Digital fitness comes into its own with breathtaking possibilities

Smart yoga mats and apps to monitor your home workout? Expect a lot more innovation in the sector this year

We have learned to adapt to a whole new way of living in the past year as the coronavirus pandemic has shut down various aspects of our lives. Some changes will be fleeting – does anyone really enjoy Zoom quizzes any more? – while othersm, such as home working, may be more long lasting, at least in part.

But what about the fitness industry? That may be a little more complex. With gyms closed and classes curtailed, many of us have turned to technology to help bridge that gap. Apps, connected fitness devices and activity trackers have provided some alternatives for those who want to keep their fitness up – or just burn off a bit of energy – while stuck in lockdown.

During the first round of lockdowns in the first and second quarter of 2020, the downloads of health and fitness apps rose by 46 per cent globally as gyms closed and people’s exercise options were curtailed.

The shift towards digital fitness wasn’t started by the coronavirus pandemic. Brands such as Peloton had already carved out a sizeable market for themselves in delivering interactive workouts to users at home. The convenience factor is a strong one, plus the all-hours access if you choose. But during lockdown, sales of the company’s products surged, with revenue of $1.8 billion for the year – double the $910 million it notched up the previous year.


Perhaps more important for the company was signing up new subscribers for its fitness services; alongside the expensive equipment, Peloton sells subscriptions for a monthly fee that give access to a wide range of workouts.

By the end of 2020, Peloton had 3.1 million members, with paid digital subscriptions up 210 per cent to more than 316,800.

It’s a busy market though. NordicTrack is going up against Peloton with its iFit powered fitness equipment, from exercise bikes to treadmills. Interactive classes are

And that’s before you get to the online fitness platforms that allow you to work out with your own equipment at home.

The latest addition to the fitness game is Apple Fitness. Designed for Apple Watch users, the subscription service includes strength, yoga, high intensity interval training, core workouts, walking and running workouts for treadmills, rowing, cycling and mindful cool downs.

Workout content

The workouts can be accessed through the Fitness+ app on iPhone, iPad or Apple TV, with the updated version of each platform’s software.

Workout content is updated weekly, with options for all fitness levels, including beginners who need to be taught the basics of various workouts. Personal recommendations will allow users to find their next workout quickly based on previous activity and favourites.

The service uses the watch’s metrics to track your workouts, from your heart rate to calories burned. That’s not the only integration; the service can also be linked to Apple Music accounts to incorporate favourite songs and playlists into sessions.

How popular the service will be is anyone’s guess. But Apple has made it available across all its devices, including its Apple TV device, and is giving Apple Watch users free access for a set time.

It has competition though. has been around since 2018, but the company has come into its own in recent months. Not only has it increased its user numbers but it has also broadened its classes and increased its reach. The company has done a deal in recent months with Sky that sees its content included on the Sky Q platform, accessible to the TV company’s subscribers.

The temptation to ignore the reminders or skip your next workout is particularly strong when the nights are longer and the pull of Netflix is strong

Tapping into the community is something that fitness platform Fiit attempted with its live classes. Users sign up for scheduled classes at specific times, and then compete against a leaderboard of live users to come out on top with the most points. There are no prizes for winners other than bragging rights, and the points are calculated according to the effort expended in each class, a metric that is personal to each user.

For some, though, the impersonal nature of fitness apps won't cut it. The temptation to ignore the reminders or skip your next workout is particularly strong when the nights are longer and the pull of Netflix is strong.

That’s where other services are stepping in to fill the gap left by the traditional gym.

Ongoing support

One such servcie is NeoCoach. The Irish-founded start-up is offering remote personal training and nutrition plans to its users. The company matches customers with one of it trainers, who provide ongoing support for customers, checking in daily if required, or less if you prefer a more distant approach.

The coaching is all done online, with a bespoke programme from trainers who will work with users to achieve their goals. There will be the ability to integrate data from fitness trackers too, to give coaches a better insight into their clients – all with permission, of course.

Andrew Dowd, cofounder of the company, said he feels there will be a place for the company and its services even when the coronavirus restrictions have lifted, with the move towards more personalised and flexible services likely to continue.

“With Covid it’s very timely, but these were things we were seeing before that,” he says. “Our aim is to be flexible, and to do things around your schedule and preferences. That could be working out at home, the gym, using what equipment you have or doing a spinning class. Ultimately for things to be sustainable to work, they have to make sense for you.”

A trained personal trainer, Dowd spent almost three years with fintech First Circle in Asia, working on product and getting his first exposure to a tech startup.

“They were doing something quite different – they were trying to give historically what people couldn’t access, except for big companies, and try to give them access to financing, and using technology in a good way to do so,” he says. “I think with Neo we’re doing something similar – give people access to a coach 24/7 and using techology in a good way. ”

NeoCoach is currently operating a private beta, and is looking to add to its coaches to broaden its areas of expertise.

Future of fitness?

Expect to see a lot more digital fitness innovation this year as we try to shake off the restrictions imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

CES in Las Vegas is usually the venue for showcasing new products, including in the health and wellness sector. But this year, the pandemic forced the show online, making it the first time CES has been an all-virtual show.

That didn’t stop companies from unveiling their products at the event, although it may have been in a much different environment than usual.

So what health and fitness products can we expect in 2021? Here are a few of the best (and strangest) unveiled at CES.

NordicTrack Vault

NordicTrack is probably better known for its connected treadmills and exercise bikes, but Vault, its new product unveiled at CES, taps into a growing trend in the fitness market.

Vault is a smart mirror that combines a 60-inch mirror, a 32-inch HD touchscreen, and hides a cabinet that stores fitness equipment such as kettlebells, dumbbells, resistance bands and so on.

Like other NordicTrack products, it works with fitness platform iFit. That means you’ll have access to a library of different classes, from strength and cardio to balance and flexibility, using the mirror as both a screen for workouts and also to perfect your exercise technique.

It’s not the first smart mirror to pitch at the home fitness market. Mirror and Tempo both offer interactive fitness experiences for the home, with the latter using 3D sensors and artificial intelligence to track your movements and give you feedback in real time to help perfect technique.

What NordicTrack does offer is an established brand, which may help with some of the nerves about backing a start-up platform. That iFit has been around for some time now too is also a benefit; without access to a library of content, the smart mirrors are a lot less useful.


Of all the things we expected to pop up in the “app controlled” space, a sensory deprivaton chamber wasn’t on that list.

The Orb falls into “biohacking”, which is a broad-based term that can cover everything from making changes to your diet to injecting the blood of a younger person into your veins, which apparently has been tried at a clinic in the US.

Thanksfully, the Orb doesn’t involve anything as drastic as that last option. It is a sensory deprivation chamber that uses sound therapy, chromatherapy, aromatherapy and low frequency vibrations to help you relax. There are seven treatment options, including a 15-minute quick fix routine to a 30-minute “rescue remedy”, which can be chosen via the Orb’s app and aim to help you relax, ease anxiety or prepare you for sleep.

AirPop Active+

If the last 12 months have taught most of us anything, it’s the value of a facemask. So it makes sense that CES 2021 would see a new crop of next generation face masks. Why have a standard mask when you could have one that connects to your phone?

The AirPop Active+ doesn’t disappoint. A breathable mask with the AirPop Halo sensor attached, the device links with a smartphone app to give you information on your breathing, such as breathing cycles, breaths per minute and per pace, the pollutants that the mask has blocked during use, and when it is time to replace the mask’s filter.


Let’s talk about smart yoga mats. The YogiFi smart mat has a series of pressure sensors embedded to teach you how to practice yoga correctly in the privacy of your own home. The pressure sensors give haptic feedback to help correct your posture, while the accompanying app will recommend a series of different yoga routines to help you reach whatever goal you had when you signed up.


Do we really need any more smartwatches or fitness trackers? Amazfit thinks so. Particularly ones that are a bit more budget friendly. The Amazfit GTS 2e and GTR 2e build in some useful features such as blood oxygen levels and a fairly impressive battery life of up to 45 days, for under €150.

ARK Sports

If you had suggested an interactive sports wall to most people in 2019, they may have thought you had finally gone too far. And yet, in 2021, it doesn’t feel quite so unusual. The Ark Sports interactive wall will offer you a range of different exercises and training programmes, detecting up to 1,200 contacts simutaneously. It’s a 12-metre long wall, though, so perhaps not for everyone.


Not quite fitness related, but health focused all the same. The Bio Button is a wearable device designed to flag symptoms of Covid-19. It monitors your heart rate, respiration rate and temperature, and can work for up to 90 days.