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SweatWorks Founder Mohammed Iqbal on the Future of Fitness
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SweatWorks Founder Mohammed Iqbal on the Future of Fitness

The founder and CEO of the world’s top fitness technology agency believes large gym chains are well-positioned to thrive post-pandemic

If you’ve ever been enamored by a piece of health and wellness tech, whether an immersive digital app or a futuristic connected rowing device, there’s a decent chance SweatWorks helped create it. 

Founded by Mohammed Iqbal in 2012, the fitness technology agency has worked with brands including Equinox, Nike, Bose, SoulCycle, Strava and Beachbody, to name just a few.

SweatWorks partners with brands on software and hardware, giving the agency and Iqbal unique insights into the technological trends shaping the fitness industry. It’s also made SweatWorks a heavy hitter in the industry, with a rock-solid network that extends into big tech. 

credit: SweatWorks

“If we need to get an app approved urgently on the App Store, we know who to call at Apple,” Iqbal tells Athletech News. “If you have an issue with the Garmin App, which we created, we can go right to the person who wrote the software.”

Iqbal sat down with ATN for an exclusive, one-on-one interview to share his thoughts on how technology is changing fitness and what those developments will mean for big players like traditional gyms and connected fitness companies. 

Athletech News: How did the pandemic change the way the fitness industry uses technology?

Mohammed Iqbal: The pandemic really brought the attention of engagement on digital to the forefront. It pulled the industry forward at least five years in terms of growth and development. Because we were stuck on our own and couldn’t interface with our community, our adaptation as digital consumers happened at a quicker pace than anyone would’ve thought. So when people came back (to gyms), they were maybe used to riding a Peloton at home, now they’re going into the gym and riding a stationary bike, and it feels archaic. It feels like it’s “dumb technology.”

So what do we find today? People at gyms are using some kind of third-party app, usually following some sort of program. Maybe they have an Apple Watch or an Oura Ring, or maybe it’s just an app on their phone that allows them to do a challenge with their coworkers. The digitization of fitness and wellness has driven some of the innovations that we’ve seen over the last couple of years.

ATN: What major trends are you seeing in the fitness industry post-pandemic?

MI: First, the connected fitness direct-to-consumer market is decimated, outside of the already established companies like Peloton, Tonal and maybe some of the other big ones. The valuations for these companies are being reset to become more down-to-earth.

As a result, brands that are fitness-modality focused are struggling to acquire and retain members. Whereas those who are offering personalized, wellness-focused programs, such as Pvolve, will continue to attract a healthy TAM.

The second thing is, we went through this era, almost like what the pharmaceutical industry does with drug ads for things like restless leg syndrome. You watch those commercials and you’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s me, my leg is restless.” Not really, everyone on the planet feels like that. The fitness industry was a bit like that, where we created products for a problem that didn’t really exist. I’m seeing us trend away from that.

credit: SweatWorks

We’re also starting to see companies move away from point offerings, so instead of offering a gym membership or a connected bike, they’re going to offer a wellness ecosystem. That’s a really big shift. Now, if you’re a gym, like a Life Time, for example, you’re going to bring in, digitally and physically, nutrition, supplements, therapy and mindfulness, all those features.

There’s also fitness subscription fatigue. The average consumer today has about 14 paid subscriptions on their phone. The number for fitness consumers is probably higher than that. Especially since we’re in a recession or entering a recession, people are more conscious. They’re deleting subscriptions and they’re finding the one app or place where they want to be. As a result, companies are building out wellness ecosystems.

Many people go to the gym more often than the office. Before the pandemic, a lot of that relationship and emotional connection to the community might have resided in the office. Today, it’s transferred to the gyms.

– Mohammed Iqbal, founder and CEO, SweatWorks

ATN: Which fitness companies are best positioned to thrive in the wellness ecosystem era?

MI: I view it in three buckets: big tech, large gym locations and healthcare.

If you look at Apple Health, it’s already kind of the central repository of data. You may see Apple Health being a kind of middleman, collecting data from everywhere, and passing it along to those companies.

I definitely see the large gyms playing a big role. Look at what Planet Fitness has done with their app, because they hold the relationship with the customer. You go see a doctor maybe once a year, but you go to the gym three times a week or more. So the gym is very present, especially if you don’t (physically) go to work. Many people go to the gym more often than the office. Before the pandemic, a lot of that relationship and emotional connection to the community might have resided in the office. Today, it’s transferred to the gyms. So I think the large gym chains hold the keys to that ecosystem. The smart ones, the ones that embrace technology and understand where the industry is going, are going to be the ones that control the narrative.

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And the third is health insurance companies. They recognize they have to embrace change, and they’re going to pay a lot more attention to preventative measures than they ever have before. 

ATN: Which fitness companies could struggle in the wellness ecosystem era?

MI: I think we’re going to see companies, especially some connected fitness companies, not be around for too much longer. Some companies are really struggling with valuations, struggling just to bring new members in. It’s because their value proposition isn’t strong enough yet. Those companies need to find ways to commercialize their products and access new distribution channels.

ATN: What can fitness brands do to stay competitive?

MI: Interoperability is key. Look at Oura Ring, which, if you think about it, is subscription-based. Membership is $6 per month. Oura Ring gives you insights, but it doesn’t tell you what to do. What they’ve started to do is build integrations, so now they allow a bunch of companies to pull data and help personalize their experience. I think that’s what needs to happen. We need to break down these silos.

Interoperability is the key theme that we continue to see happening. I know companies might not be in favor of it, but they have to do it, because if they don’t, they’re going to become obsolete. 

Another part is AI. Data is the new oil, and AI can help companies make sense of the data they’re collecting. AI has been a great partner in helping us ingest, collect and analyze all the data we’re collecting.

At SweatWorks, we’re also using AI to personalize. Let’s say you had a horrible night’s sleep and you’re supposed to do a five-mile run. Maybe you do a three-mile run instead and you focus on recovery. We can use AI to help with those types of recommendations. For personal trainers, AI is going to give them deeper insights into their clients. Also, for those that can’t afford to spend $100 per session on a personal trainer, it’s understanding how AI can be helpful for them, so they’re not just following a standard strength program, but one that’s really personalized for their needs. AI can be a great tool there.

Interoperability is the key theme that we continue to see happening. I know companies might not be in favor of it, but they have to do it, because if they don’t, they’re going to become obsolete. 

Mohammed Iqbal

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