The gym of the future will be virtual, gamified, and totally immersive

With fitness interest at an all-time high, brands are reimagining the gym experience. Expect far more innovative tech, peak social experiences, and unlikely brick-and-mortar locations.

The gym of the future will be virtual, gamified, and totally immersive
[Photo: courtesy of GHOST]

In the near future, you might squeeze in a sweat session while picking up some milk.


Your local gym will be tucked inside the local market, perhaps just a few feet away from the produce section. There you’ll don a lightweight VR headset and pedal your way through a virtual exotic world as trackers count your every moment. When you’re done, your phone will ping you to book a massage—it’ll know exactly which muscles are aching.

It’s not that far off: Today’s health-club sector offers the utmost in convenience and personalization, in part due to AI-enabled technology. And with consumers taking a far bigger interest in health and wellness, clubs are growing faster and more innovative than ever: Gyms experienced a 50% increase in revenue in the past decade, reports the Global Wellness Institute.

So what’s currently driving the gym market? And how will clubs differ in the coming years? Here are some of the business and cultural trends reshaping communal workouts:

Unexpected places

Both big box and boutique gyms are rethinking real estate, with more and more studios eyeing unlikely locations—the mall, airports, even the supermarket. And whereas they were once ignored by shopping center landlords, they are now sought-after anchor tenants.

In the past year, HIIT franchise Orangetheory partnered with Iowa-based grocery retailer Hy-Vee, while ShopRite opened a fitness studio in New Jersey. Some Whole Foods stores offer a range of workout classes on their premises, while CVS Health is testing “health hubs” where customers take a yoga class as they wait for pharmacy refills. Lululemon’s latest retail concept manages to be a restaurant, fitness center, and smoothie bar, all rolled into one.


“There will be a boutique studio located in very close proximity to where you’re running your errands,” says Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “It just lends itself to accommodating that busy lifestyle.”

Likewise, brick-and-mortar gyms are expanding classes outside their four walls. A number of boutique gyms, such as Barre3 or Taryn Toomey’s The Class, offer year-round retreats and seminars (that sell out within days). ClassPass features “Getaways,” day-long wellness experiences in collaboration with spas and gyms across the country. There are now even whole festivals dedicated to fitness and wellness.

It will all be a show

As millennials put a premium on experience, fitness studios increasingly blend fitness with entertainment. That means the staff is more than just instructors; they’re showmen who inspire, amuse, and motivate.

“Instructors are really trying to create this kind of engaging, almost performance-like experience,” says Bryant, noting the use of behavioral science techniques to emotionally connect with clients. “From a programming perspective, they’re getting away from the one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach to the more individualized, personalized approach.”

SoulCycle perfected this model by grooming models to near cult-like guru status and reimagining what a group class looks and feels like. Last year, the brand introduced live music from up-and-coming acts as well as DJ sets.


Meanwhile, fitness program brand Les Mills offers an immersive stationery ride through intricate, digitally created worlds. Instead of staring at a teacher or mirror, groups watch a giant IMAX-like screen showcasing virtual landscapes such as jungles, the Redwoods, or majestic ice glaciers. Dubbed “The Trip,” it’s available across a handful of U.S. gyms but quickly gaining traction. Expect more innovative experiences drawing on audio (musicians, surround sound) and screens (immersive theatre), and programming (virtual reality content like VirZoom).

More than just fitness

With the merger of fitness and wellness, gyms are expanding their offerings to include services once more associated with spas. Studios like Orangetheory partner with stretching specialists, while others invest in recovery tools like foam rollers, compression sleeves, and Theragun percussion therapy devices.

More luxe models add on amenities like float tanks and IV-drip stations. Equinox recently partnered with cannabis wellness brand Papa & Barkley to become the first major national fitness club to offer CBD recovery massages.

“The trend toward consumers combining time spent in active exercise with active recovery will grow,” predicts explains Meredith Poppler, VP of communications for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). “While shorter, efficient workouts that are HIIT-like will probably always be popular considering how little time most consumers have, fitness consumers are more aware and sold on the importance of recovery and wellness.”

A number of brands also incorporate a more holistic model that includes food and lifestyle. The F45 Challenge, for example, is a season-long event offering F45 studio members access to nutritionists and an app that includes daily meal plans and calorie trackers, along with groceries and meal delivery. By providing a full food and fitness program, F45 is better able to inspire members to commit to a healthy lifestyle and, not to mention, stay committed to the studio.


The new social

The gym is no longer simply a place just to exercise; it’s the new gathering place.

“Community” is the buzzword of late, with every studio attempting to build a network of engaged clients. This has big gyms emulating the atmosphere of boutique studios by building a “gym within a gym”—a more compact, intimate space within their four walls.

Personalization and tribalism fuel the boutique demand, especially among millennials, explains Poppler. “Most people want to be with ‘their people,’ the people like them who have the same passions. Boutiques deliver on that, whether you are a cyclist and want to be around others in an indoor cycling space, or a yoga practitioner, or a CrossFitter.”

F45, the fastest-growing boutique fitness franchise, puts on competitive meets between different gyms and hosts Sunday brunch. Then there are social fitness groups like Electric Flight Crew that offer a boozy “no shower happy hour” after an hour of cardio or running. They limit groups to 50 so that members, mostly young professionals, can build meaningful relationships.

Other brands bring people together by adopting strategies from wholly other sectors. Life Time launched a coworking concept that combines office spaces with its affordable health-club facility. Now available in a few select cities, the hybrid concept features leather couches and chic rugs alongside fitness equipment and curated monthly events.


Taking it one step further, some gyms reimagine themselves as social clubs. Newly opened clubs like Remedy Place in Los Angeles and Ghost in New York offer a high-end, members-only experience. At these luxury spots, clients drink adaptogen cocktails at herbal elixir “bars” and are encouraged to hang out in swanky lobbies far past their workout.

Bryant notes gyms will continue to blur the lines between what historically happened inside and outside the gym: “Gyms are starting to recognize that if they can turn it into a lifestyle for folks, their long-term retention is going to improve.”

Tech overload

In less than two years, what was once considered gimmicky is now the norm: Studios have quickly adopted heart rate monitors and wearables to hold clients accountable as well as to gamify sessions.

Orangetheory helped mainstream the use of in-class tech by broadcasting members’ stats—distance, calories burned—in real-time. Now a number of studios use activity trackers to give more data-driven insight not only during class, but throughout their gym history.


It’s  moved beyond the expected wrist tech and evolved into embedded equipment. CKO Kickboxing, for example, employs wearable punch trackers—measuring speed, intensity and punch count—in its franchise’s kickboxing classes.

Even workout-wear is getting a makeover: Smart performance wear (shirts, shoes, socks) equipped with sensor technology enhances movements. Asensei is one company developing apparel infused with sensors that detects posture, technique, and form to use data for real-time coaching. New York’s NOVA Fitness Innovation goes all in by centering the entire workout on cutting-edge tech. It relies on full-body suits harnessing electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to create involuntary contractions within one’s muscles.

In addition, more brands are considering ways to engage clients outside of class by launching their own streaming fitness apps, a market expected to grow to $10.9 billion by 2026. Big box gyms like Crunch and Anytime Fitness as well as small cult-fave studios like Lekfit and Tracy Anderson offer on-demand virtual training platforms.

A seamless approach

MindBody and ClassPass made fitness booking as simple as checking Instagram. But in the coming year, these platforms will do more than just let you schedule your workouts; they’ll anticipate your next wellness need or even introduce you to the next big thing in fitness.


MindBody‘s next iteration takes a more holistic approach by suggesting spa treatments—cryotherapy, infrared saunas, etc.—that pair with whatever exercise you’ve completed. It will leverage AI to analyze a member’s history to anticipate future or relevant interests, or perhaps even recommend new experiences in the neighborhood. Already, the app connects to more than 60,000 services spanning fitness, wellness, beauty, and alternative health modalities like acupuncture or meditation.

“Consumers today want a lot of variety,” says Amaya Weddle, MindBody VP of research & product marketing, noting a broad shift in the market where wellness is now packaged along with fitness. “Gyms always look for new revenue streams and recognize that by offering recovery workshops or partnering with other local studios in their area, they can just create more engagement with their consumers.”

It will also become far easier to engage with your studio. MINDBODY will soon simplify the entire gym-going experience by employing technology that ensures members no longer need to wait in line to check in for class or to buy a water bottle.

“These will basically fall into the background so that people can do really seamless transactions,” explains Weddle. “That way, they’ll be able to spend time forming relationships and servicing their customers versus being stuck behind a desk.”