Gautham Padmanabhan, a Chennai-based entrepreneur, began exercising during the nationwide covid-19 lockdown in March last year. The self-confessed couch potato, whose only exercise was walking the dog, began by walking around the building. “The main reason I started was the availability of time,” he says. “And I needed to tire myself enough to sleep.” He soon started losing weight—7kg in the first six months and 4kg since—and is feeling a lot better, down from 93kg to 82kg. Recently, he even joined a gym. “Now it is sort of a compulsive thing to work out and feel good,” says Padmanabhan. Towards the end of 2020, he contracted covid-19 and believes he owes his speedy recovery to the fact that he had been exercising.
Padmanabhan is not the only person to have discovered the benefits of regular exercise during the pandemic. According to a September 2020 article in the Frontiers journal, the lockdowns forced changes in behaviour. “According to the prediction model, those who rarely exercised before a lockdown tend to increase their exercise frequency during it, and those who are frequent exercisers before a lockdown tend to maintain it,” the article stated.
Most Indian fitness professionals and enthusiasts agree that covid-19 brought mortality into focus, forcing people to prioritise health. “People realised that health and immunity were important,” says Anushka Nandani of The Tribe India, a virtual fitness studio headquartered in Mumbai. “If you have health, you have everything.” People turned inwards, focusing on immunity, mental health and well-being rather than just the aesthetic aspects of fitness. And as gyms were forced to down shutters, the action went virtual: Trainers who suddenly no longer had work began offering options online, the home fitness market grew by leaps and bounds.
While the idea of exercise as preventive medicine is not a novel concept—it has been used widely since at least the age of the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460–370 BCE)—the last two years have truly brought it into focus. The initial days of the pandemic, when people were trapped in homes with no vaccine in sight, forced many to take stock of their lifestyles. “People who had never worked out before realised that they wanted to change, that it was never too late,” says Nandani. People have realised how critical exercise is to overall well-being, agrees Delhi-based fitness trainer Meenakshi Mohanty.
Additionally, once people discover the positive effects of exercise, they are less likely to stop working out. “It is great to see how people prioritised wellness in general because of the pandemic,” says Nandani Take the case of Vineet H., a Chennai-based chartered accountant. When the pandemic hit, Vineet, who had already been working out, bought equipment so he could continue doing so, not wanting to give up something he firmly believes helps physically and mentally. “The pandemic made me realise that working out is therapeutic for me,” says Vineet. “It makes me feel I can handle whatever comes my way.”
“I think people are looking for more holistic wellness solutions. It is not just purely about a weight-loss programme any more,” says Sonal Singh, co-founder and director of the tech-enabled fitness platform FITTR. “The world is more attuned to more fitness knowledge and information,” notes Chennai-based fitness and nutrition coach Jen Thomas. “I think it has become more important.”
New online fitness options have emerged, from live-streamed fitness classes to online personal trainers, cardio equipment that simulates a class or the outdoors, YouTube videos and more. “The digital space has drastically expanded in the post-covid era and fitness has seen a complete transformation,” says celebrity fitness trainer and Reebok master trainer Shivoham aka Dheepesh Bhatt.
During the lockdown, some people took to bodyweight training such as yoga and calisthenics. Many, however, went ahead and invested in weights and cardio machines. According to a report published by the market intelligence firm Mordor Intelligence, the home fitness equipment market, valued at $16,423.69 million (around ₹1.2 trillion) globally in 2020, is projected to register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 2.75% during the forecast period 2021-26. The global online or virtual workout fitness market is expected to register a CAGR of 30.1% by 2026, according to the website Market Research Future.
Yet, as the threat of covid-19 fades for the moment and physical fitness centres begin to reopen, there is some uncertainty about what the future holds. Most continue to believe, however, that the industry will need to adopt a hybrid model—for online is here to stay. “People have invested a substantial amount in staying fit virtually,” says Nandani. More importantly, they have discovered the convenience and comfort of working out at home; it enables consistency in routine. This is especially true for women, who have always struggled to find time for themselves. If trainers’ accounts are to be believed, more women than ever before have signed up for online classes. “There is a section of people who have realised it is convenient to work out at home and will never go back to a gym,” believes Thomas.
Diehard enthusiasts, of course, are already beginning to return. Vineet, for instance, confesses he was one of the first to return once gyms opened. “I never liked working out at home,” he says. “I did it because we were locked down.” Additionally, home workouts may not be enough to address all fitness goals.
Fitness spaces will need to cater to both groups to survive. The global health and fitness club market—valued at $81 billion in 2020, according to a report by Mordor Intelligence—will now have to cater to diverse needs. “They need to be innovative,” says Thomas, reiterating that the fitness ecosystem is very “dynamic” right now. Flexibility, community, health, convenience, personalisation—different people want iterations of some or all these things from their workouts. To stay relevant, fitness centres may need to rehaul their operating model completely, offering offline as well as online options. Thomas drives home the point: “A hybrid model is the way forward to stay alive.” Lounge speaks to experts to understand how our approach to fitness is changing.
Women take the online route to fitness: When actor Jane Fonda released her VHS tape, Jane Fonda’s Workout, in 1982, she brought change to an industry that had till then catered only to male-dominated fitness clubs. Not only did the tape—which sold around 17 million copies—manage to get women stuck at home to exercise, it made leotards and leg warmers immensely popular. While Fonda’s home workouts are now admittedly behind the times, the basic principle still holds: Women are more likely to work out when you bring fitness home.
Online fitness—live-streamed classes, virtual personal training, on-demand fitness—has seen a big uptake by women juggling homecare, child-rearing and work. “I think it’s much easier to take 30-40 minutes to go to a corner of your house. You don’t have to get into a car or walk to the gym. I think it is about comfort as well as convenience,” says FITTR’s Sonal Singh, adding that over 60% of their personal training clientele is female. Bengaluru-based Shwetambari Shetty, fitness expert, CultFit, adds, “Nearly 65-70% of our users are women.”
Mumbai-based fitness consultant and transformation specialist Avinash Mansukhani notes, “The male population is ready to go back to the gym; the female population is happy to work out at home.” Lata Ganapathy, a Chennai-based freelance copy editor, would bear him out on this.
When the pandemic began, she was using apps and online programmes to work out at the gym. “I used to go to the gym, find an unoccupied space and do free weights, using these programmes, by myself,” she says. The closure of her gym in March 2020 saw her shifting this routine to her home. She created a space, invested in weights and made it a point to find time to exercise, no matter what. “I don’t think I miss the gym at all,” says Ganapathy.
A prevention dose for older adults: The pandemic disproportionately impacted older adults in their 50s, 60s and beyond, not just in terms of the relatively higher mortality rate but also their access to physical activity. In a 2020 advisory, the World Health Organisation said older adults must remain physically active and set up a daily routine that included 30-60 minutes of exercise. As multiple studies have shown, exercise doesn’t just preserve bone and joint health but also boosts immunity and moderates mood.
In general, there is more awareness about the need for older adults to keep fit, say most fitness professionals. Unfortunately, however, fitness for this group still falls in the curative rather than preventive category. Older adults who prioritise fitness primarily fall into one of two camps, says personal trainer and nutrition coach Jen Thomas: people who have been exercising since they were young or those who have been advised to do so after a health scare. Given that a sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest causes of morbidity in the elderly, Tejal Kanwar, a Mumbai-based doctor and founder of Kleinetics Fitness, believes the medical fraternity and fitness professionals need to work together to change this. “Doctors are all about giving prescriptions,” she says. “But prevention is better.”
While there is awareness, there is clearly a need to translate it into sustained action. Hopefully, the conversation around fitness and immunity, an inevitable side effect of the pandemic, will see more older adults taking preventive wellness more seriously. A properly-planned fitness routine, believes Jeeth Devaiah, a Bengaluru-based strength and conditioning coach, can do wonders for the overall quality of life. “Older people who start exercising see major benefits,” he says. “If they are educated and guided properly, we will see more people discovering this.”
The rise of hybrid workouts: When Hyderabad-based Nirmala Vanamali Oblum, a partner at the bespoke shoe brand Oblum, returned to her CrossFit box once gyms were allowed to reopen, she noticed some changes. “Not everyone has come back,” she says, adding that her class strength has reduced as well. Even the workouts have changed. “We used to do a lot of group and partner workouts. But the trainer doesn’t plan them any more,” she says, adding that the class has been structured in accordance with covid-19 protocols.
Some people are still too scared to go back to a crowded fitness space, especially if they have elderly family members at home, are dealing with a health condition or have a family member who is. “While gyms and fitness centres have opened up and a few people have started going back to the gym, I feel many other people are still a little hesitant to be in crowded areas due to the virus,” says Delhi-based fitness trainer Meenakshi Mohanty.
Given the proliferation of internet classes that offer a bouquet of fitness options at cheaper rates and the emergence of fitness coaches who are open to working virtually with clients, online fitness continues to be the favoured option. Moreover, a continuing fear of the virus and the convenience of working out at home will ensure the online fitness trend does not fade for two-three years at least, believes Mohanty.
Fitness spaces, then, will have to reinvent themselves to remain competitive. Hybrid fitness models, which offer customers the flexibility of both an offline and online space, appear to be the way forward, say most fitness professionals. This way, they can cater to both sets of customers and offer flexibility. “The success of any gym facility will be in the hybrid model,” says Tejal Kanwar of Kleinetics. Shwetambari Shetty agrees. “We plan to run both offline and online for a long time to come, putting equal efforts into both,” she says.
How outdoor activities changed: The pandemic’s biggest fitness trend, cycling, proved so popular initially that there was a sustained supply shortage of leisure cycles in India. Today, some have given up on it as their old routines take over, while others have upgraded their bikes and are covering greater distances. Kolkata-based friends Shalin Mehta, 42, and Prashant Chopra, 41, bought their cycles around the same time last year, during the early days of the pandemic. Both rode regularly, and often together, till the second wave earlier this year. Mehta was so enthusiastic that he even went on a few 50km rides, while Chopra stuck to his early morning short-ride routine. Since the gradual reopening in August, Mehta’s cycling has taken a back seat—he became busy with work and chose to play cricket and focus on his 10,000 steps a day. Chopra, however, recently upgraded his cycle. Last weekend, he even managed to rally his friends, including Mehta, for a 20km ride. “I have never played any sport but I enjoy cycling early in the morning. I want my friends to experience the same joy, so I push them to cycle with me,” says Chopra.
While cycling will retain some of its enthusiasts, virtual running events will not. Virtual races plugged a short-term gap at a time when there were no running events and nothing to train for. Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Bhandari, 32, signed up for one earlier this year and ran a half marathon all by herself, recording one of her fastest times. But the high didn’t compare with a race-day experience. Now, despite mild covid-induced anxiety, Bhandari has signed up for the half marathon at the New Delhi Marathon scheduled for 27 February. “Virtual races are already a bit jaded now. People are bored of going on solo runs, treating them like races and then receiving a medal and T-shirt by post,” says Ramesh Kanjilimadhom, founder of the Soles of Cochin running group, who has signed up to run the Hyderabad Marathon on 19 December.
Tracking fitness differently: Casting director Tess Joseph, 43, replaced her fitness tracking watch a few months ago. She places tremendous emphasis on meeting her daily target of 12,000 steps. It makes her feel she has done enough to meet her fitness goals and that makes her happy. There are millions like Joseph who rely on trackers to tell them to move and also to keep track of their step count in their attempt to lead an active life. This, despite the fact that the 10,000 steps a day figure is rooted more in effective marketing than science. Beyond tracking steps, however, these devices can be truly useful if you use them to set and achieve your fitness goals, says Dhananjay Gupta, director of orthopaedics at Fortis Hospital, Vasant Kunj, Delhi.
The latest trackers offer more than just step counts and calories burnt, giving you key data on breaths per minute, heart rate, sleep cycle, stress levels through the day, and SPO2. “Your health data is much more important than your fitness data nowadays in our new work-from-home reality. So, activity trackers absolutely make sense. With no tracking device, one can derail easily, and would come to know the consequences of a mismanaged lifestyle only much later,” says Gagan Arora, a fitness coach and founder of Delhi’s Kosmic Fitness, who uses a Garmin activity tracker.
Do note that there can be a 10-20% deviation in figures, warns Dr Gupta. Trackers are not certified medical equipment; all devices make that clear right at the time of set-up. Moreover, while smart trackers may remind you to move and stand through the day, it is quite easy to fool them too. So, even if you are counting your steps, remember that the quality of those steps matters too.
For instance, says Arora, reaching your target by running a fast 10km is more effective than a couple of easy strolls or walks. So while trackers will remain on course, what matters is how you use them.
Setting the bar for protein supplements: If anything, 2021 may well be remembered as the year protein supplements and snacks became mainstream. Protein bars, breakfast cereal and chips from Max and Yoga Bar appeared on supermarket shelves beyond the metros and big cities. New players such as The Whole Truth and Phab started direct-to-consumer operations. Global chocolate leader Mondelez launched its first protein bar, Cadbury Fuse Fit, in September and protein yogurts, ice creams, pancakes and brownies took the stage.
Yoga Bar co-founder Suhasini Sampath and Shashank Mehta, founder of The Whole Truth, contend that the Indian diet, especially the vegetarian diet, is deficient in protein. They say that improved knowledge of this fact is driving the rise in interest in protein snacks.
Mehta believes protein is a trend driven by everyone, not merely fitness enthusiasts. Sampath thinks protein owes its popularity to the fact that it’s seen as an answer to everything these days. “From having taller babies to muscle gain and weight loss, protein is the answer for everything,” says Sampath, who was actually advised by her doctor to increase protein intake during pregnancy “if she wanted a taller baby”.
As ironic as it may sound, people even eat protein for weight loss, says Sampath. The pandemic has also played its part, says Ankit Chona, managing director and co-founder of Phab. “Most of this behavioural change towards clean and nutritional snacking can be attributed to the pandemic and growing awareness towards fitness and immunity building,” notes Chona.
The protein bar market in India is worth ₹300-400 crore compared to the ₹15,000 crore chocolate bar market, says Mehta. But it’s growing at 30% year-on-year and is likely to expand at a faster rate. “Because of hard science and improved knowledge, this market will grow, the only question is how fast. Yet the absolute market size remains too small for the big multinational players to launch their products,” adds Mehta.
Currently, the main consumers of protein snacks are 25- to 45-year-olds who live in cities and have travelled overseas, where they have witnessed the protein trend first-hand. They want to eat healthier and have the wealth for discretionary spending—protein products average ₹100 per bar.
“Price elasticity for this category is insane. Whenever offers bring down the price to ₹75 per bar, the demand grows manifold,” says Sampath. She foresees many more affordable protein products as sources of protein other than whey (which is expensive) enter the market. And as and when multinational firms enter the category, they would be able to bring down prices and grow the market further. “Protein snacks are not a fad like turmeric latte, they are a necessity,” sums up Sampath.
A new focus on building strength: It was in the late 2000s that Sushant Dash, CEO, Tata Starbucks, returned to exercise for the first time since he left school. “My journey restarted with visiting the gym, mainly for cardio workouts,” says Dash, 48, recalling the moment he consciously decided to make his health and fitness a priority. Four years ago, the 48-year-old took up long-distance running, adding three strength training sessions to his weekly workout plan. Dash ran his first marathon in January 2020 and then three more since the pandemic struck. One constant in all this running was his strength training, which he stuck to as it “helps him become better” in his favourite sport.
Anecdotal evidence still points to weight loss remaining the most popular health goal and cardio being the most popular way to achieve it. But more people like Dash are taking up endurance sports as their chosen recreational activity, and this, when combined with better information, has resulted in a renewed focus on strength training. One of the main drivers of this trend has been injuries suffered by recreational athletes, says Bengaluru-based coach and founder of Namma Xfit, A.K. Abhinav. “Most people listen only after suffering an injury,” laments Abhinav. “There is a growing emphasis on strength training for injury prevention. As a result people are also seeing long-term benefits of strength training.”
During the lockdown people have also taken to bodyweight training such as yoga and calisthenics. “Bodyweight training is great and it will be interesting to see how long this will sustain as beyond a certain point, calisthenics becomes tough unless you can spend sufficient time honing skills,” explains Abhinav.
However, the majority of the population continues to stick to cardio-based workouts for both weight-loss and fitness goals due to the “train your heart” propaganda, reasons Abhinav. “The heart cannot distinguish between cardio and strength training. It responds to how much demand we place on our muscles. More load on the muscles means elevated heart rates and blood pressure for a short time, which is good for you” he explains. In both theory and practice, it is better to “train your heart” by elevating your rate for short bursts of time through strength training and HIIT sessions. Many have learnt it the hard way, but it still isn’t late for most of us.