Artificial Intelligence Takes Off in the High-Touch World of Fitness

Saving on human resources is one benefit of artificial intelligence, but it also increases the fear by some that human staff members will be replaced with algorithms and machines. (Photo by NicoElNino / Getty Images.)

(Editors' Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2018 report, "Technology’s Role in the Future of the Fitness Industry." To download that report, go here.)

Artificial intelligence (AI) has made itself indispensable in a variety of industries including the fitness industry. But how does this industry, which is focused on the physical improvement and maintenance of the human body, possibly make use of this seemingly inhuman technology?

The answer is surprisingly broad. AI applied to the health club industry has the potential to revolutionize marketing and sales and improve decision-making among company leadership. But the benefits for individuals, and for the panoply of health and nutrition concerns your health club members must keep top-of-mind these days, are even more exciting. Whether it’s the ability to reshape their habits by applying useful data or using exercise equipment that interfaces with their personal phones and watches, data-powered artificial intelligence is only just starting to take off in this industry.

A Brief Background on Artificial Intelligence

Whether or not you are already using AI in your health club, you may not be sure what AI is—or how it differs from another term you may have heard: machine learning. These two terms often are used interchangeably.

Gideon Rosenblatt, a former Microsoft employee and former operator of a technology consulting group called Groundwire, writes a blog out of Seattle about machine learning called The Vital Edge. He differentiates the two in the following way: “AI is a very general description for describing a type of intelligence that is not biological in nature, but synthetic. Machine learning is a way of creating AI that relies on automating the analysis of statistics in order to make sense of very large sets of data.”

In other words, AI refers more to the endgame of machine learning, which is essentially to empower computers to make decisions with less and less input from their human counterparts.

Machine learning is a means to the eventual end that is independently “thinking” machines. AI is possible to achieve, but not exactly practical, without investing in machine learning because doing so would require millions upon millions of lines of code, including “decision trees” and a huge number of rules and exceptions to those rules, according to a December 2017 article on Machine learning “trains” digital systems to become, as it were, more aware of their surroundings. True AI is something that can approximate the human decision-making process without having first received explicit instructions. Machine learning provides context in the form of data, and AI reacts to that context within a set of parameters.

How the Health Club Industry Can Benefit from AI

The benefits of AI are potentially enormous in the fitness industry. It can help automate many time-intensive tasks — an important consideration for customer service and client onboarding. AI also can help avoid human error, which is perhaps more important for human health services than in any other industry.

And it goes without saying that several of these benefits come with potential monetary benefits attached, too. Fewer errors means less rework. Less human labor spent on repetitive tasks means less overhead and more mental bandwidth to spend elsewhere.

What follows is only the beginning for how the fitness industry can put intelligent machines to work.

1. Sales, Marketing and Customer Service

Would health club members be more or less willing to visit a gym that boasted in its promotional materials that it was a high-tech, AI-powered establishment? Lots of movers and shakers in the industry are already eyeing AI as a value-add for prospective customers. Think of this as a sort of “build it and they will come” mentality. The novelty factor alone could buoy gym memberships and private trainer clientele.

But getting new customers in the door is only the first step, which is why AI also is being put to work in customer service and retention. Only two percent of businesses in general used virtual customer assistant (VCA) or chatbot technology for customer service and support in 2017, but that number will increase to 25 percent by 2020, according to Gartner Inc., a research and advisory company.

"As more customers engage on digital channels, VCAs are being implemented for handling customer requests on websites, mobile apps, consumer messaging apps and social networks," Gartner Managing Vice President Gene Alvarez told attendees at the Gartner Customer Experience Summit in February in Tokyo. "This is underpinned by improvements in natural-language processing, machine learning and intent-matching capabilities."

Companies that use VCA have reduced their call, chat and/or email inquiries by 70 percent, according to research by Gartner.

Twenty percent of companies will stop using their mobile apps and instead turn to consumer messaging apps to reach their customers, especially those on platforms such as Facebook Messenger, according to Gartner.

In its first year, 100,000 bots were put in place on Facebook Messenger, Facebook Vice President David Marcus said in April 2017. These bots provide personalized and prompt assistance to customers.

Chatbots are a way for marketing and customer service departments to incorporate AI.

“Creating a chatbot with the brand awareness to discover what is best needed by the consumer is the best way to understand marketing insights and real-time concerns,” said Dr. Aymee Coget, founder and CEO at Happiness for HumanKind in San Francisco. “AI enables the health club to be in service 24/7 to the guest or location and to help identify and even predict trends, helping the health club to become more customer-centric closer to the time of need.”

Of course, the end goal of any sales and marketing endeavor is to close sales. To that end, don’t be surprised to see more and more fitness businesses turning to artificially intelligent sales and CRM technology. Personal assistants of this kind, when used by marketers, have the potential to peer into phone and messaging interactions, calendars and past dealings with customers so marketers can focus on interactions with the most revenue potential and then close the sale. The nitty gritty details, including prioritizing sales leads, is left to the algorithm while the salesperson gets to focus on the human touch.

Bryan O’Rourke, president of the Fitness Industry Technology Council, recognizes the potential of AI to improve revenue and customer satisfaction.

“True AI can automate and personalize many processes and lower costs,” said O’Rourke, who also is owner of Gold’s Gym franchises in Houston and owner of Integerus in Covington, Louisiana. “Intelligent sales tools enable customized communications without human intervention and can ‘grade’ each lead based on current and past conversations and then alert a sales professional when it’s time to close the sale. Other uses include targeting offers to existing customers via AI to create new revenue opportunities like spa treatments or personal training sessions.

2. Personal Training

Personal training has been an integral part of the fitness industry for decades, partly due to the high-touch element. But one downside to personal training is the expense for the client. That can be especially true for people who belong to low-priced health clubs, such as Planet Fitness. But with the use of AI, even those low-priced clubs can offer a form of training.

Planet Fitness’ Chief Digital and Information Officer Craig Miller shared in December at the AI Summit in New York that the company is investing in AI for digital coaching, according to an article by ClickZ. The company plans to use mobile apps and connected fitness equipment to learn how an individual uses each machine, provide motivation and customize workouts.  

“Everyone’s metabolic makeup is different and biometric data can be connected into a full feedback circle,” the article quotes Miller as saying. “The coach works as an adaptive recommendation engine. It can tell you how well the program is working for you. It adapts and makes adjustments, both exercise and nutrition, based on your performance.”

For health clubs that use live trainers, they will find that AI, machine learning, client fitness data, connected fitness machines and wearables can help fill in the gaps and help those trainers keep in closer contact with the needs of their clients’ bodies, even between sessions.

3. Collaborative Business Partnerships and Greater Demographic Appeal

Fitness brand Under Armour has developed connected technologies and intelligent wearables to complement its line of fitness clothing. But thanks to collaborative partnerships with IBM and Watson, plus several other apps and companies, Under Armour’s Record app is getting better at offering holistic health, lifestyle, habit, fitness and nutrition advice and products furnished by relevant partners. The end result is a more collaborate marketplace but also one that’s more focused on the total health of each consumer thanks to a more top-down look and a better understanding of the products and platforms available.

And speaking of consumers, all of this collaboration between partners offers health clubs the opportunity to upsell, and market to, not just individual gymgoers but also to a broader set of demographics altogether, including health-minded families as well as those with specific needs or interests who might not have known about the opportunities in their area.

“Tracking a member’s activity lets you know what their interests are, and you can instantly provide additional information on a specific service or activity the member or guest was interested in,” said Tim Sebold, vice president of sales and marketing at Soolis.

4. Smarter Exercise Equipment and Recommendations

IBM’s work with intelligent machines continues apace with Watson, its in-house AI. Watson gets smarter every year and will likely have insights to offer the fitness industry as well. One of the most recent uses for Watson has been as a “crawler” of medical and scientific articles and journals — thousands of them — to provide better-rounded and more comprehensive guidance and recommendations for doctors. This is expected to make waves in several branches of diagnostic and pediatric medicine, so it’s not a stretch to imagine its applications in fitness, athletic medicine and physical therapies as well.

A more immediate application for AI as Watson “studies up” on its Greys Anatomy — enough to be of use to fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes — is connected gym equipment in health clubs.

  • that know them on sight and direct them to the appropriate equipment based on the progress they have made so far, what their last routine was and what’s on the docket for that day’s visit.
  • Based on the device, users could receive tones or vibrations for rep counts or to indicate when it’s time to move on to the next set of reps or the next machine.
  • These connected devices can keep a running record of how clients have improved or the time spent exercising and keep it in sync between their mobile and home-based devices — or allow seamless sharing with a human coach.
  • Although they may be cost-prohibitive for now for some health clubs, even more advanced AI tools are on the way. Coupled with motion-sensing technology, gyms will soon be home to virtual assistants that can offer even more specific instructions and movement suggestions to users to improve their form or change certain habits.

Some of this progress is only possible, in fact, thanks to artificial intelligence. Rosenblatt shares in his blog that his club, Green Lake Community Fitness (a member-owned cooperative gym), came up against financial barriers for the short term when looking at using AI, but he writes that the eyes of those in charge are clearly on the ultimate goal, which is improved fitness and fun and effective guidance for all. To do so means poring over more user data than any assembly of human could hope to do on their own.

To that end, Green Lake’s user agreements with clients allow basic data gathering to help their systems become smarter and better-equipped to render more meaningful feedback over time. This is the machine learning portion of AI-building.

Privacy is, as ever, a difficult needle to thread, but operators at Green Lake are confident they’re on the right track: “Developing and owning our own technology allows us to use it as we see fit,” Rosenblatt writes. “For example, none of the gyms in our network will ever sell their members’ personal data to insurance companies or other entities. That’s a hot, new revenue stream for the big health club chains right now, but it’s also one of the reasons so many people are flocking to our co-op smart gyms.”

Adopting AI at Your Health Club

The question now is how health club operators can implement this sort of technology. For Mike Rucker, vice president of technology at Active Wellness in San Francisco, and the director of product management for Active Health Tech Lab — an idea lab for early-stage wellness innovators who want to get their connected technologies off the ground — the answer wasn’t clear until he experienced the power of AI firsthand helping LegDay launch its offering, specifically its AI chatbot. LegDay is an artificial conversational entity that enables Active Wellness members to get their questions answered regarding club information through short message service (SMS) in real-time in a conversational form without involving the need for additional staff.

The goal for LegDay and Active Health Tech Lab was to automate the mundane, routine conversations fitness personnel engage in daily, including inquiries about business hours, weather-related closures, services provided, general club information and more, all without hiring dedicated service staff or keeping phone lines manned all day, every day.

Saving on human resources is one benefit of AI, but it also increases the fear by some that human staff members will be replaced with algorithms and machines. Are trainers’ jobs at stake? And in the fitness world, won’t the human touch always be preferred?

The short answer is that there will always be pushback against so-called “impersonal” technologies. One of the tricks is to roll out AI for backend purposes before deciding whether you want to put it in a more client-facing role.

AI can’t do everything, and it still needs humans to help it learn.

“Often, the real hurdle when it comes to AI is providing timely, relevant data that it can act upon,” said Jeffrey Moore, chief sales officer and partner at Canadian-based Artsyl Technologies Inc., a provider of data capture and document processing automation technologies. “One major hurdle is that most data is ‘locked’ into content like emails, documents, videos and other unstructured forms where the essential information is hard to detect and extract.”

That means it is necessary to create systems that are intelligent enough to find and extract important data even if it’s buried in an invoice, membership application or email.

“Our solutions rely on machine learning to become better and better at finding relevant information like a member’s account number, address and more even when it isn’t delivered within a structured form or template,” Moore said. “Instead, it relies on context. And if it should make a mistake that is detected and corrected by a human, it can learn from its mistakes quickly to perform with increasing accuracy.”

In other words, AI can do a lot of the heavy lifting that human employees don’t relish. And in other places, these machines complement rather than replace the human touch that likely will always be desirable in this field.

One of the early pitfalls of applying AI and machine learning to fitness, according to Leslie Nolen, president of The Radial Group in Plano, Texas, is the temptation to grab an off-the-shelf solution and assume it will deliver value.

She said: “Licensing an AI business intelligence tool yourself usually leads to frustration. These tools are sophisticated enough that getting anything useful out of them requires having the right skills and positions on your staff. This isn’t software where you have your club manager just push the ‘report’ button once a month. Most health clubs just aren’t big enough to have the time and money to integrate these tools into their businesses themselves. If you aren’t already gathering more than billing data and you aren’t already using 80 percent of your back-office software, you certainly won’t get your money’s worth out of an AI initiative.”

Next Steps for AI in Fitness

AI is still an emerging technology. Where it goes in the future is still up in the air, but the potential is already huge. The trick may lie in remembering that health and fitness is as much about mood as it is about bodily wellness. Technology that erects mental barriers or introduces confusion won’t last. But tasteful applications of AI in fitness? That’s all but inevitable — and we can expect the companies that excel at it to naturally rise to the top of their fields.