Artificial Intelligence and the Fitness Industry: A Primer

Should you jump on the AI bandwagon?

By David Shaw
Mar 22, 2018

Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t just a subplot in your favorite science fiction show! For years, AI has been hyped as a movement that would change the world, but the past 5 years have ushered in a revolution. In short, AI is the creation of “intelligent machines” that mimic humans (think speech recognition, learning, problem solving, etc.). Computers can see, hear and speak to us in a very human way. Products like Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Home have almost seamlessly entered our lives and homes. Behind the scenes, AI makes daily recommendations on songs, videos or products you might like—or, for some of us, it’s how we unlock our phones.

Companies from every industry are jumping on the AI bandwagon; however, there’s vast complexity. AI ranges from a simple messaging service on a website or a Facebook page, to IBM’s Watson, which is reviewing cancer research, test results and data. Machine learning, deep learning, neural networks and algorithms are also associated with AI.

Why has there been a recent “AI explosion,” and how will that burst of innovation help you better connect with fitness enthusiasts and grow your business?

Staggering Amounts of Data

It’s all about big data. The internet, social media, mobile devices, sensors and wearables are capturing vast amounts of data. Back in 2013, we reached a milestone with 90% of all the world’s recorded data being generated in just the prior 2 years (SINTEF 2013). Today, the numbers and the exponential growth rate are nearly inconceivable.

An estimate from May 2016 put the daily creation of data at around 2.5 exabytes, which is equivalent to 530 million songs, 150 million iPhones, 5 million laptops, 250,000 Libraries of Congress and 90 years of high-definition video. When we shop for a mobile device or a computer, we look at gigabytes of storage. In 2013, global combined data, which is measured in zettabytes, was at 4.4 zettabytes. Experts estimate that this will rise steeply to 44 zettabytes by 2020. To put this in perspective, 1 zettabyte is equivalent to 44 trillion gigabytes (Khoso 2016).

All this data is excellent fodder for AI applications and programs. The potential, in fact, is limitless.

Fitness Applications

Existing products that use AI include earphones and apps—a lot of apps. Many of your clients may already have “personal trainer” earphones that provide personalized coaching and motivation. They may also be using products that include biosensors, tracking devices or smartphone apps to log heart rate, speed, distance, location, biometrics and step rates. This presents a novel opportunity for you to connect with clients on a deeper level and help them reach their goals.

One promising aspect of AI is the ability to evaluate real-time data and provide immediate personalized advice. A savvy fitness professional will leverage this wisely and help clients reach new heights. Prepare for this—2018 will likely see a huge increase in high-tech fitness-related products and apps, many of which will include an AI component. AngelList, the Silicon Valley startup platform, currently lists nearly 3,000 companies with an average valuation of 4+ million dollars and 14,200+ investors.

And then there are chatbots. If you recently chatted with a company online, there’s a good chance you were talking to a chatbot. Typically classified as one of the simpler forms of AI, chatbots can answer basic questions and even mimic human conversation. According to a Daily Insights article (Rosen 2016), more than a billion people interacted with a chatbot in 2015, and close to 40% of consumers prefer using messaging apps like Facebook Messenger for customer service rather than telephoning. In a recent study by Oracle, 80% of businesses reported that they already use chatbots or plan to use them by 2020 (Business Insider 2016).

A chatbot can be a simple—and in many cases, free—way to incorporate AI into your fitness business. A quick Google search for “free Facebook chatbot” provides numerous resources for building one for your Facebook page without knowing any computer code. Once up and running, a chatbot can interact with current and potential new clients 24 hours a day via Facebook Messenger.

Here’s a theoretical scenario. Let’s say someone is interested in joining your upcoming weight loss program and wants to find out more. The potential client finds your website and sends a message at 10 p.m., asking for information. You’re one of three good options within a 20-mile radius of the client, so it’s important not to let the query languish in an inbox. A chatbot will engage the prospect on the spot, and help garner buy-in before the caller has a chance to look at your competition.

AI also may be a great way to keep your customers engaged with your brand. For example, you can capture immediate feedback regarding a new group exercise class and potentially resolve any negative feedback before it is posted on social media or a rating website. For larger fitness facility chains, the ultimate goal might be to use member data to engage with members and increase retention rates. One large fitness chain is working on the infrastructure to do just that. The chain is collecting data from its millions of members, and it hopes to use this information to determine how people exercise, what motivates them and why they may stop. The organization plans to roll out a “digital adaptive coach” by 2019 (Eide 2017).

Dreaming Out Loud

It’s okay to think big when it comes to integrating AI into your fitness business. The possibilities are endless. There’s no reason why you wouldn’t be able to replace the traditional front desk with an AI platform that connects to a smartphone or a watch that logs your members’ visits, all while tracking their routines, providing coaching, logging their calorie expenditure and having a custom smoothie waiting for they as they leave.

You know how challenging it can be to help clients change their habits and behaviors. This is one area where AI can help. Noom Coach, an app that records diet, weight and exercise, uses self-learning programs (AI algorithms) to recommend resources that keep users motivated. In April 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized Noom Coach as an effective program for helping people reduce the risk of diabetes (Bonnington 2017). This may be a turning point for AI, and it is more evidence that fitness entrepreneurs must start thinking about ways to integrate AI into their businesses.

Fitness entrepreneurs may look at AI as a way to personalize customer engagement, gain deeper insight into clientele and expand their brand far beyond their local areas. While AI can be complex, companies that specialize in AI-based services are making it easy to add an AI component to your business. AI will help us to better understand why people work out, and it will provide platforms to reach and motivate people with a more personalized message—and hopefully increase overall participation and inspiration.

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David Shaw

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