Op-Ed: How brands can keep the lockdown fitness revolution going

25 Jun 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

The COVID-19 lockdown has seen many everyday Brits take part in exercise in a way they never have done before. Matt Readman, Head of Strategy, Dark Horses, looks at what the industry can do to keep people active in the long term and comments on what brands can do to help.


In spring it’s common to see streets dotted with runners as marathon preparations ramp up and warmer weather returns, but 2020 was like no year before it. Fitness has become a national priority. Personal trainers have become global household names and politicians are using national broadcasts to advocate the importance of exercise.

The effect of this is clear in the data; YouGov research shows that over 70% of Brits have taken some form of exercise during lockdown A recent survey from Runrepeat of over 12,000 runners shows that average participation has increased by 117%, whilst google searches related to exercise increased by 170% between 8th to 28th March in the UK. 

This isn’t just an already active audience adapting to self-isolation; thousands of people who rarely exercise are starting to think and act very differently because of COVID-19. 

But we should still be cautious about assuming this exercise boom will be permanent. Fundamental human behaviour is hard to change, and no behaviour is more firmly rooted in our brains than the need to preserve energy. 

Finding motivation right now is as easy as it will ever be. Aside from the ‘stick’ of a deadly respiratory virus, there is the ‘carrot’ that exercise is one of the only reasons to leave the house. The problem with these motivating factors is that they are both extrinsic and temporary. If we remove them, their impact will be greatly diminished. We should, therefore, expect some reversion to the mean when lives return to normal.

However, what life under lockdown has shown us is that exercise is more accessible than we ever thought. After walking, at-home workouts are the most popular form of exercise (YouGov). From marathons and Everest summits to fifteen minute HIIT classes we have seen what is possible in limited space with limited equipment and limited funds. 

Working out from home doesn’t just solve practical issues but many emotional ones as well. Intimidation and fear of judgement alienate many newcomers to exercise - particularly women - and working out in the confidence of your own space is a fantastic way of increasing exercise participation.

This virus is also changing our motivation to exercise. Increasingly it is being driven by physical and mental wellness not goal-based motivators like appearance or performance. Health motivators are not only much more effective than goal-based motivators but are much more resistant in the long-term.  

How brands help this audience realise their exercise goals, whatever they may be

Firstly; be an ‘everyday ally’. Provide the knowledge and support to help people with their personal progression.

There has never been a time with a greater abundance of workout information. But this can be overwhelming. Helping individuals access the personalised and effective routines that are perfect for them has never been more important. Brands that find ways of cutting through the confusion and becoming a single trusted source of knowledge will win.

Progression is the single biggest determinant of continuation. Keep improving and you’ll keep moving, conversely when improvement stalls so do you. It’s never been easier to help individuals progress. Movement tracking software is part of every smartphone and the last few weeks have proved that a virtual coaching relationship between brand and consumer is not only possible but welcome. Brands need to find ways to give practical and emotional support to keep people on those journeys. 

Secondly, whilst at its core fitness is a personal journey, it helps if you do it with other people. The Kohler Effect shows that exercising with others increases participation and performance. In the last eight weeks, we’ve seen people come together in radically new ways through technology. This normalisation of virtual technology and communities is one of the few things we can confidently say will stick with us - we seldom regress when it comes to tech. This creates a massive opportunity for brands and organisations to bring communities together in new ways.

In the long term, we don’t see virtual communities replacing physical gyms, nor do they have to. The two work perfectly in tandem, helping bond even stronger links of togetherness whilst also providing the flexibility to be able to work out with like-minded people anywhere at any time. This is the blueprint set by our client Peloton and it’s one of the reasons why they have over two million members worldwide. 

Finally, fitness brands will increasingly need to focus on the mind, not just the body. Even before COVID-19 we were entering a new era of fitness where mental and physical health is increasingly seen as one. This is a big shift for an industry traditionally built on physical performance, beauty and strength. Ben Bidwell, more commonly known as The Naked Professor, agrees saying: “up until now we’ve been living a life to look good rather than feel good”. 

Mental wellbeing is also a powerful motivator. Unlike physical progression, we get immediate feedback on how exercise makes us feel mentally. It’s why exercise is clinically proven to be one of the most effective treatments of depression. As our society continues to focus on mental health, the spotlight will also shine on exercise. 

When it comes to forecasting how fitness will change, nothing is guaranteed. Changing long-term behaviour is always hard. But at Dark Horses we believe there has never been a better opportunity for this industry to do so. This is a unique chance to change a nation’s relationship with fitness and wellbeing.  Brands not only have the right to push this agenda but will be crucial in any potential success. By shifting culture and growing a category there will be big opportunities to both help people and profit.

We’ve outlined just three examples of how brands should be adjusting their approach, but now is the time for creativity and boldness. Now is the time to capitalise.