As we venture into another January crush in gyms worldwide, with people eager to run off that extra mince pie or lift their way out of the pool of brandy cream they waded into somewhere around the 28th December, fitness professionals come out of hibernation ready to feast on the influx of a new batch of novice health conscious humans.

These people are ready to spend their last remaining pennies on employing someone to get that beach body ready by any means necessary. However, increasingly these spare pennies are being spent on tech not trainers. In 2014 5 million units (Statista, 2019a) of smart watches were sold. This number increased by 380% in 2015 and in just three years it rocketed further still to 43.5 million in 2018 (Statista, 2019b). What’s more, the trend isn’t showing signs of stopping and industry predictions show that by 2022 unit sales are predicted to more than double again on last year to 89.1 million (Statista, 2019b). 

It has been well documented that activity trackers engage the user effectively, by utilising the need for fulfilment as a theoretical lens and providing instant visual interpretation of output (Karapanos et. al., 2016). It may also come as no shock that even the most popular trackers see a drop-off rate of over 50% within 2 weeks of use (Asimakopoulos et. al., 2017). 

We then find ourselves back at square one, with almost 22 million people that have fallen out of love with their fitness tracker quicker than dry January becomes boring. A good percentage of the remaining faithful will often be seen in a quiet room of the office or sat at the back of the bus frantically shaking their wearables, in the hope they might fool the algorithm into an extra few steps! 

Onto this number add the professional and trained athletes that live in a world that will in the next decade be defined by technology (Lindzon, 2015). What these cases highlight to me is that while I don’t believe technology is a threat to the fitness professionals, athletes and participants alike have access to information that just 15 years ago would have required thousands of pounds of technology and skilled sports scientists to produce. This is placing an ever-growing demand on the industry to develop, adapt and upskill itself. The socially mobile and connected society we live in has placed a greater emphasis on quality and expertise. 

With the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs) growing this year by 10% the industry shows no sign of slowing down. Combine this with an increasingly informed client base, the fitness industry is a fiercely competitive place. 2019 needs to be the year that existing personal trainers look at what opportunities there are to expand their horizons, deepen their knowledge and grow their client base. Thirty three per cent of fitness professionals recently surveyed said they had more than 20 years’ experience (Thompson, 2018). Then consider newcomers to the industry: how are they to build a client base when the trainer beside them has 19 years’ more experience. Thompson (2018) also highlights that in the same group surveyed, a further 33% indicated this was their second job, again highlighting the attraction the industry has.

How are others looking to upskill?

A prime example of people realising the advantage of continued professional development (CPD) is Oxford Brookes University, which has been offering its Sport & Coaching Science students REPs Level 2 and 3 personal training qualifications, through the degree+ programme that is endorsed by PD:Approval.

It implemented this extra qualification just a year ago and has already seen a rise in students being offered industry-specific work placements. The reason for this increase is accredited to more than just the vocational aspect of the qualifications. While the qualifications themselves have merit, it is the continued and broad range of skills that the students learn while studying that really give them the edge. Alongside the newly introduced personal training qualifications, Oxford Brookes University has also reacted to the prevalence of technology within sport and now offer a module across all its sports degree pathways that allow students to explore the benefits and opportunities that technology presents. It feels it is important to encourage fitness professional to embrace the rapid evolution of technology.

Oxford Brookes University has really embraced the opportunity that industry-specific qualifications present to higher education. Over the last year it has been developing a brand new degree that will welcome its inaugural cohort in September 2020. This degree was designed in answer to the national health and wellbeing crisis. The National Health Service and Public Health England have developed policy and agendas relating to increasing people’s physical activity levels and promoting healthy lifestyle choices at every avenue, from local community approaches to national level programmes (Lloyd and Wyatt, 2015). Alongside this, degree students will work towards REPs Level 3 GP exercise referral and Level 4 qualifications in obesity & diabetes, cancer and back pain. The students that are produced from this honours degree programme will join a select community of fitness professionals that have chosen to specialise.

What are the barriers to CPD?

There are obvious hurdles to encouraging more people to progress on to higher levels of CPD. First and foremost is the previously mentioned thriving industry sector. Why would anyone spend money on additional courses when they are very successfully running a personal training business that is already oversubscribed? This is a valid argument for now, however, what we are focusing on here is the ability to future-proof your business and adapt to the industry trends we are likely to face.

There will always be an elite group of fitness professionals who report earnings of £100,000 plus (Thompson, 2018), but the real work, within a rapidly growing sector, is the painful lack of opportunity available to people within lower socio-economic environment to access bespoke fitness services. Sullivan and Lachman (2017) comment on how wearable fitness technology is now a popular way for lower income families to measure and motivate themselves. Just like fitness professionals, some of the most affordable equipment uses behaviour change techniques such as goal-setting, feedback, rewards and social factors to elicit a response. Factor in to this the ever decreasing cost of this technology, running almost parallel with its continued advancements in usability and intelligence (Saracco, 2017), and the result is a very attractive product at an even more attractive price.

The reason that the lower socioeconomic status of potential clients is important is because a lot of the opportunities that are presented as CPD pathways stem from medical conditions, most of which have a higher prevalence within this population (Pampel et. al., 2010). Currently, however, the popular option amongst the fitness professionals I speak to is to take CPD courses with a view to charging a premium within private gyms, populated by a higher socioeconomic group.

The right decision from a business standpoint is for a degree of pressure to be applied to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) who are responsible for allocating budgets to GP exercise referral centres. This scheme allows GPs to prescribe exercise as medicine that is then carried out within approved gyms by the relevant and qualified professionals.

The catch 22 situation that we are presented with here is that while some CCGs do allocate budget for exercise referral schemes, there are still an overwhelming number that don’t. Furthermore, after recently consulting a number of GPs it is also clear that most aren’t aware of how the schemes work and a few are still unconvinced about the process of prescribing exercise. Without a clear opportunity to grow their business, fitness professionals won’t be able to see the return on investment (ROI) that the extra qualification presents. On the other hand, if the CCGs can’t justify the expense because of the lack of qualified persons then this is always going to be an uphill battle.

A case study – where is technology going?

The growing pressure that a combination of people living longer, inactivity and poor general health choices, such as smoking and fast food, is putting on the National Health Service (NHS) (NHS 2014, Public Health England, 2016) is well documented, all of which have conditions that manifest themselves in areas of specially developed Level 4 CPD. For example, elderly people are at increased risk of falls, lower socioeconomic populations are more prone to smoking, inactivity can lead to obesity and diabetes and some lifestyle choices can lead to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or cardiac diseases.

Another area that is available to personal trainers, after GP exercise referral, is a Level 4 in cancer rehabilitation. Oxford Brookes University currently has two masters by research projects where completion of this qualification is required. The funding for this has been generously donated by Brookes Sport. The supervisors of the projects felt that it was the only course that would give the students a real insight into the practical implementation of exercise as medicine.

One of these projects explores the possibility of using Augmented Reality (AR) as a tool to support cancer patients during rehabilitation from therapy. After primary research and patient consultation, it is believed that an AR avatar (virtual character) can offer an authentic training experience. Through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) Oxford Brookes University is currently looking to build upon initial research and, with the support of specialist Level 4 cancer rehab personal trainers, digitalise an advanced and bespoke training experience. The aim of therapeutic exercises in the curative and palliative phase is prevention of negative physical and psychological consequences.

The aim of therapeutic exercises in the rehabilitation phase is physical and mental recovery as well as psychosocial stabilisation or improvement. During aftercare, cancer patients should also be encouraged to engage in home-based programmes.

However, these are not as effective as supervised therapy (Baumann, 2013). A novel solution to this problem is the use of digital technologies to engage patients with exercise in a cost effective way and to maintain this in the community setting. This solution is planned to test the use of AR technology using an avatar exercise therapist to offer cancer patients a bespoke and more effective home-based exercise intervention in order to fill an existing health service gap in terms of community-based rehabilitation. This technology has had very little chance to prove itself within a rehab setting and this project would certainly be the first to consider its merit within an exercise-based rehab environment.

The technology will make use of virtual avatars, capable of interacting with the patient and equipped with natural language processing. The avatars will present reports on the patient’s progress, as well as answering questions related to the plan, and guide the patient through the next set of exercises. Initially this exercise plan will be developed by cancer exercise specialists. Patients will be introduced to their exercise plan via a project researcher (cancer exercise specialist) and will also be introduced to the avatar, using the Microsoft HoloLens, at their first visit to the gym.

At this first session they will complete an interview in AR which will establish baseline lifestyle factors through digitally interactive questions and disease parameters that help decide on the most beneficial plans. This information will feed back into a cloud database, known as a decision tree. AI software then uses this information to develop an exercise plan that can be downloaded to an app on the patient’s phone/tablet device and can provide follow-up lifestyle advice. As the patients feed information back and interact with the AR device it continues to update the customised exercise and lifestyle plan. Depending on the information provided the AI will over time get to know the client and the workouts will become more intelligent and personalised. The patient is expected to interact with the mobile app daily, or after they complete a set of exercises. The long-term goal is that non-specialised gym staff will be able to induct patients and allow the technology to support the patients to improve their health and wellbeing.

While those developing the AR software are confident this will not mean a replacement for an appropriately qualified personal trainer, in a significantly under-supported and hugely important area, technology could be showing the first signs of working with and alongside human intervention.

This research and novel project has been prompted by listening to support groups of the special populations that are affected by a lack of aftercare and would benefit hugely from expert knowledge. The clients are there and the courses are there, and while it would be a great shame if the personal bit of advanced training was replaced with technology, technology is increasingly playing an influential role in healthcare in a wider sense. This is made all the more real by its role within the UK Government’s vision on healthcare for the next decade set out in early January (Public Health England 2019) and its inclusion by ACSM as the number one trend for 2019 within the fitness industry within their annual survey. So don’t let technology leave your business behind.

Stan Windsor MSc, Teaching Fellow Sport & Coaching Sciences 

Oxford Brookes University


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