The COVID-19 pandemic may have forever changed the fitness industry and how we choose to exercise, but it also inspired an important positive change: a heightened awareness of physical and mental health, and the importance of looking after both. While no one can control the ongoing virus and its far-reaching effects, there’s one thing we do have control over – our well-being and the choices we make each day to achieve this state of being comfortable, healthy, and happy.

What that looks like is different for each person, but for many, it involves some form of daily movement – no longer confined to the walls of a gym or fitness studio. With thousands of South Africans terminating their gym memberships and avoiding gyms altogether, more people are now exercising from the comfort and safety of their homes. Before the pandemic took over our lives, the fitness industry was worth more than $800 billion in the United States alone, with gym subscriptions, fitness apparel, and fitness monitors and trackers contributing to the lucrative sector. And while brick-and-mortar fitness businesses like gyms have suffered, it’s encouraging to see that the consumer demand for online fitness is booming.

More personal trainers, studios, and fitness influencers are adapting to this global shift by offering live online workouts, recorded video sessions, one-on-one virtual coaching, and even free YouTube workouts. Mobile fitness apps have become more popular than ever as people seek to continue their health journeys in the comfort of their homes, with a global increase of 46% in fitness-related app downloads during the first half of 2020. In South Africa, AllTrails: Hiking, Running & Mountain Bike Trails, Nutrition fitness, Home Workout – No Equipment, Six Pack in 30 Days, and Lose Belly Fat at Home are the top five free Google Play health and fitness apps. Employers are also coming to the party, subsidising fitness and wellness for their employees.

As the at-home fitness movement skyrockets, the demand for home gym equipment, such as exercise bikes, treadmills, and rowing machines increases, with a massive 170% growth during lockdowns last year. And while those who enjoy the gym culture are slowly returning to their in-person classes and individual training sessions, many of us who have had a taste of a comfortable home exercise environment may never set foot in a gym or fitness studio again.

Home is where the heart (rate) is

Humans are creatures of habit, and since the start of the pandemic, we’ve learnt how to juggle various things at home, squeezing in a quick 30-minute online workout or jog around the block between Teams meetings, client deadlines, and family responsibilities. This is now ingrained in our habits, and it will be difficult to return to the inconvenience of commuting to a crowded gym to use the same machines that everyone else is using. Not to mention ‘gym-timidation’ – feeling self-conscious when working out in front of others – which often prevents us from going to a gym in the first place. Plus, if you don’t have the latest fitness accessories, are less fit, or don’t look like most of the other people in the gym, you may feel unwelcome and judged in this kind of environment.

With our busy schedules and always-on culture of working, renting home fitness equipment saves us from unnecessary time-wasters, like waiting in a queue to use a specific machine or travelling to and from the gym. Because we’re exercising when it suits us and our schedules, we are more likely to actually get that workout in. And as no one else is using our designated equipment (well, except for family members), we don’t have to worry about precautionary sanitisation and the spreading of germs. It’s a win-win for everyone.

A fitness revolution

Before COVID-19 hit, millions of people worldwide weren’t exercising at all. According to Discovery Vitality’s Fittest City Index, in 2018, one in four adults (23%) were not active enough, and 10% of people died from causes related to a lack of physical activity. In South Africa, one in every two adults didn’t move enough, which was more than double the global average – making us one of the most inactive countries in the world.

Counterintuitively, the pandemic got more people to move by forcing them to get creative with more time on their hands at home. While average daily steps were down by 12%, Garmin data revealed that fitness equipment workouts increased more than any other activity in our country, with indoor cardio accounting for 50% of this. Locally and globally, people are finding or rediscovering different kinds of exercise that works for them. Whether that’s daily walking for a clear mind or renting gym equipment to use at home, we now have many options to get fit that don’t involve going to the gym. People are moving towards easier ways to get their heart rate up instead of rigid workout routines.

And research backs this up, illustrating that any regular physical activity lowers our risk of developing chronic diseases, thus increasing our lifespan. If more South Africans start viewing fitness as simply moving their bodies rather than spending hours at the gym, we’d have a much healthier nation, both mentally and physically. Physical activity is a powerful way to take care of our mental wellness, especially during the turbulent, stressful times we are living in.

If anything, the COVID-19 crisis taught us that our health and fitness are precious gifts – ones that we have taken for granted for far too long. It’s also up to us to take charge of our mental and physical well-being today for a healthy, fulfilling future – with or without the pandemic.

Join the Striide revolution today, and be part of the home fitness movement.

September 04, 2023 — Dirk Bouwer