How Smartwatches, Workout Apps, and Connected Bikes Dominated 2020

How Smartwatches, Workout Apps, and Connected Bikes Dominated 2020
Graphic: Gizmodo (Photo: Scott Heins, Getty Images)

Back in January 2019, as I huffed and puffed on the Peloton Tread (now Tread+), I thought to myself, “This thing is really nice, but I don’t know in what world the average person would fork over $US4,000 ($5,319) for this.”

The answer is one in which a global pandemic leaves gyms and boutique fitness studios across the country shuttered. Without daily commutes, access to public fitness spaces, and a clear sense of when everything would return to “normal,” expensive fitness equipment started to look less like ridiculous playthings for the rich and more like sensible investments. You only have to look as far as Peloton to see just how dramatic the shift has been.

Just a year ago, Peloton was the butt of everyone’s jokes thanks to a terrible commercial in which a husband buys his already thin wife a Peloton Bike for Christmas. While most of the criticism was lodged at the fictional husband, some of the outrage was at Peloton’s roughly $US2,200 ($2,925) price tag when you can find regular stationary bikes for several hundred dollars cheaper. But by September, Peloton announced its first-ever quarterly profit thanks to a 172% increase in sales and more than 1 million subscribers. Impressively, according to CNN, most people who took up the 90-day free trial Peloton offered at the beginning of the pandemic stayed with the app — just 0.52% of users unsubscribed in the second quarter of 2020.

But this phenomenon wasn’t limited to Peloton, though it’s probably the device most people are familiar with. Earlier this year, Lululemon — purveyor of overpriced, kind of sexist and racist yoga pants — bought Mirror, maker of a $US1,500 ($1,995) connected fitness mirror, for $US500 ($665) million. The apparel company took a hit when stores were forced to close during lockdowns, and suddenly the prospect of acquiring a pricey at-home fitness platform seemed like a smart idea. In an investor call, Lululemon CEO Calvin McDonald stated that “the opportunity of covid is that it’s brought the future closer to the present” and said the company expected Mirror would be profitable by 2021.

But it’s not just the hardware. The fitness tech boom extends to apps and live-streaming, too. The first thing my go-to, in-person yoga studio did once lockdowns began back in March was to send several emails noting that instructors would be holding classes on Instagram Live. Gyms like Orangetheory, Blink Fitness, Planet Fitness, Crunch Fitness, and many, many others also began live-streaming free classes to adjust. Apps like ClassPass also made that shift. Fitness app downloads jumped by 46% worldwide during the first half of 2020 alone, with video-based workout apps benefitting the most.

Strava recently released its annual Year in Sport data report, providing yet more evidence that this year’s fitness tech boom was explosive, to say the least. More than 1.1 billion activities were logged in the popular cycling and running app, a 33% increase from 2019, with 2 million new users per month. According to Strava, indoor workouts more than doubled, while outdoor walks tripled. And despite the fact that in-person races were cancelled, Strava noted that participation in its virtual challenges and clubs skyrocketed, with 30,000 new clubs created and “hundreds of thousands” of solo marathons run in 2020. Any which way you slice Strava’s incredibly detailed report, the numbers are extremely up.

All of this makes sense when you think about it. In just the last five years, there have been huge advances in health tech, particularly smartwatches. This year we saw Fitbit and Samsung catch up to Apple in offering FDA-cleared smartwatches. Fitbit’s flagship, the Fitbit Sense, even added a very timely electrodermal activity sensor and a body temperature sensor for helping you manage your stress. Both the Apple Watch Series 6 and the Samsung Galaxy Watch 3 added the ability to measure SpO2 levels directly from the wrist, while also improving ways for users to evaluate their VO2 Max scores. This is notable because no one cares about their VO2 Max score unless they’re athletes or hyper-obsessed with monitoring their cardio fitness levels — a thing that perhaps more people will start caring about now that major companies are shoving it in their faces.

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The health and fitness tech wave has been slowly building for a long time. The pandemic just obliterated many people’s reservations about buying in. Personally, I have gone through no less than five fitness apps in search of the perfect one that’ll help me do yoga, strength train, and spice up my outdoor runs. I went from someone who hated working out at home to someone who owns four sets of dumbbells, three mats, a connected kettlebell, smart running insoles, and foam roller. (In a studio apartment, mind you.) I’m on my third pair of connected running sneakers this year. Some of my coworkers have become Peloton stans; another has a connected rowing machine. I know four others who finally caved and bought themselves a smartwatch or fitness tracker for the very first time. At least one has become somewhat of a smartwatch evangelist.

As a wearable and health tech reviewer, my phone has been blowing up nonstop for nine straight months with friends and acquaintances asking for recommendations for apps, gadgets, and services to either stay fit, get more active at home, or help shed a few pesky quarantine pounds — whatever the goal might be. After years of folks scrunching their noses up at me asking why anyone would ever need a smartwatch, let alone expensive smart fitness equipment, this feels like stepping into an alternate universe.

As 2020 comes to a close, I can’t help but think of the texts and DMs I’ve gotten from friends about Apple’s newly launched Fitness+ service. It ranges from curious newbies, hype Apple Watch lovers, and sceptics who only want to know if it’s “worth the price.” But in any other year, I can’t imagine I’d get more than a few curious queries from my editor, let alone multiple friends who a week after launch are texting me about their favourite instructors, opining as to how it stacks up compared to Peloton and other fitness apps, and troubleshooting connectivity issues.

Whenever it is that we get widespread vaccinations and the gyms reopen, I can’t help but think the fitness landscape has irrevocably changed. Next year, companies won’t have to do quite as much convincing to get people to see the value in fitness tech. Now that we’ve gotten used to streaming workouts from the comfort of our homes, the whole gym experience may have to be completely rethought. Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll go back to the gym once this is all over — and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Editor’s note: This article references products based in the United States.