Issue No. 81: The Rise of the Fitness Creator

A few weeks back, we alluded to “the rise of the fitness creator”. That short post sparked a number of email exchanges and phone calls on the subject. Given the interest and implications, today, we’re exploring the topic in greater detail.

What’s happening: When gyms shuttered and the industry went digital, fitness professionals quickly pivoted to online training. Likewise, fitness-seekers followed their favorite instructors to social and video platforms — signaling a willingness to engage in and spend on new workout formats.

Why it matters: While much of the debate about COVID’s impact on the fitness industry has centered on whether or not to reopen gyms, and if exercising in-person can compete with on-demand options, little has been said about the role of the fitness professional.

The big picture: Like filmmakers on YouTube, writers on Substack, and independent podcasters everywhere, fitness professionals are waking up to the fact that they hold a disproportionate share of the value. Now, as consumer habits shift, and new digital tools emerge, the rise of the fitness creator could be more disruptive to the industry than Peloton.

The Status Quo 

Becoming a fitness professional could be called a passion project with career potential. That’s because, despite tireless efforts on the part of trainers, the economics don’t always add up.

  • The US personal training industry is valued at $10B.
  • There are an estimated 370K fitness instructors and trainers in the US.
  • The median income for a fitness professional is $40,390 annually or $19.42/hour.

Across the industry, trainers are often employed as independent contractors. In the group setting, instructors are paid per class. Depending on the employer and arrangement, instructors might also earn a bonus per attendee or for sold-out classes.

Personal trainers typically split the revenue from each session with the gym — where the club’s take ranges from 50–70%. IHRSA puts the average cost of a 60-minute one-on-one session at $65, meaning trainers could be left with less than $20.

Give and Take

Overall, as the US fitness industry bulked up, topping $30B in revenue for 2019, opportunities for fitness professionals grew right along with it.

From high-end clubs like Equinox and Life Time to budget operators like 24 Hour Fitness, personal trainers are in high demand. As a result of the boutique fitness boom, talented and charismatic instructors are highly sought after. But, because the balance of power is often unbalanced, trainers can find themselves holding the short end of the stick.

In 2019, for instance, EquinoxCorePower Yoga, and YogaWorks all landed in hot water related to labor disputes. Of note, personal trainers at Equinox likened the environment to the Hunger Games while alleging they were underpaid and overworked. More telling, the company has a 50% annual turnover rate among trainers. Far from isolated incidents, fitness professionals are often stretched thin.

A Whole New World

When COVID accelerated the shift to at-home and connected fitness options, it also sped up the unbundling of fitness professionals from gyms and studios.

At a minimum, the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns are recalibrating the balance of power between gym operators and instructors. As the economy begins to reopen, and members rethink exercising in-person, trainers are busy plotting their next move.

This recalibration is best viewed through the lens of a broader shift taking place — mainly, the emerging passion economy. In a blog post on the topic, Li Jin, a former partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, outlined the passion economy, writing:

“New digital platforms enable people to earn a livelihood in a way that highlights their individuality. These platforms give providers greater ability to build customer relationships, increased support in growing their businesses, and better tools for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the process, they’re fueling a new model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.”

Advancing the “1,000 True Fans” framework popularized by Wired editor Kevin Kelly, the passion economy is making it possible for creators to build sustainable businesses with as few as 100 true fans.

The Fitness Creator

Applying this logic to the fitness industry, the implications are vast.

Talent. Gyms and studios could see their top talent flee for greener pastures by: (1) Monetizing their clients directly online. (2) Commanding more favorable economics. If gyms can’t pay, prices could increase or trainers could go to a competitor. (3) Building a personal brand that outshines the gym/studio, reshaping the current hierarchy.

Tech. New digital tools will cater directly to fitness creators. During the forced migration to digital, fitness professionals hacked together temporary solutions using platforms intended for other use cases. From content production to distribution and customer acquisition, retention, payments, and community management, the MINDBODY for individual fitness creators is already being built.

Education. What distinguishes a fitness creator from a fitness professional? No one knows. Worse, no one cares. And the certifying bodies aren’t helping matters. From ACE and NASM to countless others, aspiring trainers simply buy a book and take a test. With no mention of how to run a business or train clients in the 21st century, the certificate is merely a checkbox. Take notice: there’s a massive opportunity to reinvent fitness education.

Business models. Gyms and studios won’t be the center of the fitness ecosystem. Connected fitness companies like Peloton and Tonal can expand their in-person touchpoints. Concepts like Camp Gladiator will take workouts outdoors. Shared fitness spaces like WE11, a gym and co-working lounge for “freelance fitness professionals”, will gain traction. Meanwhile, existing brick-and-mortars will be forced to rethink their space and revenue streams.

Takeaway: To be sure, fitness influencers are nothing new. And information products like PDF workout guides are a dime a dozen. But a convergence of factors, including advancements in technology, a shift in consumer habits, and the WOFH gold rush, will give rise to a new wave of fitness creators.


🥛 Drink it in

In Soda vs. Everyone, we explored the functional beverage boom and the efforts of Big Soda to squash the surge. Now, drinking to good health is top of mind for consumers, upstart brands, and large corporations alike.

  • In the US, soda sales have been on the decline for more than a decade.
  • By 2024, the global functional beverage market is expected to reach $208B.

New developments point to the strength of this trend, with low- or no-alcohol beverages, CBD-infused drinks, ready-to-drink coffee, and brain-boosting elixirs fueling growth.

Taika, which means “magic” in Finnish, is making waves with its adaptogen-infused canned coffee. Backed by $2.7M in funding from Kindred Ventures and Obvious Ventures, the startup unveiled three plant-based coffees as part of its mission to bring “stealth health” products to market.

Recess, makers of CBD-laced sparkling water, has seen its ecommerce business grow 4x since COVID hit. The company recently debuted three new flavors and a b2b platform for wholesale purchases.

Elsewhere, United Sodas of America wants to replace sugary soft drinks with its guilt-free, and design-forward, soda alternative. Vying to be the Halo Top or Magic Spoon of soda, United Sodas thinks its better-for-you beverage will appeal to health-minded consumers — and reinvent the category in the process.

Be on the lookout: As functional beverages continue to evolve, KOIOS CEO Chris Miller thinks brain health could become a prominent vertical within the broader category. KOIOS, a canned nootropic drink, has experienced record sales as of late. Looking ahead, Miller believes brain health (a $6.2B market) could overtake gut health ($32.7B in value) as consumers turn to cognitive enhancers like nootropics.

🏆 Winners and Losers

Recent reports reveal divergent paths for two prominent fitness brands.

In a Forbes profile, Mirror founder and CEO Brynn Putnam pulled back the curtain on her company’s success. To date, Putnam has raised $72M in funding from top-tier investors. The most recent round valued the company at $300M. But, as the company’s revenue surpasses $100M this year—with profitability within reach—Mirror could easily see its valuation double.

SoulCycle, on the other hand, is “spinning its wheels.” A New York Times article summed up the situation, writing: “It was the gold standard of indoor-cycling classes. Then everybody went home.”

When the company delayed its foray into the at-home category—shipping its first bike six months later than planned—many devotees sought out exercise alternatives. One SoulCycler who spent more than $5,000 on classes made the switch to Peloton, telling the NYT: “I am a Peloton convert that may possibly go visit SoulCycle after.”

Looking ahead: SoulCycle’s at-home efforts have already been deemed a flop. Admittedly, that take feels exaggerated. But, they are playing catch-up. And pulling even could prove difficult, especially if Peloton continues to be litigious.

📰 News & Notes

💰 Money Moves

  • Inspire Brands Asia acquired Anytime Fitness’s Asia business for an undisclosed amount.
  • NEOU, a NYC fitness studio, production hub, and streaming platform, landed $5M in funding. Of note, the company plans to raise “up to $50M more” later this year. More from Fitt Insider: The Netflix of Fitness
  • Tia closed $24M in Series A funding, led by Threshold Ventures, to expand its women’s healthcare platform. More from Fitt Insider: The Women’s Health Revolution
  • GOOD PLANeT FOODS, a plant-based cheese producer, closed a $12M investment. 
  • Stork Club, a maternity care platform, secured $2.7M in seed funding led by Bowery Capital and Slow Ventures.More from Fitt Insider: Wellness Startups Aim to Erase Stigmas 
  • Cabana, a travel tech startup, raised $3.5M for its “mobile hotel”.More from Fitt Insider: Glamping is the Next Wave of Wellness
  • SweatWorks, the digital agency behind Conquest Events, acquired wodRocket, a platform for functional fitness events.
  • Good Good, a sugar-free food company, received $3M in Series A funding.More from Fitt Insider: The Keto Gold Rush
  • HumanCo, a holding company for health-focused CPG brands, launched with $15M in Series A funding led by Vista Equity Partners co-founder Brian Sheth.
  • Kombucha maker Rowdy Mermaid added an additional $3.5M to its Series A funding round, bringing the total to $7M.

Raising funding or recently closed a round? Email us: 

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