The home fitness biz has been booming since late 2020, with Indians splurging on accessories and fitness equipment
Several startups that have recently entered the market are looking to trigger a disruption by offering a differentiated product—one that is not available on any e-commerce site
Although he is a long-time marathoner and CrossFitter, Sandeep Sharma, 37, ended up gaining 10 kilograms (kgs) after gyms were forced to shut following the nationwide lockdown in the spring of 2020 in India. Once the restrictions eased, he knew that the gym was no longer a viable option. Instead, Sharma, who was based in Rajasthan’s Jaipur city last year, started investing in a home gym set-up. “I have spent around ₹6 lakh in the last one year. I have actively started taking online training as it offers flexibility and peace of mind (in my daily routine). I don’t think I’m going back to a gym," he said.
Sharma’s new residence—a 3BHK (bedroom, hall and kitchen) apartment in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh—has all the equipment one might need to set up a home gym, including weights, dumbbells, machines and a smart bike. There are many other Indians who have arrived at the same conclusion as Sharma.
Since late 2020, the home-fitness business has been on a wild ride, with Indians spending heavily on sports apparel, accessories and fitness equipment, ranging from dumbbells and resistance bands to yoga mats.
GoPaisa, an online cashback platform with 3.5 million users, dug through its transactional data to find that health and fitness is among the top five categories driving online purchases in 2021. Fitness bands, for instance, have registered a 400% growth, according to the GoPaisa survey.
There has been a ripple effect on electronic wearables too. “Fitness wearables like headphones have approximately grown 150%; smartwatches by 470% over the last one year," said Ayyappan Rajagopal, chief business officer, Myntra, an online fashion shopping platform.
In March 2021, there were 20% more downloads across apps in the health and fitness category compared to the prior month, according to mobile and data analytics company App Annie. The firm’s global report stated that 2020 saw about 71,000 new fitness and health apps being launched, marking a 13% rise over 2019.
What many had initially assumed to be a temporary arrangement has now slowly turned into a fundamental behavioural shift. Whether Indians go back to their offices soon or not, it seems the other WFH—workout from home—is here to stay, especially in the metros.
Understandably, retailers are counting on the fact that the spurt in sales of fitness equipment may last for a while. While sports retailers such as Decathlon and HRX have been busy stocking up, several smaller firms that have entered the sports market in recent months are looking to trigger disruption across categories. The aim is to offer a differentiated product— one that is not available on any e-commerce site.
Product innovation is already taking off in some verticals. After all, installing fitness equipment inside a cramped house is a unique challenge. Thus, at a time when gyms and the organized fitness industry have only been sporadically active, a slew of startups are showing a sudden interest in the segment.
Fitness technology startup Flexnest was launched by a husband-wife duo— Rhea and Raunaq Singh Anand—a couple of months into pandemic. They noticed a curious gap in the fitness equipment market in India. Rhea Singh Anand said that people either had to rely on Amazon or import prohibitively expensive equipment from the US. To serve this underserved market, Flexnest began selling 10 to 12 products in January 2021, comprising light dumbbells, kinet cable pullers, yoga mats, recovery bands, blocks and foam rollers. However, what set them apart from existing players was their adjustable flexibells and flexikettles, whose weights can be adjusted based on the user’s need (anywhere from 2.5kg to 24kg).
“Even in a Decathlon, they don’t carry products that are especially designed for home use. What one would get are the iron dumbbells which are used in gyms. Our dumbbells are not bulky and can be adjusted. They can be used by multiple members in the same family depending on their strength and requirements. They are also aesthetically designed," said Rhea of Flexnest. Beyond basic equipment such as weights, consumer interest is surging in some new categories including smart bikes. Recently, Flexnest launched a Bluetooth-enabled smart bike called Flexbike.
Sensing the huge potential in this category, in June 2021, hybrid fitness chain Cult.fit acquired the Bengaluru-based connected fitness startup—Tread—that has launched a smart fitness bike, often dubbed as India’s answer to the popular US bike brand Peloton. However, Tread bike is designed specifically for India. It is said to have a smaller footprint and is movable. The smart bike comes with a movable screen. When one is not using the bike, the same screen can be used as a TV to live stream fitness classes.
Cult.fit’s acquisition of Tread is strategic. It is supposed to help the firm, already in the middle of a digital transition, launch its hardware-at-home business vertical—a potentially large business segment that is yet to take off in a big way in India.
There’s a huge penetration of home gym equipment (treadmill/spinning bike/ bench press/row machines/squat machines) in Western and Chinese markets, said Shamik Sharma, head of digital health at Cult.fit. Almost 30-40% of the homes in the West actually have some form of home fitness equipment.
“In India, it is still an early-stage market which is currently confined to largely premium households. Having said that, it is soon going to become commonplace for Indian homes to have fitness equipment too," Sharma said. Cult.fit is currently focusing on Indian consumers and building products that will cater to the country’s specific conditions. “Tread is our first product, but we envision a long suite of products that will fulfil all other use cases," he added.
Creating virtual communities
Manorama Pandey, 50, who used to religiously follow her routine for evening walks, has been homebound for the last few months. The diabetic homemaker, hailing from Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh was recently introduced to online yoga classes by her daughter who had moved back home to work remotely. “Now, I regularly do live yoga classes with my daughter. I’m not conscious about working out anymore because no one is watching me. These classes have helped improved my back pain and lethargy," she added.
Clearly, live and on demand content seems to be playing a huge part in driving the business of online fitness platforms. Experts say that while a humongous amount of fitness content is available for free online, watching a YouTube video is not as motivating as working out in a class format with others.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we have realized that people don’t just want to access content on their own, but they are (also) looking for class format content. That’s why we created an online training vertical called Cult Live," said Cult.fit’s Sharma. Cult Live currently offers cardio, dance, yoga, strength and conditioning, and meditation. It is interactive, live and often offers immediate feedback to its users. That is what many users missed during the pandemic—a social workout experience. The presence of such virtual communities is a big reason behind the rapid adoption of at-home fitness.
Backed by celebrities such as Malaika Arora Khan, yoga and wellness startup Sarva Yoga, for instance, transitioned completely into a digital business during the pandemic. Sarva has only two physical studios in Mumbai and Chennai—the capital of Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, respectively. “In the last 15 months, over 750,000 people accessed our app. They have completed 4 billion live classes," Sarvesh Shashi, founder, Sarva and Diva Yoga. Sarva currently offers on-demand content and pre-recoded content, as well as live content for goal-based programmes and one-on-one training. The average time spent on the yoga firm’s website is 25 minutes and on the app, it is 10 minutes.
Paid users on the platform get access to guided goal-based programmes such as yoga for those diagnosed with polycystic ovarian disease (PCOD) or diabetes, and written content on various topics—different asanas, wellness tips and nutritional guidance—through the website. The monthly plan starts from ₹550 on the app.
Sequoia-backed Fiitr, a Pune-based digital fitness and wellness startup, started live personal training during the lockdown. During the initial months of the lockdown, although there weren’t many paid members, the company claims engagement levels were off the chart—registering a 200% growth in the number of users exploring the app or accessing the videos. “As people realized this is the new norm, we also witnessed a spike in our paid user base. Currently, Fittr has over 200,000 paid users, of which 75,000 have switched to paid membership in FY2020-21 alone," said Sonal Singh, co-founder and director, Fittr.
The community angle, said Dipanjan Basu, partner and chief financial officer at Fireside Ventures, keeps people connected and motivated. This would ensure that online fitness becomes more of a permanent change because one can share their progress with friends, he said. Fireside Ventures has invested in Sarva Yoga.
Basu also said that this shift has already taken place in other countries. US-based exercise tracking platforms such as Strava and Nike Run have created communities of like-minded fitness enthusiasts. People are willing to pay for an engaged fitness experience. “This is a permanent shift that has happened in Indian consumer mindset as well," Basu said. “Peloton’s real revenue is coming from the app. It’s an interesting shift in the Indian landscape when companies like Sarva or Cult.fit venture down the path of building a community to create shared experiences," he added.
Future is hybrid
With covid-induced restrictions easing across the country, gyms in several states have been allowed to reopen. However, restrictions on timings and footfalls remain. Although many branded gym chains were left bruised in what had been a rather disruptive year due the pandemic, they claim that business is already reviving, and the offline fitness industry is not going anywhere.
“I already see a surge in footfalls. I feel the future is hybrid. It would be largely physical (85%), with a healthy dose of digital (15%)," said Nikhil Kakkar, chief operating officer at fitness chain Gold’s Gym. “Going to a gym is also about socializing, making friends and doing business. People will definitely hit the gym. We are extremely bullish and confident about it."
Gold’s Gym, which currently operates 150 gyms across 95 cities, said that its focus is now on tier II and III towns, where expansion is underway. Grand Slam Fitness, a premium fitness equipment firm, also claimed that tier II and III towns are showing a demand boom with more people expressing interest in starting a brand new gym facility.
“The way Indians perceive covid and the threat level is different in tier I versus tier II and III towns," said Prateek Sood, director, Grand Slam Fitness. “While in tier I (towns), (our) commercial sales died completely, smaller towns have done an exceptional amount of business. (This is) because (of two reasons): one, their level of fear is less and secondly, they don’t have the resources to invest in a home gym." Sood also said that small towns such as Moga in Punjab, Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and Patna in Bihar are all emerging hubs for gyms, with new facilities coming up rapidly.
According to Cult.fit’s Sharma, the offline business is bound to return but it will mostly be driven by gym goers falling under the age bracket of 25–35 years. Meanwhile, the online platform will facilitate the offering of workout and fitness routines to a more diverse user base—from 15 to 50 years—including homemakers, new mothers, and older people who don’t fit into the offline gym goer’s segment.
“Overtime, I believe that there will be three kinds of users—people who will go (for a) workout only in a gym, users who will prefer at-home workouts and a third bucket (comprising users who) will (prefer a) mix (of ) the two. Therefore, fitness firms will have to stick to the hybrid approach," he added.
The biggest untapped opportunity in India, however, is in the mental wellness space. Depression and sleep deprivation is at its peak and has become acute because of the pandemic. Small homes, job and income loss, and rising economic stress are all factors that have amplified the need for effective mental wellness services.
“It has been a suppressed category," said Fireside Venture’s Basu. “Mental wellness is going to be a big proposition in the country. We will soon witness companies leveraging this untapped opportunity as well."
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