- As people seek gym alternatives and stress relief during the pandemic, they’re turning to fitness influencers for inspiration.
- While many influencers are struggling and gym chains are closing down locations permanently, fitness influencers have hit the sweet spot with a business model that blends the two.
- Business Insider spoke with six fitness influencers who share content across mobile apps, YouTube, and Instagram. They all said they’ve seen a boom in engagement.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A sweet Riesling is best paired with a smoked sausage or spicy Thai curry, but Caitie Aiton prefers to keep hers bottled and served with a set of bicep curls.
“It’s a different kind of workout,” the 27-year-old receptionist, who lives in northern California, told Business Insider. “I wouldn’t say you can’t get the results you want at home, you just have to work a little bit harder.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic spread through the U.S., Aiton had her workout down to a science. She’d hit her local gym, Fit Republic, three days a week to lift weights and run on the treadmill. Two days a week, she’d tune into at-home HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts streamed on a popular YouTube channel called Blogilates. But as self-isolation measures remain in place in many states, Aiton and her fellow fitness enthusiasts across the country have been forced to make working out at home work — even if it means using wine bottles as weight substitutes.
Enter: fitness influencers.
As individuals around the world seek gym alternatives and stress relief, they’ve turned to YouTube channels, online workout programs, and Instagram videos to stay fit. Established fitness influencers like Cassey Ho and emerging fitness stars like Taylor Dilk alike have picked up the part of the day that people would ordinarily be spending in the gym.
Business Insider spoke to six fitness influencers around the world to see how the shift in demand has been affecting them. Whether the core of their business is focused on YouTube, Instagram, or paid memberships, they all described a boom in demand.
The golden age of demand for YouTube fitness influencers
Some of the best-known fitness influencers today got their start on YouTube nearly a decade ago.
For Aiton, the transition to YouTube workouts has been a smooth one thanks to Cassey Ho, the fitness instructor behind Blogilates. Aiton has temporarily bid farewell to Fit Republic and suspended the $123 she’d previously doled out to the gym every year. Now, she tunes into Ho’s videos five times a week. The HIIT workouts, Aiton said, “work everything and make you work up a sweat like crazy.”
The channel’s free Pilates and bootcamp sculpting videos have garnered it a cult following of 5 million users. Aiton’s not a newcomer — she’s been a part-time Blogilates user for seven years, but Ho’s summer slim down series and HIIT workouts have become the full-time antidote to her gym withdrawals.
And Aiton isn’t the only who has been using Blogilates as a much-needed outlet during quarantine. Ho told Business Insider she’s seen “a huge surge” of activity across all of Blogilates’ social media platforms, particularly on YouTube.
Before Ho, a certified group fitness instructor and Pilates mat and Reformer teacher, became a worldwide fitness favorite, she was a hit with her students in the Bay Area, where she designed and taught POP Pilates classes that fused classical Pilates moves with pop music. When she moved across the country to Boston in 2009, she uploaded a farewell workout video to YouTube for her class.
Fast forward ten years and that single workout video has become Blogilates, a channel that now boasts 714 videos that run about five to 30 minutes in length. She and her bright aesthetic star in all of them. Whether she’s leading a waist whittler routine or a total body stretch, Ho is often clad in cotton-candy pastels with a matching Pilates mat.
On March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, daily video views on Blogilates’ YouTube channel hovered around 250,000, according to analytics viewed by Business Insider. Over the following six weeks, daily video views doubled. They now steadily stand in the 500,000 to 750,000 daily video view range.
A screenshot of Blogilates’ internal YouTube analytics over the past 90 days, which Business Insider reviewed, also shows a steady jump in the rate at which the channel has been acquiring subscribers during the pandemic. From late January to early March, daily subscribers never exceeded 3,000 per day. From late March to the end of April, they never dropped below 3,000 new subscribers a day. At its peak, the channel acquired 8,000 subscribers in a single day.
Like Ho, Kelli and Daniel Segars founded Fitness Blender, their 6-million-plus subscriber YouTube channel, more than a decade ago. The married couple launched the channel as a side project for extra income in 2008 during the Great Recession. It has since turned into an 886-video platform featuring workouts that range from five to 90 minutes — typically around 30 minutes — in which one Segar or the other leads viewers through a variety of exercises.
And, also like Ho, they’ve seen an upswing in activity on the platform during the pandemic. On March 11, they received nearly 1,200 new YouTube subscribers, according to analytics the couple provided to Business Insider. Less than a week later, on March 16, the daily number of new subscribers jumped up to 2,400.
In the week after the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, their daily video views more than doubled from 287,163 to 613,482. And the views didn’t just hit a new high — they maintained that high. Throughout April, daily video views have fluctuated around the 750,000 to 950,000 view range.
Demand for paid memberships and training guides is surging
While one-off videos are surging in popularity, their more regimented counterparts — multi-week workout programs and training guides — are also seeing a spike.
Consider Adriene Mishler, whose Yoga with Adriene channel has become one of the runaway stars of home workouts during the pandemic thanks to her friendly demeanor and slow-paced style. The decade-old YouTube channel, which lays claim to the single most-Googled workout of 2015, has seen engagement soar during the pandemic.
The channel currently boasts over 7 million subscribers. Pre-pandemic, it typically acquired new subscribers at an average rate of 3,000 subscribers a day, her cofounder and business partner Chris Sharpe told Business Insider. Today, it’s seeing an average of 20,000 new subscribers a day.
In the first months of 2020, the channel was typically drawing around 500,000 daily viewers, according to YouTube analytics Business Insider reviewed. In mid-March, viewership climbed up to 1 million daily viewers. Throughout April, the channel drew a relatively steady — and whopping — 1.5 million daily viewers.
Even so, Sharpe and Mishler don’t factor YouTube — which they can’t control and where revenue comes mainly from ads — into their business plan or financial forecast. Instead, Sharpe said, the core of their business is the $9.99-a-month membership program, Find What Feels Good. Along with premium courses and exclusive weekly content, it features their entire yoga library and none of YouTube’s ads.
Longer-term workout programs are also available on personal training apps.
One of the most well-known personal training apps is the SWEAT App, which costs $19.99 a month or $119.94 a year. The app has 150 weeks’ worth of content across a variety of workout styles, including interval training, yoga, cardio, and powerlifting.
The programs are geared towards women and curated by five trainers, the most famous of which is Kayla Itsines, who founded the app with Pearce. They have attracted an online fitness community exceeding 50 million, according to its website.
Tobi Pearce, CEO of the platform, told Business Insider that many of the app’s followers are hungry for at-home and equipment-free programming. Delivering those programs has the made the transition to home workouts relatively seamless for users.
Prior to the pandemic, Hannah Brewton, a 27-year-old choir teacher, was working her way through Kelsey Wells’ beginner PWR program, which alternates cardio and strength workouts with a focus on gym machines. When the pandemic hit, she just switched to Wells’ at-home program. The biggest difference is that nowadays, she’s using her piano bench for step-ups and decline push-ups.
A post shared by KELSEY WELLS (@kelseywells)
Fitness Instagrammers are seeing a change in demand, but not necessarily more of it
When quarantine began, fitness Instagrammer Emily Ricketts made a personal commitment: She would use the time indoors to challenge herself. Specifically, she told Business Insider, she would nail the art of the handstand and would build her way up to doing more push-ups. She took to her Instagram Stories to share those goals, and, as she tells it, her direct messages were “flooded with home workout requests.”
The London-based personal trainer said that before the pandemic, she typically filmed three to four strength workouts a week at the gym and shared them on her Instagram page, which has 190,000 followers.
Her output hasn’t changed during the pandemic, but she’s shifted to filming at-home workouts that are accessible to everyone. That includes encouraging viewers to “use things like bags of sugar or water bottles in place of weights if they don’t have any.”
A post shared by EM | Home Workouts 💪🏻 (@emrickettz)
Taylor Chamberlain Dilk, a fitness influencer who posts workout videos on her Instagram two to three times a week, told Business Insider she’s also received feedback from her 779,000 followers requesting at-home workouts. Prior to quarantine, she typically posted bodyweight workouts in the gym. She would also occasionally share at-home every minute on the minute (EMOM) workouts, in which one begins a different exercise repetition at the top of every minute.
EMOM workouts are now the focus of her Instagram channel. She thinks people are drawn to them because they can be completed at home in less than 45 minutes.
“They’re quick, efficient, and accessible, and can still drastically change metabolisms and bodies without having to go to a gym or spend hours in the weight room,” she said.
If the increased activity on Dilk’s and Ricketts’ Instagrams says anything, it’s that people are tuning into videos as alternatives to cardio machines and the weight room.
Both Kelli of Fitness Blender and Pearce of the SWEAT app have noticed similar trends. Kelli said that on YouTube, the biggest viewership jump has been on no-equipment workout videos, specifically for strength training and HIIT. Pearce said the app has seen a spike in users of Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide program, which consist of 28-minute HIIT workouts, and Kelsey Wells’ PWR program, which focuses on resistance training.
A post shared by Taylor Chamberlain Dilk (@taychayy)
For others, fitness influencers have become a source of anxiety relief and a way to stretch their limbs after working from home all day.
Lauren Friedman, a 28-year-old publicist quarantining in Florida, never used to consider herself a yogi. When the pandemic struck, her only workout equipment consisted of an exercise mat and so, she told Business Insider, she turned to yoga. She first heard of Yoga with Adriene through a friend, and was drawn toward the videos because they target specific parts of the body and can typically be completed in under 30 minutes — a win, Friedman says, for her short attention span.
Her workout routine was “pretty sparse” before the pandemic, consisting of a cycling class or two on the weekend and trying to go to the gym during the week — even though, as she put it, “I have to admit, that rarely happened.”
Nowadays, she’s working out more than she used to, but her focus is less on intense cardio and more on rejuvenation.
“Yoga with Adriene is my girl,” she said.
All the influencers Business Insider spoke to remained mum on the topic of how their increased views translate to money and refused to provide exact income figures. But as far as keeping businesses afloat during the pandemic goes, they have all found themselves better equipped for the times than both gyms and other influencers have.
Many of them haven’t had to make significant changes to their content strategy. The YouTubers have been tapped into home fitness from the beginning and have built up years of content. The Instagrammers are filming similar workouts to their pre-pandemic repertoire, albeit in new locations.
Some of them are removing the cost barriers associated with their workouts or running specials to entice new members. The SWEAT app partnered with the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund to offer one month free for new members. Dilk cut prices on her at-home EMOM workout program from $24.99 to $19.99. Kelli and Daniel of Fitness Blender put several of their four-week programs on sale at $4.50, down from $14.99.
A post shared by KAYLA ITSINES (@kayla_itsines)
Several influencers told Business Insider their videos aren’t just helping viewers find alternatives to their gym routines. As they see it, their home workout routines also function as a coping mechanism for viewers. In Daniel’s words, workout videos “provide a sense of normalcy for people.”
“My goal right now is to remind people more than ever that exercise and movement is vital for mental health,” Ricketts said.
Science backs them up. Research has found that those who stay active tend to be happier. And more recent research suggests that exercise may protect against acute respiratory distress syndrome, a top cause of death among COVID-19 patients.
However, there are certain benefits of going to the gym that home workout videos, despite the best efforts of the influencers who have been cranking out content, just can’t replace.
Brewton, the choir teacher, said that even though the at-home SWEAT app program is changing her muscle definition, it just doesn’t motivate her as much as the gym does.
“I really miss the gym,” she said. “I get a lot of energy and I push myself more when I’m around other people who are working out, and I miss being able to challenge myself with heavier weights.”
For the most part, though, the fitness influencers’ efforts to keep people active seem to be working.
“I’m not sure why it took the end of the world to get me into fitness, but I am loving it,” Friedman, the Florida publicist, said. “It gives me something to look forward to, which I never thought I’d say about working out.”