Keeping Human Connection in the Connected Fitness World

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At a time when the fitness industry is moving faster than ever, largely due to technological advancements, the digital world of connected fitness is certainly grabbing much of the attention. As a result, fitness brands everywhere are looking for ways to provide gym operators and personal trainers (PTs) with ‘connected’ solutions that enable them to form stronger and more meaningful relationships with members/clients. But while many are embracing connected fitness, others still view digital technology as a potential threat to human connection when – in actual fact – it has the power to both maintain and enhance this vital aspect of the gym experience.
During this period of uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, now could well be the time to take a deeper look at connected fitness to see how it can be successfully integrated into a gym environment and maximised to its full potential. However, before we dive right in, it’s important to first define connected fitness. Generally speaking, it’s any way that technology and content can be used to connect people with fitness, which could be through equipment, an app, a website, or a combination of these elements. However, connected fitness can also be used to create connections between people.
It must also be considered that while connected fitness is on a rapid trajectory, it’s still very much emerging. So, for companies like Freemotion – one of the leading fitness equipment and technology manufacturers – it’s essential to look to other thriving areas of the industry to better understand how we can keep the human connection in the connected fitness world to satisfy that natural need.
Replicating the Human Connection of Group Exercise
When it comes to generating human connection through connected fitness, one of the obvious places to look for inspiration is group exercise. A growing amount of research not only shows its benefits but also highlights its success. This is primarily due to its ability to make people feel connected to not just a coach, but an entire fitness community through the combination of exercise and social interaction. One study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association concluded that “participation in regular group fitness classes led to a statistically significant decrease in perceived stress (26%) and an increase in physical, mental, and emotional quality of life compared with exercising regularly on one’s own or not engaging in regular exercise.” So, the question is, how can the ‘human connection’ benefits of group exercise be captured and delivered through connected fitness (on-demand) content?
It’s important for content to tap into the ‘pack motivation’ provided by group exercise to give users the internal and external motivation needed to achieve results. To explain this further, the healthy actions of the people (pack) around us can massively affect our own actions, workout intensity, and results, so if we surround ourselves with healthier people (which can be achieved in a virtual studio class), we tend to work harder – increasing our chances of becoming fitter and healthier. This idea was reflected in a study published in the Journal of Social Sciences which looked at ‘social comparison theory’ in relation to exercise outcome. It found that “participants gravitate towards the behaviour (high fit or low fit) of those around them” and that “participants in the high fit condition exercised harder than those in the low fit condition.”
Tools such as fitness leaderboards feed into the pack motivation mentality, as do workout series, live classes, and online race events. All of these modalities put the exerciser ‘in a room’ with others who can challenge them to keep up and encourage them to give their best.
Group exercise also removes the guesswork from a person’s workout. There are many reasons why they might want to put the control of their workout in someone else’s hands. A long day at work, equipment they aren’t familiar with, or perhaps they want to try something new; not to mention all the internal excuses people can cook up to skip a workout! Whatever the reason, a coach – virtual or otherwise – can take care of that.
Not only can group workouts provide accountability, which boosts commitment, but they also add diversity to training programmes. As today’s fitness consumers crave variety  – and know what they want  – this is another advantage of integrating group exercise with content to engage gym-goers.
The Importance of Coach-led Workouts for Human Connection
To replicate the human element of the ‘group fitness experience,’ content must be coach-led, as it would be in a live class, but not all of it is! To truly connect to an instructor and a workout, it’s beneficial if the exerciser can see them on a screen, rather than just relying on audio through headphones.
With the Freemotion CoachBike™, the first piece to be released from Freemotion’s new content-driven cardio line powered by iFit  – the world’s leading on-demand fitness streaming platform – riders not only receive face-to-face, world-class instruction and motivation as they exercise with their coach, but they’re also being drawn in by their coach’s personality through the visual content. This creates the ‘friend effect’ whereby the user can develop a sense of personal connection with that coach, which strengthens over time as they complete more and more sessions together.
Nowadays, we are programmed to feel connected to people via social media, so making that leap to connect with these coaches isn’t as much of a stretch as it might once have been. It also helps when virtual coaches are storytellers, sharing interesting information about workout locations, genuinely interacting with the environments they’re in (i.e. saying “hello” to locals as they run their route), and providing glimpses into their lives to mimic those true-to-life interactions. This, once again, injects that ‘human’ element into connected fitness content and makes the whole experience feel more personalised and authentic – going beyond just a workout. It’s something very subtle but important for operators to think about when choosing a connected fitness solution for their members.
Addressing the Limitations of Group Exercise Through Connected Content
While many positive elements of group fitness can be transferred to create compelling connected fitness content for gym-goers, this is very much a two-way relationship, as the limitations of group fitness can be addressed through content, which is great news for operators and PTs.
The challenges of group fitness classes are threefold: they can seem intimidating (particularly to those who are new to fitness), they can be difficult for some members to fit within their schedules, and some members might not be at the correct fitness levels to participate. Content removes all of those barriers – allowing members to access group workouts in their own time, at their own pace. Content can also help to drive members towards group exercise by providing the platform for them to build up their confidence and fitness levels before jumping into a live class.
Boosting the PT-client Connection
Usually, one of the biggest frustrations as a PT is the lack of contact time with clients. In total, a PT may spend one to two hours per week face-to-face with a client, and during that period, try to effect change in the remaining 165 hours of their week! Even if the trainer assigns a home workout plan, there’s no guarantee it will be followed. However, by using on-demand content – such as iFit – via connected fitness equipment – like the CoachBike – PTs can increase these contact hours and better deliver what they promised.
With iFit, PTs can assign a workout series to a client knowing that they would have followed a research-based workout protocol and periodisation (specific to their level and goals) to keep them on track and heading towards their desired results. This also helps to empower the client by giving them the confidence to exercise outside of PT sessions, as they’ll still be receiving expert guidance from a virtual coach; someone who they may grow to love and feel personally connected to, adding to their overall experience. Far from being a PT’s enemy, content can actually provide invaluable support – increasing the engagement, motivation, and adherence shown by clients.
Connecting Home and Gym
Home workouts may still be the biggest competitor to gyms, but it’s reassuring to know that we now have the tools to connect the home experience to the gym facility and develop those deeper bonds between the gym, trainer, and member. By offering connected fitness opportunities to members at a facility which can also be accessed at home – for example, through an app – they’ll feel connected to their gym no matter where they are. And that connection reminds them that their gym is truly invested in their success. So, although they may opt to do some weekly workouts at home (something they’d likely do anyway), the difference is that they’ll be thinking of their gym and the PT who set them that particular workout series, leading to increased retention all round!
Final thoughts…  
Facilities and PTs alike are always looking for ways to strike up powerful connections with their members/clients to keep them happy and coming back for more. If a gym can provide a tool which allows the member/client to break through any barriers, truly engage in fitness, and succeed on their journey, then they are more likely to become a life-long customer. That tool must be accessible any time, any day, to all fitness levels. It must be easy to use and fun. It must be un-intimidating, and it must progress and grow with the member/client. And – most importantly – it must keep the human connection.  That’s what an authentic connected fitness experience offers.
To discover more about Freemotion, the CoachBike, and its content-driven cardio equipment, visit:
Article By Jill Drummond, Global Education Manager for Freemotion Fitness
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