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The physical activity sector is ripe for a technological revolution

Written by Steven Ward on Wednesday, 13 March 2019. Posted in Innovation, Technology

Fitness technology is transforming both bodies and business. Are you ready for it?

The physical activity sector is ripe for a technological revolution

Technology is having a seminal impact across all industries. The way we shop, design buildings or order food has made the consumer experience unrecognisable from just a decade ago. The physical activity sector is no different, with the average gym floor now resembling a scene from the deck of the Starship Enterprise and technology working its way into every facet of our exercise or sport routine. And yet, the physical activity sector is only at the beginning of its technological transformation and there is clearly so much more to come. 

The rise and rise of Peloton – and its astronomic valuation which has flown, like all good unicorns, past the $4bn mark – shows the vast potential of technology-driven fitness offerings. Gone are the days of technology simply leaving us sitting glued to a screen. A new wave of active technology heralds a new dawn for physical activity which has the power to reach inactive audiences. 

2019 will see the usurping of the much-celebrated Pokemon Go, as its founder Niantic Labs unleashes Harry Potter Wizards Unite on a global audience of die-hard wizard fans. Technology is finding more creative ways of merging from virtual and physical realities resulting in greater social connections and more movement.

The physical activity sector has a big role to play in ensuring fitness technology (fittech) reaches its potential. Programmes such as OpenActive – a sector-wide collaboration delivered by the Open Data Institute and supported by Sport England – aim to foster a more open environment for innovation. By creating an ecosystem that proactively favours innovation, these programmes show the power of combining technology with our knowledge and expertise to get more people more active, more often.

Crucially, there is growing customer demand for a more technology-focused approach. Our new report with Life Fitness, The Current State of Fit-Tech, reveals existing consumer relationships with fitness tech, exploring whether they use it, how they use it and what they want to see in the future.

The report found that 79% of people used technology to support their health and wellbeing, while 85% of active individuals used technology to support exercise, demonstrating that tech has already become an integral part of the average person’s exercise routine. However, the integration of technology across the sector remains a work in progress, representing a huge opportunity as we seek new ways to integrate suppliers, operators and other partners into a seamless customer experience.

New technology, such as wearables, immersive fitness or real-time data capture have the potential to completely transform consumers’ experiences, but also significantly enhance the way the sector delivers its offerings. 

Fittech enables the physical activity sector to understand its consumer like never before, whether by exploring how members will react to changes to their membership or ensuring members receive the right shoes for an upcoming spin class. Fitness technology can revolutionise operations from boardroom to gym floor. As a result, a new era of personalisation is just around the corner, which can be used to enhance customer satisfaction and customer retention – the greatest challenge faced by all activity providers. Ultimately, fittech enables the physical activity sector to grow, as new experiences draw in new members and, through their ultra-personalised experience, builds brand loyalty. 

Much of this technology is emerging as we speak – the challenge is to integrate it into every aspect of physical activity, whether in the gym, the park, the playing field or at home, and do so as part of a frictionless customer journey. From the provider’s point of view, this is easier said than done. The overwhelming opportunity fittech provides can become lost in the sea of technology which is constantly drifting in different directions, with the average operator wondering whether it is worth keeping up with the latest ebs and flows in the pace of change. This is why our priority now is for ukactive and Life Fitness to produce a framework for fit-tech adoption, providing guidance for the physical activity sector to adopt fit-tech in impactful ways.

Alongside support for our sector, we recognise that harnessing the power of technology for physical activity presents a major opportunity to have a widespread impact across the UK. As the British population ages, the NHS comes under increasing pressure, meaning the prevention agenda becomes ever more important to the future of the health service. Technology has a key role to play in ensuring physical activity can be accessed by the whole population, regardless of societal boundaries and abilities.

Our second recommendation is to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). Fittech can marry the prevention and technology agendas which now sit at the heart of DHSC. The government’s upcoming Green Paper on Social Care must detail the opportunities from fit-tech innovation and what can be done to support the adoption of fit-tech throughout the UK.  

Promising fittech startups still need a platform to showcase and deliver their services – which is why ukactive is running the ActiveLab startup accelerator programme, selecting nine of the best fit-tech start-ups and exposing their work to the breadth of the physical activity sector. Each of these start-ups has the potential to transform fitness experiences, so ActiveLab offers the chance to work with the sector to embed new technology.

One thing is clear: the integration of technology into the physical activity sector is inevitable. The potential of these innovations will be too great to ignore. For fitness operators, those who adapt and adopt will thrive, while those who don’t will fall behind. Meanwhile, for burgeoning startups and technology giants alike, the physical activity sector is one of the most fertile grounds for growth and impact. Miss this opportunity at your peril. Peloton may be the first fitness unicorn but it won’t be the last. 

About the Author

Steven Ward

Steven Ward is the CEO of ukactive, the organisation championing a more active life. 

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