Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, Netflix . . . Over the past several years, tech companies have changed the game, causing “old school” competitors to scramble to stay relevant and prosperous, or to concede defeat and close up shop. The fitness industry is not immune to such disruption, as the internet provides customers with access to “personal” training, often at a cheaper rate than they would pay to work with a qualified professional in person.
While the online space is a boon for trainers looking to expand their reach and offer services with minimal overhead—a bit of tech savvy and internet access may be all that’s required—fitness facilities and personal training staff could feel the pinch. Gym owners and managers have noticed an uptick in members working out with tablets instead of trainers, which raises concerns about safety, quality control and financial health.
In this article, experts from brick-and-mortar spaces and the virtual world share their experiences and insights on this emerging trend.
Safety and Quality Assurance
Peg Hamlett, PhD, director of fitness and wellness at the University of Idaho, has witnessed exercisers engaging in virtual training on the gym floor.
“It is obvious when someone is using Skype, FaceTime or another internet conferencing tool,” she says. “The tablet or phone is set so the user can view and be viewed, and the interaction is different from a phone call or someone just watching or reading something.”
She says that this type of training is often disruptive to others—especially if it is conducted live, because such exercisers tend to speak more loudly so that the online trainer can hear them.
While this is a nuisance, it’s not her primary worry.
“Our biggest concern is safety,” Hamlett says. “We do not know the trainer’s qualifications or if the training is appropriate for [the member’s] health history or current fitness state.”
All of Hamlett’s training staff must possess current certifications and participate regularly in continuing education opportunities to maintain the highest level of skill and expertise. In a way, she feels the use of virtual trainers dilutes the quality of service she aims to maintain within her facility.
Albert Isordia, owner of the “home-based” training company Cyber Gym, agrees that there are safety concerns, but he believes it’s not just online training that’s to blame.
“For every person out there trying to follow a HIIT workout on an iPad, there are at least a hundred more trying to decipher a ‘guts and butts’-style article from Women’s Health or some other magazine,” says the trainer, located in San Carlos, California. “I see people in the gym trying to duplicate YouTube fitness routines from some CrossFit® box.”
But a risk is still a risk, and Hamlett’s concerns for her members’ safety are valid. Many highly qualified trainers successfully work with clients from a distance, but there are hordes of others with minimal education and experience. Hamlett and Isordia—as well as the other experts interviewed for this piece—agree that online training will continue to permeate the industry. So the question remains: Can anything be done to improve the safety levels of individuals who opt to take advantage of virtual training?
Justin Powell, fitness manager and personal trainer at the La Jolla Sports Club in La Jolla, California, suggests that management should beef up the orientation process to help new members better understand the risks involved in online training.
“To me, there’s nothing we can currently do to help provide quality control for our members, other than provide them information so that they can differentiate between what’s good and what’s bad,” he says.
“Make sure they receive a full fitness assessment and training session when they become members,” says Nicco Zenere, personal trainer and owner of the online and mobile training company BRAVE Lifestyle.
Zenere, who used to work at The Biggest Loser Resort fitness center in Chicago, believes this gives fitness facilities and personal trainers ample opportunity to help members understand the many benefits of in-person guidance.
Working with an online trainer generally costs less than training in person, which can make the online route far more attractive for budget-conscious customers. But it can take a toll on a gym’s ability to provide top-level services and amenities.
“We strive to pay our trainers a competitive wage,” Hamlett says. “We also inspect our equipment daily and replace or repair it continuously to provide a safe, clean and up-to-date facility—which costs money. When participants ‘bring in’ other trainers, we lose out and need to find other ways to keep our facility top-notch.”
Most fitness facilities prevent nonstaff trainers from working with clients, or they require that these individuals pay a fee to use the space. Perhaps a similar tack can be taken with online training, Hamlett wonders.
However, it can be a difficult policy to enforce, because it may not be obvious that a member is training virtually.
Plus, there are plenty of gray areas and logistics to consider. Would online trainers offer to pay fitness centers to gain access, and how would that work if they did? Would the members be required to pay an extra fee for the online training program, on top of what they already pay for the membership?
Ultimately, Powell doesn’t see there being much competition between online trainers and staff trainers.
“Many online programs are for a demographic group who aren’t willing to pay the price of a one-on-one session and are just looking to maximize the power of their dollar to get the fastest results they can,” he says.
Can’t Beat ‘Em? Join ‘Em!
There could be an opportunity for facilities to attract the online market and still maximize profits, explains Farhad Gulamhusein, co-founder of Trainerize, an online personal training platform. His suggestion? Instead of prohibiting online training or dissuading members from using it, facilities and trainers could offer training both online and in person, which may enhance the success potential of everyone involved.
Member/clients gain more support at less cost, while gyms and trainers take advantage of greater revenue, adherence and retention.
“The internet and technology have been changing personal training for a while, with the introduction of apps and information that anyone can get online,” says Gulamhusein, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. “With online training, trainers can have more clients at a lower cost. And if clients are happy, they will stay longer—increasing profits long-term.”
Zenere echoes these statements.
“I have been an onsite trainer for many years. With all my experience and seeing how clients respond, online training has been an amazing way to engage 24/7 and see better results and higher retention rates.”
This is still a relatively new issue that requires more thought and consideration. However, Isordia sums it up this way: “The fitness industry is not a cab service, and it’s not a bookstore. We sell expertise and inspiration. You cannot replicate that. We are threatened by technology only if we fail to embrace it and add it to our toolbox.”
Editor’s note: None of the information in this article is intended to create an attorney–client relationship. This article has been prepared for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel from an attorney.