Issue No. 143: Reimagining Fitness Certifications

Courtney Powell

The pandemic transformed the fitness industry. But fitness education is stuck in the past.

From certifications to professional development and business resources, there’s a growing opportunity to build a platform for the future of personal training.

High and Dry

Still reeling from COVID’s impact, brick-and-mortar fitness may never be the same.

  • In 2020, the US fitness industry revenue declined 58% to $15B.
  • Last year, 1.5M fitness professionals lost their jobs.
  • 22% of gyms and studios closed permanently.

As gyms build back and digital/connected fitness companies scale up, fitness professionals continue to fend for themselves.

A problem that predates the pandemic, in an era of record growth through 2019, the role of fitness professionals remained relatively unchanged. Worse, the profession had begun to stagnate.

From limited earning potential and career advancement to a lack of basic necessities like consistent hours and access to healthcare, working as a trainer was more of a passion project than a sustainable livelihood.

Of course, that’s not because there wasn’t demand for the service — there was. Or that customers weren’t willing to pay a premium for one-on-one coaching — they were.

The problem? The old model, where trainers make a small percentage of their per-session fee, strips them of the value they create.

  • The US personal training industry is valued at $10.5B.
  • There are an estimated 374K fitness instructors and trainers in the US.
  • The median income for a fitness professional is $40,510/year, or $19.48/hour.

Flash-forward to the present day, where the gym is being unbundled. As software eats fitness, trainers, coaches, and boutique instructors are building lucrative digital businesses.

At the same time, consumers are prioritizing and spending top dollar on personal well-being. As this trend continues, it’s reasonable to expect demand for certified fitness, nutrition, and health professionals to rise.

Trouble is—at least as it pertains to health and fitness—the phrase “certified professional” is losing its meaning.

The Certification Conundrum

Online or in-person, consumers don’t really know if a trainer is certified. Worse, as long as their coach looks the part, most don’t ask.

Certifying bodies aren’t helping. From ACE and NASM to countless others, aspiring trainers simply buy a book and take a test. With little to no mention of how to run a business or train clients in the 21st century, the certificate is merely a checkbox.

To remain in good standing, trainers pay additional fees to earn continuing education credits that vary wildly in terms of quality and relevance.

Otherwise, certified fitness professionals are essentially on their own.

A common next step, trainers try to land a job “working the floor” at a gym. Oftentimes, that entails cleaning equipment while attempting to build a book of business.

Even at high-end clubs like Equinox, trainers typically earn minimum wage when they’re not with a client. When they are, the gym’s take ranges from 50–70%+.

Independently, fitness pros aiming to start a business, whether it’s a gym or remote coaching, will be starting from scratch.

Speaking from experience, as someone who obtained countless certifications while opening multiple gyms and training thousands of clients, trainers are ill-prepared for legal, operational, and managerial challenges they are guaranteed to encounter — mainly because they’re never mentioned.

Despite these facts, the certification business is booming, with revenues in the tens of millions:

For the most part, these companies were founded in the 1980s. A mix of nonprofits and private equity-owned organizations, they were pioneers of fitness education. But as the industry and profession evolved, expanding beyond solo sessions or group fitness classes conducted within the four walls of a gym, the model was slow to adapt.

Now, as gyms continue to shutter amid the rise of virtual fitness platforms and digital coaching tools, trainers are left wondering whether they fit in  — and what their credentials amount to in this new environment.

Reimaging Fitness Education

As the next-order effects play out, the process, curriculum, and value proposition of fitness certifications seem misaligned with the profession’s trajectory — presenting a growing opportunity, and need, to reimagine fitness education.

Digital-first. Existing options have moved online but aren’t optimized for digital learning. In some cases, physical textbooks are required. A digital-first, video-driven experience would centralize coursework and materials while laying the groundwork for a comprehensive platform.

Subscription-based. Certifications are a flat fee, typically offered on a payment plan. Annual continuing education credits are an additional fee. A subscription model with access to an expansive course library would keep trainers informed and engaged in professional development.

Multifaceted. Instead of a single focus on personal training, group fitness, or health coaching, a new approach could mirror the university model, complete with a major, minor, required courses, and electives, ranging from exercise science and nutrition to business management and client acquisition.

Expert-led. Ensuring quality, content must be rooted in science and behavior change. Building on this foundation, successful industry leaders should be tapped for their expertise in specific training modalities and career paths — think Kelly Starrett, Joe Holder, Carrie Dorr, and Kaisa Keranen.

White-label. Speaking of experts, beyond specific course modules, there’s an opportunity to develop entire certifications around individuals that can be sold through the platform or spun out and marketed by the expert. The same goes for brands like, say, Gold’s Gym that want to standardize professional training and development.

Public-facing. Answering the question of how we know if a trainer is certified, their profile should be public, similar to LinkedIn, but synced with relevant badges for coursework, career history, and client testimonials.

All-in-one. Moving toward a platform, education is simply a starting point. Helping newly certified professionals operate their business, software tools like a CRM, payment processing, and class/session booking should be made available. A step further, imagine a Future-like SMS system or white-label app. Ultimately, the goal is empowering the trainer to own the client relationship, regardless of where they train — at a gym, outdoors, online, etc.

Turn-key. From incorporation to insurance and taxes to healthcare, fitness professionals are forced to navigate a complex process when starting a business. Streamlining this experience while capturing ancillary revenue, an education provider could develop a Stripe Atlas-like service for trainers, putting them in business with the click of a button.

Looking ahead: There’s a wave of disruption impacting every aspect of the fitness industry, and the certification sector should expect to feel the effects. Whether it’s an existing credentialing organization, ambitious startup, private-equity-backed roll-up, or industry incumbent in booking/payments (potentially all of the above), fitness education is long overdue for a makeover.

🎙 Endurance x Tech

From a single product used to track cycling stats to an indoor bike trainer and now a variety of devices and accessories for endurance athletes, Wahoo Fitness has long been at the forefront of endurance tech.

On the Fitt Insider podcast: Chip Hawkins, founder and chairman of Wahoo Fitness, joined us to discuss innovation across indoor cycling, endurance training, and fitness more broadly.

We also cover: The opportunities and challenges in content, software, and building fully integrated hardware/software platforms.

Listen to today’s episode here.

🌿 The Rise of Clean Pharma

Clean labels have reached the medicine cabinet. Taking a page out of the wellness playbook, companies like Genexa are disrupting traditional over-the-counter meds.

What’s happening: Following multiple high-profile scandals, consumers have all but lost trust in Big Pharma.

A recent MIT study found that 93% of OTC medicines are full of common allergens, synthetic dyes, and/or artificial sweeteners. Meanwhile, demand for “clean-label” products is at an all-time high.

Flipping the script, a new generation of medicine brands are creating better-for-you versions of OTC meds (like Tylenol, Advil, Emergen-C), challenging legacy giants like Bayer AG and Johnson & Johnson.

Borrowing the blueprint that Ritual and Care/of used to disrupt vitamins, upstarts are packaging products in bright colors and with cheeky messaging, hoping to revamp the medicine aisle and cash in on a $43B market:

  • Clean pharma firm Genexa raised $60M in Series A funding in July and has found success partnering with parenting influencers and US retailers across 45,000 stores.
  • Beekeeper’s Naturals saw 600% YoY growth during the pandemic for its immune-boosting cough syrup alternative.
  • Timed with a January 2020 launch, Hilma secured investments from Forerunner Ventures, Global Founders Capital, and more to sell its clean versions of headache, allergy, and upset stomach remedies.

What’s really “clean”? A budding term in a brand-new category, little to no governance is in place to regulate what products can be branded as “clean.” For the average consumer without specific allergies, the jury’s out on whether these meds are actually better for you.

Some experts, like clinical pharmacist Rebecca Barnhart, remain skeptical: “I’d view these [closer to] supplements instead of as medications.”

Next up. Welly Health and Tru-Colour give a fresh take on Band-Aids, overhauling another shelf in your medicine cabinet.

Takeaway: Clean medicine startups have a lot to contend with, from looming regulations to high research and development costs. While traditional OTC meds are probably here to stay, the clean pharma movement may prevail by carving out its own wellness category.

As Hilma co-founder Nina Mullen points out:

“There is always going to be a place for traditional drugs. We do not stand as an alternative to that. I think in the future we’ll see products like Advil standing next to our tension relief or even essential oil roll-ons… The consumer is just not satisfied with one answer and one approach.”

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🤑 Cash for Abs

A new class of startups wants to pay you to work out.

  • Paceline offers a wellness credit card with perks for hitting weekly fitness goals.
  • Sweatcoin and Clinicoin pay out in crypto for steps and healthy activities.
  • Cadoo gamifies running by leveraging your wagered cash as accountability.
  • HealthyWage lets you earn up to $10,000 when you meet weight loss goals.

Why it matters: Americans’ health is in serious decline. Despite new fitness tech like wearables or at-home gyms80% of Americans don’t exercise enough for optimal health. And the economic fallout from obesity has eclipsed $1.7T, or about 9.3% of US GDP.

Enter pay-for-fitness. Addressing one of fitness’s biggest problems (the human element), startups in this space offer consumers stronger incentives to make healthier choices.

Conducting his own pay-for-weight-loss challenge, entrepreneur Justin Mares wrote:

“When getting that cookie suddenly costs you $28 instead of $3, people tend to think a bit harder… it’s powerful: just by assigning a cost to someone’s diet choices, they change them.“

With the nascent wearables boom, pay-for-fitness startups are poised to become the next Strava, especially if they can leverage strong fitness trends like accountability and signaling as a service.

Recent funding rounds signal investor belief in this space. This summer, Paceline raised a $29.5M Series A while Cadoo secured $1.5M in seed funding.

The house always wins? Studies are mixed on whether incentivizing fitness actually works. Further, the revenue model used by companies like HealthyWage—where the company profits from users’ failed fitness goals—creates a fundamental conflict of interest.

In other news, WHOOP now pays its employees to sleep more, and Singapore’s government partners with Apple Watch to reward its residents for healthy activities.

Punchline: Pay-for-fitness hasn’t yet caught on at scale, but the segment holds promise, especially considering the explosive success of play-to-earn models in industries like gaming. Looking ahead, a pay-for-fitness upstart collab with wearables like Fitbit or Garmin may well be on the horizon.

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📰 News & Notes

💰 Money Moves

  • Kitu Life, makers of organic and keto coffee beverage Super Coffeesecured $106M in a funding round led by Durable Capital Partners, with investments from numerous beverage industry executives.
    On the Pod: Super Coffee CEO Jimmy DeCicco
  • Connected rowing company Hydrow is negotiating a SPAC deal with Sandbridge X2 that would value the company north of $1B.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Connected Rowing Wars
  • UK-based anti-aging app Humanity raised an additional $2.5M in seed funding from Calm co-founders Alex Tew and Michael Acton-Smith, Outside CEO Robin Thurston, and many others.
    More from Fitt Insider: The End of Aging
  • Rootine, a data-driven nutrition platform, raised $3M in seed financing.
    More from Fitt Insider: The Trillion-Dollar Question
  • Elektra Health, a menopausal care platform, received $3.75M in seed funding co-led by Seven Seven Six and Flare Capital Partners.
    More from Fitt Insider: Femtech 2.0
  • DayTwo, a nutrition company targeting metabolic diseases, raised $37 million in a round led by Cathay Innovation and aMoon.
  • Better-for-you cereal startup OffLimits secured $2.3M in pre-seed and seed financing.
    More from Fitt Insider: The New Breakfast of Champions
  • v2food, an Australian plant-based meat company, raised €45M ($52.8M) in a Series B extension led by Astanor Ventures.
    More from Fitt Insider: Meat vs. “Meat”
  • Digital healthcare platform HeyRenee pulled in $3.8M in an oversubscribed funding round ahead of its 2022 launch. Quiet Capital led the round.
  • Miyoko’s Creamery, makers of vegan dairy products, closed a $52M Series C led by PowerPlant Partners.
    On the Pod: PowerPlant managing partner Dan Gluck
  • KSL Capital Partners acquired a majority stake in luxury health club Third Space, operator of seven gyms across London. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
  • Women-owned employee wellness platform studio BE secured $500K in seed funding.
    More from Fitt Insider: Peak Burnout
  • Vertical farming startup 80 Acres Farms landed a $160M Series B investment led by General Atlantic, with participation from Siemens Financial Services.
    More from Fitt Insider: Indoor Farming and the Future of Food
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