The “stay at home” order is by no means an excuse to stop keeping fit. Since the outbreak of the pandemic in January, people had to stay in and therefore, many of them put on the “quarantine 15” due to binge-eating, binge-watching and a lack of exercise.
Although life has mostly returned to normal in China and people are going back to gyms again, many fitness industry operators saw huge business opportunities amid the pandemic by going entirely online. By offering virtual fitness lessons, pre-recorded workout videos or remote one-on-one coaching, many platforms believe these actions may permanently change the landscape of the industry.
Influencers and Their Workout Videos
As gyms are locked down and lockdown orders in place, people are looking for alternatives to stay active and working out at home seems to be the one and only option. Many fitness influencers seized this opportunity and produced their own workout videos and designed weekly schedules for their followers.
In early June, a German fitness influencer, Pamela Reif, announced her official debut on Chinese social media by uploading her “12 Minute Happy Sweat Workout” on Bilibili, the Chinese version of YouTube.
Before her official presence on Chinese social media, many Bilibili users had downloaded, translated and re-uploaded Pamela’s videos from YouTube to Bilibili, which helped Pamela create a huge group of loyal fans online.
Within just two months, Pamela had gained nearly 1.5 million followers on Bilibili and 1.8 million on RED, an online lifestyle community and e-commerce platform.
Meanwhile, many other Chinese influencers, such as @周六野Zoey, have also produced a series of workout videos targeting users with various workout goals, such as weight loss or muscle building. Many of these videos focus on body-weight exercises due to the lack of equipment. @周六野Zoey, a personal trainer, was the most popular female content creator on Bilibili in the first two quarters of 2020. Her workout videos mainly target young females who are concerned with their body shape and want to shed their “quarantine 15.”
According to data from Bilibili, workout videos on the platform amassed 660 million views during the pandemic, a year-on-year rise of nearly 200%, and the total viewing time of users increased by 164% year-on-year. The number of new followers of these workout content creators has grown by more than 240%. On RED, workout-related posts also doubled compared to the same period last year.
During the pandemic, in order to build an online community that motivates people to stay healthy, many content creators have collaborated with major social media platforms, such as RED, Bilibili, Douyin and Kuaishou, to encourage users to post about their workout experiences and share personal milestones using certain hashtags. For example, at Bilibili, a hashtag challenge of “working out to fight the pandemic” had garnered more than 20,000 submissions within the first month of its release in February.
Compared to going to the gym, online fitness videos are free and often require little or no equipment. According to iResearch’s report on China’s sports and fitness industry in 2019, 63.8% of people spent less than 1,000 RMB on fitness and sports every year, and the country’s fitness industry still remains at an early stage of development. Therefore, the continuously growing online workout videos allow users to access professional tutoring, instead of paying for memberships and hiring a personal coach. With little cost, users are able to adhere to this lifestyle longer than before.
It also offers a much more flexible schedule for users to follow. Unlike a 45-minute in-gym session, the workout videos are usually shorter than 15 minutes and can be finished easily during a lunch break.
Mobile Fitness Apps and Service Platforms
During the pandemic, to continuously offer service to their customers, other mobile apps and fitness service platforms have to pivot quickly to offer online options, or hybrid models in post-pandemic period with limited access.
According to QuestMobile’s report, the number of active users in the sports and fitness app industry in China has rapidly increased to 89.3 million. During the pandemic, the daily active users of Keep, a leading mobile fitness app in China, have increased by 60% to 6.13 million. The main offline fitness platforms, such as SuperMonkey and SPAX, have also promoted online businesses to catch up with the trend of online exercise.
To survive the halt in the service due to the pandemic, many fitness club brands took advantage of livestreaming services to host live events online as an alternative to their offline gyms. Some brands are hoping to convert these online viewers to offline gym members when the pandemic is over.
New Zealand fitness brand, Les Milles, has started to design online courses in China since 2019. However, the pandemic forced them to release the plan ahead of schedule. According to the company, the number of the students soared to a new level after the pandemic. More than 50,000 people signed up for their DANCE course, and the cumulative streaming number has exceeded 1 million. The number of students for the previously launched BODY COMBAT course also increased by 25,000, and the total views of the course exceeded 500,000.
Smart fitness device brand, SPAX, has also developed courses for different targeted audiences. In terms of K-12 education and physical training courses in schools, SPAX teamed up with Zuoyebang (作业帮) to add related courses to class schedules as a part of daily school curriculums. In addition, they also joined the remote learning plan hosted by Youku Kids and Ali Sports to provide live broadcasts for teenagers.
Keep, a mobile fitness app, has also benefited from the increase in online active users during the pandemic. Keep’s Vice President Liu Dong said in an interview with a Chinese business newspaper that the majority of revenue has come from its online business.
Keep has continued to explore business opportunities not only in online lessons, but also wearable devices and training equipment. For now, the company has built a business model composed of three sectors: smart hardware, training equipment, and food, which aims at fulfilling the consumers’ demand for a healthy lifestyle.
The attempts have achieved remarkable results. The revenue from Keep’s sports products reached 1 billion RMB in 2019 and created the largest cash flow for the company, more than half of the total revenue. According to data from the company, during the pandemic, the sales of smart wearable equipment have soared.
Many fitness service platforms, apps and influencers have foreseen the potential business opportunities online options have offered. From a long-term perspective, there is no doubt that the online model will help break through the limitations of time and space, and reduce users’ costs to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
This pandemic has shown people around the world alternatives or possibly the future of the fitness industry. Instead of going to gyms with fully packed sports gear and lifting weights in a limited space, working out at home with a screen may be a more accessible and sustainable option for most people.