Online Fitness and the Return to the Gym

Two Years makes a lot of difference

When we conducted our first annual Online Fitness Deep Dive study in 2020, news headlines were declaring that Peloton had killed the gym. We’re now on our third wave of the online fitness tracker, and the headlines have completely reversed themselves. What a difference two years makes!

What is the truth? We know from ongoing research and interviews with exercisers that online fitness apps, smart home gym equipment, and streaming workouts continue to play a big role in many fitness consumers’ routines. In fact, our latest Online Fitness Deep Dive report finds that a little more than 1 in 4 US adults uses some kind of online fitness resource at least monthly, and trial is higher than ever.

1 in 4 U.S. adults uses some type of online fitness resource once a month or more

However, online fitness participation does seem to have peaked, at least for now. Rather than continuing to rise, as seemed to be the case in 2021, online fitness participation leveled off as consumers returned to gyms in 2022, and now rises and falls with overall levels of fitness engagement. Basically, when Americans go on a health kick, they pick up online fitness again, just as they may pick up a gym membership or a daily walk. And when they fall off the wagon for a bit, online fitness participation goes down, along with other fitness activities.

2022 has been a time of exercise experimentation

Online fitness users tend to be highly engaged fitness consumers; exercise is important to them, they do it a lot, and they’re willing to spend on it. We already knew that most online fitness users are gym members – two-thirds of them, in fact. This number hasn’t changed since 2021, when many first experimented with returning to the gym. Since then, however, in-person fitness has come back in a big way as Americans put pandemic restrictions behind them. Consumers told us about experimenting with different gyms, studios, apps, activities, and schedules now that all their options are truly available.

In fact, many told us they feel like they have more options now than pre-pandemic, thanks to both online fitness and the fact that many created at-home gyms and exercise spaces for themselves. Online fitness at home has definitely broken many former gym buffs’ reliance on the gym. Even online fitness users who love the gym appreciate the convenience of being able to get a good workout at home. And for those who use it at the gym, online fitness has become a go-to source for workout plans, tips, tricks, advice, and learning, sometimes replacing the advice of trainers and staff.

So, it’s a great time to be a fitness consumer, but for reasons that make it a hard time to be in the fitness industry, with consumers spreading their dollars and workouts across more options.

Brand engagement is dominated by YouTube

In online fitness, another challenge is the sheer number of options available, and the dominance of one platform that isn’t even focused on fitness – YouTube. Low cost, easy to search, and with endless variety, YouTube continues to be the most popular online fitness platform, and is the most common starting point in the online fitness journey. Trial rates of its closest competitors, Apple Fitness+ and Facebook/Instagram (another free resource), are more than 10 percentage points lower. While Peloton beats it in terms of awareness of its fitness offerings, Peloton’s trial rates are less than half of YouTube’s.

Women and men approach online fitness differently

Unusual among the most popular online fitness brands, YouTube users are predominantly women. Women who use online fitness tend to be younger than the average male user, and they’re more likely to be looking for low-cost, at-home fitness solution. YouTube delivers on ease-of-use, variety, and the ability to customize your workout in terms of length, activities, intensity, and other criteria, often for free.

Most other big online fitness brands have user bases that skew male. Men are more willing to spend on online fitness – and indeed report much higher spending than women – but they also use more platforms on average and find online fitness less motivating. Whereas women are looking to bring down fitness barriers with online fitness, men are more interested in enhancing their workouts, and view their platforms more like personal trainers or workout buddies. For them, online fitness pushes them to do a bit more than they might by themselves, and they are more interested in platforms that mimic the gym in terms of offering social community, competition, and motivating instructors.

The future of online fitness

Online fitness is now an established resource in exercisers’ fitness toolkits, and among its users, it has absorbed a share of workouts that used to take place at the gym and become a go-to source of information and inspiration. The recent downturn in usage aligns with a downward trend across many fitness activities as Americans have become busier. However, as cold weather brings many exercisers indoors, and with a predicted wave of flu and Covid, we expect online fitness usage to pick up again. However, without innovations that appeal to exercisers beyond its current, highly fitness-engaged user base, online fitness’s rapid rise in popularity has likely plateaued.

For more information about State of Our Health, click here or email us at