At first glance, classes and group training seem to have the structure that adapts most easily with advances in technology. For years, class and small group formats have incorporated at least some aspects of current technology. From the evolution of class music and mics, to equipment, timers, feedback monitors and other visual stimulation meant to inspire and motivate, participants are conditioned to have some tech with their training. But how does the significant shift in how we use technology today affect the group experience?
- Identify technology-influenced changes in our world with a potential impact on areas related to the group training and class experience.
- Understand how these changes present new challenges and opportunities to instructors and participants.
- Explore simple strategies and adjustments for adapting the class and group training structure to capitalize on technology-influenced changes.
The past several years has brought about acceleration in our everyday use and dependence on technology. With increased use, comes a change in our habits, our lifestyle and, thus, our culture. As we’ve explained in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, these changes in the way we interact with technology in turn alter the course of our interactions with each other and impact the way our brains process and retain information. Now, after exploring the bigger picture in Part 1 and looking at the one-on-one dynamic in Part 2, we take our examination to the studio.
What influence does current technology have on our clients’ group experience, our own experience with our groups, and the class itself?
In Part 3, we’ll look at the impact on a broad scope of aspects involved in group training and group classes:
- That elusive “group experience” which can be hard to put into words and is a combination of exercise science and social contact
- Aspects including our desire for camaraderie and validation
- The connection with the teacher
- Goal setting
- Our ability to learn, retain and integrate new skills
Best practice recommendations will be shared for adaptations that could enhance session outcomes in today’s techno-laden landscape.
Is Change Really Happening That Fast?
According to a 2015 report by ICT Data and Statistics Division of Switzerland’s International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Development Bureau:
- There were 738 million mobile phone cellular subscriptions in 2000. By the end 2015, more than 7 billion mobile cellular subscriptions exist, which translates to a penetration rate of 97%.
- Between 2000-2015, global Internet penetration grew 7-fold from 6.5% to 43%.
In fact, there are now more mobile phones being used than there are people in the world. Couple those statistics with the findings that most people check their phones 150 times a day and additional research that reports users spend 177 minutes on their phones per day and the potential for our attention to be divided is clear (Kleiner et al., 2013; Flurry Analytics 2014).
Technology-Influenced Changes and Their Potential Impact
Considering the technological advances and the resulting adaptations in our cultural and social norms, the class and small group experience are changing for both the instructor and the participant. Trends come and go for many reasons, technology notwithstanding, and given the accelerated pace of developing devices and platforms, our adaptations in the studio to emerging technology all around us are even more pronounced.
George Vafiades, co-owner of AsOne Fitness Studios in New York City, has seen a dramatic change in not only the HIIT class experience, but in virtually all aspects of his business (personal communication, November 1, 2016). Responding to the shifts he attributes to the impact of technology, George outlines in the audio clip below a range of changes he and his partner have made and continue to make in everything from class structure and design, to marketing and their business model.
How Do We Make the Most of the Changes in Our Businesses?
Let’s take a closer look through the scope of technology-influenced changes from the standpoint of practical strategies we can use to make the most of the group experience in today’s world.
In-Class Etiquette & Attention Span
Picking up a personal device during class, like a smartphone, has become more prevalent and therefore more acceptable. Some gyms and instructors have adopted a policy to discourage phone use during class. In any case, as Vafiades points out in the audio above, participants are less engaged within a class setting than they were a few years ago. Some instructors have come to embrace the change by filming segments of their class and posting them (sometimes in real time) on social media. See the section in Cueing and Motivation for ways to incorporate the social media impulses into the class as a motivation method and in Part 4 of this series, we’ll share what other instructors and trainers have found effective in getting people to put down their devices so they can engage more fully.
Format: Class/Interval/Recovery Length
Brent Gallagher, owner of the Texas-based Avenu Fitness, centers his brand on a format of 30 minute workouts (personal communication, September 6, 2016).
Whereas long sequences were often used as the basis of many conditioning and cardio class formats just a few years ago, intervals, short and frequent, have become more prevalent in class formatting. The added benefit of shorter, more replicable intervals is it gives time for participants to master their form and perform the workout safely, even if it is new. Vafiades notes that his clientele comes with the express purpose of “getting in and getting out as fast as possible. A few years ago, our class intervals were 3-4 minutes each, now the max is 90 seconds. We adjusted for the reduced attention span by making intervals shorter to keep everyone engaged.”
In addition to keeping a quick pace, constant motion and utilizing more active recovery, (static recovery following very intense bouts), Vafiades says their preferred class lengths are now 30 and 45 minutes.
Independent studios are not the only ones shortening class length. Known industry chains such as 24 Hour Fitness, Equinox, Lifetime, Les Mills, Curves, Crunch, David Barton, Soul Cycle, YMCA/YWCA all offer classes of under an hour. Some schedules have more 30-minute classes than 60-minute classes. There are even instances of 15 minute classes, like the mindfulness class given at Crunch. Often, these classes aim to capture the audience of those who want a “taste of group” to add to their own workout or just a short additional class to take before or after their chosen, longer class.
Gallagher responded to trends by focusing his business model for Avenu Fitness on saving time through 30 minute workouts and keeping people motivated through events and social media. Why? Because as Gallagher puts it, “we need to recognize and respect that we will succeed in this world that is constantly speeding up and growing frustrated by how busy they are becoming.”
The shift to shorter classes is evidence of the growing demand to cater to participants who wish to spend less time in the gym, or to feel they can accomplish several things in the gym (i.e multiple classes or a self-workout and class combination) without feeling like they are spending multiple hours in a day to do it.
Goal Setting & Learning/Skill Acquisition/Exercise Design
Given that participants’ goals nowadays are more centered on getting a great workout in the moment and getting in and out as fast as possible, there is less focus on long-term learning and complex skill acquisition. These may still be gained through participation over time, but for their instructors, the focus has shifted to creating workouts that can be performed safely and enjoyably in short spurts at any time throughout the year by participants at any skill/fitness level. While their goal of giving the best possible class for that day has not changed over the years, Vafiades notes that instructors are being called upon less for personal contact and depth of getting to know why the participants are there and why they will they come back.
Gallagher encourages the use of technology to help clients with skill acquisition. “When we lay out learning styles: everyone is unique. We all have a preference that I feel is only enhanced by technology. If you’re a visual learner, there’s YouTube and Instagram. If you’re an auditory learner, there are podcasts, books and college courses offered online.” These platforms are additional avenues for instructors to reach participants before and after class, with tips, form cues and motivational messages.
Cueing and Motivation
Speaking of motivation, after noticing that cues to perform exercises over time (for as many “clean” reps as his participants could for one or two minutes) was becoming increasingly off-putting, Vafiades found that cueing them for a set number of reps instead was much more effective. The time under tension for the set remained the same, but participants were more willing:
Twenty reps would take the same amount of time as what we had been cueing, but by cueing number of reps, instead of a unit of time, people were more motivated to finish the set. When we cued by time, they would dread the interval, assuming it was too long or stop part of the way through.
Vafiades also stressed the importance of positive feedback, even before a skill is mastered:
Years ago, people expected that it would take them awhile to perform an exercise well enough to receive praise. Now, if we don’t give positive reinforcement as they learn, they often get discouraged and won’t be as apt to push themselves or feel good about the effort they are making.
With the rise of social media interaction, participants often turn to their phones as well as wearables for instantaneous feedback. Data from wearables has made tracking performance and progress easy, if not consistent. The variety in platforms can make comparisons within class challenging but, as Vafiades points out, “most people are less concerned with what the other people in class are doing than they are with their own performance and of their friends on social media.” Building in a moment during rest intervals so those who wish can Tweet their interval performance or Snapchat their squat can satisfy the impulse to connect digitally without interrupting the flow of class.
Also, to cater to the craving for additional stimuli, multimedia use during class can be used to appeal to those who expect more stimulation. Screens can project video footage and motivational phrases while the music plays over speakers, giving the studio, giving a lively and stimuli-rich atmosphere.
Marketing and Business Model to Meet the Shift in Class Culture
While class size seems to be less affected by our increased use of technology, Vafiades says that studios like AsOne Fitness are noticing a shift in “who is coming, why they are coming, and how frequently they plan to participate.” Given that the consumers’ goals center on their experience in the moment, the emphasis is less on whether they will be back next week and the marketing goal for independent class studio owners becomes more focused on whether they will become a staple in their monthly rotation of classes.
Vafiades also notes that the class culture in his studio has become more transient. Apps like ClassPass and Groupon have given rise to “group fitness grazers” who frequently rotate their experience, dropping in with no commitment.
Building a following nowadays is often reliant on the instructor or studio’s social media savvy. With a more transient membership base, the upside is that word of mouth often brings new clientele. “People may take our class a few times a month now rather than twice a week, but they are sharing more of what they do in class with more of their friends, and that means their friends come to class too. We see some of our people fewer times in a week, but we see more people overall,” says Vifiades.
In large gyms, the situation is different. Members may rotate participating in various classes throughout the gym, rather than supplementing with classes in other studios. Streaming virtual classes seems to be another possibility on the horizon. In addition to known virtual workout brands like Workouts on Demand or Beach Body, brick and mortar brands like Les Mills and Crunch stream on-demand workouts that encourage users to take class right in their home.
As with one-on-one training, no virtual experience can replicate the energy and interaction of a live experience. Instructors can have tremendous impact by their very presence. Whether it is over a 30-, 45- or 60-minute period, if we, the instructors, continue to draw on our ability to connect people and mobilize a room, group training and classes will continue to evolve with the times. The format’s ability to inspire people to surpass their own expectations and to connect with each other may look different in today’s technology laden landscape, but they are core elements to the group experience all the same.
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