srivastava, their Head of Business, explains, “Post the pandemic, people have realised that one does not necessarily need to work out in a gym to see good results. At-home workouts can be as effective, with correct trainer guidance, fitness tracking and healthy competition between community members. Smart bikes like ours offer a more personalised and immersive experience.” The Cultbike.fit combines hardware, software and content for convenient trainer-led live workouts at home, and comes with real-time fitness tracking features. The product also instils a sense of community with leader boards and other aspects of gamification.

While Flexnest and Cultbike.fit are prime examples of home-fitness equipment, brands targeting outdoor activities have also been quick to jump into action. American e-bike brand Strode was founded in 2020 in Pune, and makes e-bikes from the US at a cost-effective price. Describing their products as futuristic travel gadgets that offer city-friendly use, these electronic bikes can be managed and tracked through a connecting app. Their sleek models encourage travel enthusiasts to combine their passion with fitness.

The smart cardio equipment revolution is not limited only to bikes. Hyderabad-based OneFitPlus entered the home-fitness market just before the pandemic. Its founding team notes that home workouts were gaining traction even before the onset of Covid-19, yet many more got in on the act as they were keen to continue some kind of exercise routine by setting up even basic home gyms. Mohit Mathur, Founder and CEO of OneFitPlus, believes their success is due to the immersive experience their products offer users, which enables them to enjoy the concept of exercise almost as if it were a competitive sport. OneFitPlus products include a variety of smart treadmills and spin bikes.

A Competitive Spirit

A study conducted by the University of Aberdeen in 2016 showed that finding an exercise companion made people more likely to exercise and do so for a longer duration. This likelihood increased further when the new partner was emotionally supportive. “There is something really addictive about seeing dramatic weight loss results—it keeps us going even when we are most tempted to have a cheat meal or skip a workout! My husband and I embarked on our recent fitness journey together—we work out with a personal trainer thrice a week, go for long walks on days we don’t have a session and are following a nutritionist’s plan. He has lost more weight than I have, but that hasn’t dampened my spirit,” says Mumbai-based Sana Jha, adding, “The healthy sense of competition is definitely proving beneficial for both of us, as is the bonding we share through this new phase of our lives.” Though Jha is fortunate to have a workout partner at home, most people during the pandemic were denied access to communal exercise spaces. Technology addressed this problem through the concept of gamification.

The Flexbike by Flexnest offers class rides where users compete with each other on a leader board. Cult.fit makes its live classes more interactive through ‘live energy meters’ which are live class rankings based on the progress made through the class. People can work out with strangers or with ‘squads’ of their choice and compare statistics by downloading a comprehensive chart of their final rank and overall performance over time.

Portl uses ‘subtle gamification and engagement mechanisms’ to help users stay consistent. Its AI engine adjusts programmes based on proprietary Portl movement metrics and real-time form-feedback to correct users’ techniques, and tailor-makes programmes across a wide variety of workout formats. OneFitPlus approaches exercise as a sport. Through its multiplayer game Fitwarz, it combines intense workouts with e-gaming, pushing users to achieve their fitness goals, while being connected with thousands of other riders from around the country.

Apart from fitness equipment, the gamification of wellness has pervaded other spheres too. Health tracking app Aaiena Fit uses reward points, gaming vouchers, and fun events to keep users engaged. Wearable tracking devices also rely heavily on the comparison of health statistics. Fitbit has Progress Bars for step-tracking and leader boards with social challenges. Shape Up for Xbox One uses motion sensor technology and animated environments to elevate competition through challenges. Calorie counter app MyFitnessPal motivates users through accurate tracking of measurements, and cardio-tracking app Strava has an option for users to go on ‘dangerous’ biking/running quests with 
a safety notification sent to loved ones.

Industry consensus is that gamification is good. It attracts new users and retains those already using the service. Further, it does not inflict intense pressure as is the case with competitive sports, because ultimately the biggest competition in the field of wellness is with oneself.

The Younger, the Better

In an overly saturated industry, the biggest challenge is attracting new customers seeking new fitness dimensions. Riju Kabra, who owns a gym in a local Pune neighbourhood, had already seen a reduction in sign-ups before the pandemic hit. “With big international gym chains opening up at every corner, it became tougher for locals to retain members. Those who have been with us for years swear by our personalised services, but it’s harder to attract new people. So, my daughter and I designed a fun fitness class for children between the ages of 8-15, where we incorporated dance fitness, yoga, and a few track and field exercises. We figured we are converting them to loyal clientele from a young age. Plus, they brought their friends and family members for cost-effective group memberships,” he explains.

Catch them young is a considered strategy in present times for nearly all products. Kleinetics is a Mumbai-based programme aimed at kids’ fitness, which motivates participation in regular physical activities, sports, and fitness through gamification. Its founder, Dr Tejal Kanwar, was keen to create a platform that worked towards the optimal physical and mental development of children. Their Kleinetics Educator Academy trains coaches, PE teachers, gym trainers, preschool owners and athletes who want to develop a career in training children, through a certification programme.

As a surgeon and gynaecologist, Kanwar has been treating increasingly younger patients for lifestyle disorders like PCOS, which makes her realise the importance of having a fitness routine from childhood.Krishaan Mehta, a personal trainer based in Delhi, was asked to train an overweight seven-year-old by the child’s mother. She worried that her child spent all day behind a device, eating junk and ballooning up. “I wasn’t very sure how to train him because my skill set is aimed at an older age group. So, we decided to play games that I used to play as a kid with lots of running around. We also did some animal flow exercises because kids love pretending to be animals!”

Not long ago, edtech too jumped on the kiddie bandwagon. Ucanji is an Indian edtech startup that virtually teaches dance forms of all kinds to young kids and teenagers starting from age five. Through curated courses, Ucanji offers personalised dance and fitness courses aimed at enhancing children’s physical and mental growth through a fun and easily accessible platform. 

Virtual vs Physical

Though technology in fitness has developed by leaps and bounds, its widespread acceptance remains to be seen. According to a survey conducted by Rakuten Insight on gym memberships in India in August 2020, around 81 percent of respondents replied that they had already returned or were planning to return to the gym once lockdown measures were relaxed. Overall, around one-third of the surveyed 
Indians held a membership at a fitness studio.

Faridabad-based personal trainer Tushar Bhatia has noticed a huge surge in demand for personal training, allowing him to leverage his own brand @wellness.switch. When asked if virtual technologies were giving serious competition to personal trainers, he responds in the negative. “Most of my clients either choose their trainer on the basis of their social media popularity and/or testimonials of family and friends. Virtual platforms lack these personalised recommendations. However, there is no denying that virtual technology is more organised, cheaper, and also easier to use. The future is unpredictable, so I feel the best thing is for independent personal trainers to adopt technology in ways that could be useful for them and their clients,” he says, adding, “There are a number of personal training software like PT Distinction, TrueCoach, My PT Hub etc to help create customisable training and nutrition programmes while tracking the progress and achievements of each of their clients.”

Big chain gyms and services perhaps suffered the most post-pandemic—as clients evaded their exorbitant fees and long-standing training staff, unpaid for months, quit to move back to their hometowns and begin afresh. However, all is not lost. Ankit Gupta, Head of Engineering and Operations at Cult.fit, believes there is a market for people that want to work out at home, a market for those that prefer gyms, and also an intersection where people want to do both, which means the future is likely to be hybrid.

Ultimately, there are advantages to both aspects—online workouts are convenient and save both time and money, allowing people to access the best exercise modules from the comfort of their homes. Offline workouts on the other hand encourage people to interact with trainers and other gym-goers in person which is also a crucial part of the overall experience. Hence, going forward, people will probably choose what works best for them. The best hope of survival for both traditional gyms and modern AI-enabled equipment, therefore, is to be adaptable and cater to both the online and offline fitness needs of people.

*Some names have been changed at the request of the people quoted

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