🏋️ bailing out personal trainers

gym rats + technological unemployment

💪 This is a newsletter about technology and public policy.

Personal trainers are getting displaced by technology. What do we owe them?

The UK’s Cyber First campaign got me thinking that maybe the fetish for retraining as a solution to structural employment has reached a terrifying new height. 😱

As a thought experiment, it made me wonder about the future of work for fitness trainers. 

Why? I worry that personal trainers and gym owners are on the cusp of massive technological unemployment (the loss of jobs caused by technological change) - JUST when they started to monetize their personal brands at that. More specifically, they are being replaced by paid digital subscriptions like the forthcoming Apple Fitness that massively undercut the typical gym membership, free content on YouTube (e.g. Yoga with Adrienne 🧘) and at-home on-demand subscription-and-hardware pairings like Peloton 🚴‍♀️ and Lululemon’s Mirror.

Understanding how policymakers might support athletic trainers—if at all—as this market shift solidifies will be indicative of how other industries like real estate and legal services—both set to be massively disrupted by tech—will be attended to by the government.

Apple Fitness is $9.99/mo or $79.99/year, and will be available before the end of the year.

In Toronto, Ottawa, and the Peel region, the second wave just shut down indoor gyms and fitness centres (including yoga and dance studios) *again,* and Toronto gym owners are feeling the burn. The pandemic has been accelerating the shift to more individualized options that can be taken up outdoors or in your living room. At-home workout equipment like skipping ropes, kettlebells, and dumbbells have been on backorder for months and most gym memberships have been paused. Many assume that at some point, gyms will “come back.” 

What if they don’t?  

In early September, a survey showed that 60% of Canadians have cancelled their gym membership. In 2017, it was estimated that there were about 30,000 personal trainers in Canada [another figure estimated industry employment at 71,724]. But it’s hard to find a reliable figure, mostly due to the informality of the sector. Of note, there is no government-related institution to regulate this occupation - so their public voice may be muted if they have one at all. Personal trainers are *somewhat* credentialized with options from private institutions or non-profit organizations that may or may not border on the predatory. In Canada, the most recognized certifications for group fitness are: AFLCA, YMCA of Canada, CanFitPro, InfoFit, and ACE (American Council on Exercise). 

Further, fitness instructors ostensibly function as independent contractors, working for an hourly rate directly with individuals and/or contracting with gyms to earn a decent average salary of between $44,500 and $58,500/year. Like many in today’s labour market, they tend to lack job security and may not receive benefits from their employer. I hypothesize that they skew young - but again, data is scarce. Under StatsCan’s NAICS, personal physical fitness trainers are grouped alongside genealogists, escorts and bail bond agents as “all other personal services” so good luck getting a solid estimate on the number of people engaged in this work (!)—especially given that it can take place alongside other paid employment. 

Here’s what it boils down to: the business environment that underpinned their work is being severely eroded by digital options. This was already happening before COVID-19, with the growth of high-intensity interval training gyms like Orange Theory and F45, that operate as franchises (with monthly memberships of $60-$160 and $200 respectively), essentially employing one person overseeing the migration of athletes guiding people around the circuit. I did an F45 workout once - there was an iPad at every  station. 

So, to re-cap: athletic trainers tend to be young people, employed precariously as independent contractors and they are encouraged to pay for pseudo-credentials that are the price of entry into their field (think: yoga instructors and Registered Yoga Schools, or Cross-Fit certification courses). On top of all this, they lack a coherent way to convey their needs to decision-makers. They are not exactly well-positioned to identify and articulate the digital threats that are changing their jobs.

Nonetheless, it seems obvious that the market for their services is being fundamentally restructured. 

While it’s unrealistic to imagine that individuals will replicate entire gyms in their living rooms or backyards, the demand for access to traditional gyms is likely to be long-tempered by caution, further constraining the profitability of gyms as we know them. The pandemic has also forced people to acknowledge how much of their disposable income may have been taken up by gym memberships, and that might make them slow to return to their previous spending habits. Given these factors, September’s announcement of Apple’s “Apple Fitness” at $9.99/month feels like the wind-up for a body blow to the industry.  

It will be up to us to monitor and quantify this evolution. Platforms like Classpass, which allow users to access a variety of studio fitness classes in their neighbourhood, could be a key source of data in understanding the decline in gym traffic. *I note that Classpass has also pivoted to include on-demand workout classes. 😉

Personal trainers (alongside athletic instructors and gym owners) offer an in-progress case study for policymakers in the “future of work” space.


I believe that these trends in personal fitness raise a critical question - namely, whether we should design retraining or re-skilling programs for athletic coaches (for instance, personal trainer to personal support worker). Or re-introduce Harper-era tax Incentives for participation in local gyms. I’m spitballing - but what is the magnitude of technological change needed to invite policy attention? 

Overall, this sudden shift is somewhat ironic.

Gyms themselves popularized the business model of a subscription - in fact, for many, their bottom line is predicated on acquiring members that do not attend. They’re about to become displaced by digital recurring revenue at a price point that they just won’t be able to match. Further, the decline of athletic facilities could be similar to the end of traditional retail and the surprising endurance of brick and mortar (we’re still debating what to do with dead malls).  

People’s routines are changing - more consumers have invested in home fitness products and services, forming new habits with virtual workouts and saving money in the process. This market change is being facilitated by technology. Say this moment halves the number of active fitness instructors. Whether they will be left in the dust will ultimately be a show of government’s fitness to directly address these challenges.  

🥵 We should sweat it. 

🤓Vass Bednar is a smart generalist working at the intersection of technology and public policy.

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