Rise of Virtual Fitness Shines a Light on Accessibility

By: Laura Swanson
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The fitness and wellness industries have come a long way. Looking back at some of the photos and advertisements from previous centuries, it’s not always easy to see how we got from there to Instagram posts featuring green smoothies or TikToks featuring deskercise.

But some of the most notable changes lately have not been in nutrition or even in the rise of influencers but, rather, a cultural shift towards how we access – and who has access to – fitness and wellness services. The new rise of virtual fitness shines a light on accessibility in fitness.

Unsurprisingly, 2020 dealt a bruising blow to brick-and-mortar gyms. As of July 2021, 22% of gyms in the United States had permanently closed. But where physical workout spaces, classes, and training struggled, virtual, at-home fitness solutions saw a boom. Many in-person fitness spaces and services now find themselves adapting to include online and in-person services and programs to keep up with market demands for virtual and hybrid fitness models.

Many in the industry expect this trend to continue. It’s not hard to see why some, after embracing the convenience of at-home workouts, might not be in a rush to give up that convenience. Working out with a pre-recorded video gives someone the chance to pause the workout to get a move right or take a break, and at home, you don’t have to worry about forgetting your water bottle. But more than the convenience is the accessibility at-home fitness solutions can offer. A virtually accessed workout removes transportation barriers for individuals who can’t drive and barriers of entry for facilities that aren’t always well-designed or up to ADA standards.

However, the explosion of online fitness has meant more attention to other ways in which fitness has remained inaccessible for some. It has also highlighted how inconsistent accessibility can be and how much it often varies from service to service.

As the class-action lawsuit against Peleton showed, inconsistent accessibility meant that many consumers’ needs weren’t being met. For example, videos without captions or with sub-par captions left deaf and hard-of-hearing exercisers reliant on only visual cues. Similarly, videos relying primarily on visual demonstration rather than adequately describing moves and positions remained inaccessible for individuals who are blind or with low-vision.

There’s also the opportunity for growth in an industry where a need exists and isn’t being suitably met. Take, for instance, the growing number of streaming services and online fitness solutions that are now highlighting their accessibility. Virtual fitness services are starting to see accessibility as the key to increasing their consumer base. Just as other content creators and producers have recognized that captioning and audio description solutions increase the chances of content reaching a wider audience, the fitness industry is following suit.

Other platforms have embraced an approach that puts accessibility front and center. Featuring instructors and trainers with disabilities, subscribers can see classes that don’t just give a nod to modifications for varying abilities but show instructors demonstrating exercises designed to be accessible from the beginning.

Platforming instructors and trainers with disabilities shows that representation is powerful. While rave reviews for recent films and TV shows featuring deaf themes and actors who are deaf have demonstrated a deep need for these stories within the cultural zeitgeist, representation in the fitness industry can be a crucial component of increasing who has access to fitness.

Ultimately, increased representation and accessibility in fitness media content is a win for consumers and fitness content creators. Increasing accessibility doesn’t just grow a service’s audience; it’s the right thing to do and helps to build a more equitable, inclusive, and healthier world.