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Personal Trainers and Technology: A Match Made in Heaven?

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How should Shad Hall Gym's personal trainers respond to the threats and opportunities posed by digital transformation?

The instructions for this blog post were to think about how a company we’re familiar with should respond to the ongoing digital transformation we’re currently seeing. My initial thought was to write about a company I’d worked at, but the two companies I’ve spent the most time at are Google and Amazon. Given that we cover these two companies so much throughout our two years at HBS, I wanted to write about something more unique and non-traditional.

I tried to think about what organizations I’m deeply familiar with that could benefit from a digital transformation of their own. Almost immediately, one organization came to mind: the HBS Shad Gym Personal Training program (whom I’ve been going to quite regularly this past semester as I try to get in decent shape before heading back into the real world).

It may seem like an odd choice, but I think there’s a lot of value that Shad stands to create by embracing technology in their personal training regimens. Indeed, technology has already deeply penetrated the fitness space, e.g. everything from Nike’s personalized workout app to MyFitnessPal’s food and nutrition journal, even to FitBit’s monitoring devices. And this competition is one of the main challenges that a traditional personal training company like Shad faces.

So, at this point, a completely valid question would be to ask whether personal trainers like the ones at HBS Shad will still be a relevant force in five to ten years. In other words, will technology be able to replace personal trainers, and if so why even bother enhancing their offerings with new tech?

Well, I actually don’t think that personal trainers can be replaced by technology (at least not the technology we’re likely to have in the next ten years). For me personally, there are three major value drivers that the personal trainers at Shad provide – and which technology cannot:

– First, they keep me coming to the gym. There have been plenty of mornings when my alarm went off, and I wanted nothing more than to hit snooze and get back an extra hour of sleep. Yet, knowing that I had an appointment with a human being who was giving up their time to work with me always got me up. If I were using an app, it would be so much easier to abandon my routine.

– Second, they get me motivated.  So many times, I’ll be in a workout with my trainer and I’ll be in the middle of my last set and my energy is clearly fading. Yet, right then, my trainer says something like “Come on man. Just two more. You got this.” And those words of encouragement (along with the feeling that I’ll be letting my trainer down if I give up) are enough to inspire me to finish the set. There’s no app in the world that could make me give that last push in the same way.

– Finally, and most important, my Shad personal trainer teaches me the proper form for different exercises, and corrects me when I deviate. I’ve tried watching videos and using tools like the Nike app with its personalized workout descriptions. But it’s one thing to watch a workout and another thing entirely to replicate it yourself. So often, I think I’m doing the exact right movements, and my trainer shows me how I’m way off. If I were using technology instead of a trainer, I’d be training myself to make the wrong movements, diminishing the value of my workouts or even worse, injuring myself seriously.

So, now that we’ve established that personal trainers can provide a value that today’s technology is hard-pressed to replicate, let’s think about a few ways that Shad trainers might dramatically enhance their offering by leveraging tech:

1) Using a shared food diary like MyFitnessPal to keep track of clients’ nutrition and eating habits. My trainer constantly mentioned how our workouts were only half the battle. What I was eating (and hopefully not eating) were critical to developing a leaner and more physically fit body. Yet, I only saw my trainer every few days. So, when he asked me if I’d been eating right (specifically, getting a ton of protein and good carbs), I’d have trouble remembering exactly what I’d eaten. That’s where we could really use a technology like MyFitnessPal, which allows you to input the food you’re eating in real-time and see exactly what nutritional value you’re getting (e.g. 30g of protein in this chicken dish or 20g of sugar in this soda). If my trainer had me use MyFitnessPal, or even better if we opened a shared account both could access, he could give me much better and more personalized recommendations about my diet and even about what workouts would be appropriate given the amount of calories I’d gotten in a given day. Taking it one step further, a problem I constantly ran into was not knowing if a particular food was good for me or not (for instance a specific protein bar). Using a simple technology like text messages, it would be awesome if I could check with my trainer digitally in real time to see if a particular meal or food item is good to eat, or might derail our efforts.

2) Video conferencing to check client’s form, even when they’re not in a session. Shad personal trainers aren’t available on weekends (at least mine wasn’t). Yet weekends are the best time to work out, given all the extra free time. It would be great if my trainer leveraged video chat technology (e.g. Google Hangouts or Skype) to check in on my form even if he couldn’t be there in person. That way, without having to come in to work on the weekend, he could still quickly make sure I’m staying in line with his teaching and furthering our progress, rather than damaging my body.

3) Keeping track of and analyzing all the available data on our workouts. My trainer, like all great trainers, keeps track of how I’m progressing in our workouts. Yet rather than remembering all this in his head or even with pen and paper, it would be so helpful to input all the data into a spreadsheet program. For example, if I was able to do 3 sets of 15 bicep curls at weight x on Monday, and then weight x + 10 on Wednesday, but then back down to weight x on Friday, it would be amazing to have all that data available to both of us to look at and analyze. For one thing, as a person who’s working out, it’s so easy to forget exactly what workouts you did, even the day after you did them. (This is especially true with a good workout that’s pushing you to exhaustion and making your brain less likely to remember the details.) So, even something as simple as an excel file showing the specifics would be great.

But going one step further, looking at trends in the spreadsheet could be very powerful. E.g. we can see if certain exercises are progressing less quickly, or if certain workouts are negatively correlated with each other, etc.  Being able to look at this data and sit with a trained workout professional to analyze it could optimize my workouts greatly.

4) Create a community of all the trainer’s clients to support each other. My trainer has a bunch of clients. But other than the times when one of us starts a workout and another ends theirs, we don’t have much interaction with each other. Yet, we could be a super valuable tool for one another. Having social encouragement and folks to bounce off frustrations and concerns with could help keep clients motivated and effective in their workout regimens. Even something as simple as a private Facebook group for all of my trainer’s clients could be a great forum for us to encourage and support one another.

5) Join workout data with HBS healthcare and health records. Now this is one that’s pretty unique to Shad since it’s a part of HBS. For most students here, Harvard is both our gym and our healthcare provider. And so often, the two aspects of our lives are intertwined. For instance, I recently had a minor health issue that kept me from being able to work out at the same cadence and intensity. What I ended up having to do was go see my doctor and then relay what he told me to my personal trainer. It would have been so much better to turn that into a three-way digital conversation (e.g. email, messenger, or whatever) between me, my doctor, and my trainer, so my doctor could better understand the situation and my trainer could better tailor his workouts to what I need from a health perspective.

Similarly, it would be great if my trainer could send all the data he’s collected on my workouts to my primary care physician, so he could see what kind of fitness condition I’m in and take that into consideration during our checkups.  Yet, obviously, anything involving healthcare data is very privacy sensitive, so this would require full patient consent.

Still, despite all these ideas for ways to integrate technology, such initiatives are likely to be met with resistance by the Shad trainers themselves. Personal training is an old school profession, and trainers are likely to say something like “I’ve been doing things a certain way for years, why should I change?” A good counter-argument would be to say that if Shad trainers don’t embrace these new technologies, they’re more likely to be replaced by them.

Similarly, another type of resistance we’re likely to see is trainers saying they don’t feel comfortable developing or creating new technology. Yet the nice thing about all the ideas above is that they don’t require new technology, or even particularly sophisticated technology. Everything I’ve described would greatly enhance the personal training regimen at Shad, but would only require leveraging the new technological tools that are already at our disposal. (That said, Shad would need a slight organizational change to make sure trainers are up to speed on modern tech at their disposal, and they may need an IT manager to keep track of it all).

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9 thoughts on “Personal Trainers and Technology: A Match Made in Heaven?

  1. Thanks for this interesting post! I really enjoyed it because of how relevant it is to all of us at HBS. I think it’s super interesting how the fitness space has gotten so crowded, but for some reason, no amount of wearables, apps, etc. does it for me like a personal trainer or actual class. I totally agree with you that the human element is too important. I also really like your suggestion about connecting it to health records. I think that would be helpful for all constituents involved. I wonder, also, if there would be a way for HBS to crowdsource and leverage any of this, given its large population size.

  2. Thanks for the post, Pasha! You bring up some great points about Shad, and more generally, the health club industry. It reminded me of a set of cases we had in a Strategy class about 24 Hour Fitness and Bally; the cases showed the contrast of strategic decisions between the two companies, with one company surviving (24 Hour Fitness) and the other going bankrupt (Bally). Some of the reasons had to do with adapting to new trends and technology.

    Personal training is an interesting aspect of health clubs and I agree with you and RPARK that the human element is difficult to replace. So it might make sense to have Shad, or similar health clubs, make the human element stickier. The ways in which you have talked about enhancing the personal trainer value proposition are very creative–having trainers utilize technology (software applications) to help keep track of your specific workouts, diet habits, exercise stats/habits, etc is a great way of increasing the bond between you and the trainer. One concern I have is the overall efficiency of personal training. Although tech, right now, is more of a complement to personal training, I don’t think it is unreasonable to imagine sensors and bots correcting people’s form and recording all the vital signs and providing in depth feedback. Although it may be expensive and take time to develop that tech, if it is created, personal trainers and gyms may find it difficult to justify the costs of human trainers.

  3. Great post, Pasha! I completely agree with the idea that having an appointment with someone is a great motivator for getting up in the morning and trekking over to the gym – if I look out the window on a day when it’s pouring outside, I am very unlikely to leave my apartment for a workout. However, if I have made a commitment to someone, that’s a totally different story. I think one way personal trainers can use technology is to use heart rate monitors and other devices that can put some data behind the workouts. Fitness studios like Orange Theory have starting tracking how effective workouts actually are, which can help customers motivate to work harder and figure out ways their respective bodies respond to different types of exercise. This might be a good way for fitness instructors to prove their value proposition to customers, so people do not turn around and blame the program if they do not see the results they were looking for.

  4. Loved your non-traditional post Pasha! One thing that immediately comes to mind is something I’ve been getting instagram ad targeted for – digitally connected yoga pants. It seems like IoT will eventually get into everything…essentially these pants send information to an app on your phone, and communicate through subtle cues (vibrations) at different points of your body to correct form. While I’m sure they aren’t perfect, you can imagine a world in the future where the clothes we wear to work out will be able to hold us accountable to form! I completely agree that motivation and accountability are strong arguments for why we still need in person training. But, for some the self motivated population, these could be a good stand in! I’m sure there are many ways that trainers could use such connected devices to communicate with their clients remotely (perhaps even getting a visual of what the client is doing as if they’re there in person).

  5. Thanks for the post, Pasha. I think you touched on an important point that has been at the heart of our discussions all semester: what won’t tech and AI be very effective at? The human, emotional element, here in the form of a trainer, is one of them. I agree with many of the comments above that tech is a great tool to complement a trainer. For example, and humor me for a second, it is not a stretch to someday soon be able to log on to Shad’s app and know how many people are at the gym based on the number of IDs scanned in, which treadmills are currently available based on which ones are spinning, whether the squash court lights are on because the motion detector’s sense people are on the court, etc. These data points are not challenging to incorporate — it won’t be long. Next, for fitness specifically, I think you’ll see a move towards passive sensors for weights training, so you no longer need to enter how many reps at which weight you accomplished. A combination of sensors and your phone/watch should be able to recognize this movement, reducing a friction point for the user. Lastly, as you mentioned, a passive way to track what you eat would be ideal. Once you purchase your food at Spangler, the nutritional content of your meal should be uploaded (wherever you want, if you’re interested) and available to you. What you chose to do with this data is up to you. What this does not capture, however, is the human element of your trainer recognizing you worked extra hard, or you’re struggling a bit, or as you mentioned, you could use extra motivation for the last rep. That emotional, judgement based piece cannot yet be outsourced to AI, and I don’t see that trend changing anytime soon.

  6. Great post! I also agree that there will always be a need for personal trainers due to the personalized attention, and in-person discipline that they provide. However there could be some segments of the population that find that digital apps are starting to provide enough information and tools, and they skip using trainers, or some people may regard the value provided by the trainer is lower than before, and thus have lower willingness to pay.

  7. Love the idea here. I too am curious how we can replicate the feeling of obligation leveraging technology. I’ve come across various services such as Stikk, Tweet Your Weight, and Fatbet that use a combination of social pressure and cash penalties if you don’t make your goals, but I don’t see them as being a perfect replication of the feeling you get when you blow off a trainer or the encouragement you get in real time.

    Regarding the tracking of health records/diet/exercise, there are plenty of options. The problem is that none of them are actually very good. Besides, is it the tracking that really makes the impact, or is it just another way to quantify something that doesn’t make a result? If you’re increasing the weight that you’re able to bench week over week, does it matter that you’re not writing it down? While quantifying aspects of the workout may be helpful or encouraging, they don’t get to the heart of what a workout is meant to do.

  8. Loved reading your post! I agree that trainers play a key role in motivating us and keeping us accountable, but I also agree with others who have mentioned the possibility of these roles being replaced by technologies that use social pressure such as Stikk. In fact, I think that some of the ideas you mentioned– like creating a forum/community through which trainees can support each other– could directly replace the trainer’s role of motivation and accountability once the trainee learned what he/she needed to do in order to achieve his/her health goals.
    I hadn’t thought about the possibility of leveraging Harvard’s system to connect different types of information (health-related information, workout-related information, food-related information, daily activity information from technologies such as FitBits) and provide users with a better understanding of their health– very interesting!

  9. Thanks Pasha for a very interesting and non-traditional post. Agree with the comments above – lots of opportunity for additional integration from Spangler food to Cumnock doctors. One additional opportunity would we wearables. I track my Activity on my Apple Watch, and share it with a bunch of people (including some in DIGIT!). It’s highly motivational, as I don’t want to get shown up by any of them! This is even more pronounced with devices such as Whoop, which track advanced analytics. Building on your Facebook group idea, perhaps Trainers could share their own data with clients and use Apple Watch or other devices to track their activity in non-work out days.

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