Last week, fitness vlogger and TV personality Joe Wicks concluded his live-streamed PE with Joe workout series, which saw him bring daily PE lessons to children across the nation during lockdown closures. No one could have predicted the phenomenal success that Joe (best known as The Body Coach) would have when he was forced to take his tour online – and this is a clear example of what the future holds as the impact of COVID-19 continues to push fitness into the virtual world.

Across 18 weeks, Joe hosted a total of 78 virtual workouts on his YouTube channel; according to a post shared on his Instagram, this added up to 80 million views, a total of 2,271 years of watch time and, incredibly, £580,000 raised for NHS Charities Together. If you search #pewithjoe on Instagram it brings up a whopping 52.8k posts from Instagram users. Scrolling through the many smiling faces, you begin to get a sense of the magnitude of what Joe and his family achieved and the positive impact it had during a time when the nation needed hope. Even when he was injured and admitted to hospital, his wife Rosie stepped in to ensure millions of viewers had their 30 minutes of daily exercise.

Off the back of this, Joe has received widespread global media coverage including an appearance an Australian breakfast TV – and the government has been quick to get on board.

There is now talk that the Minister for Education, Gavin Williamson, is looking into how UK leadership can replicate this success with their own version of a daily online workout series as part of the new “Better Health” campaign which launched earlier this week. The campaign aims to tackle obesity in England after the coronavirus pandemic and will specifically target areas and groups that are most affected by excess weight.

Some are calling Joe the Jamie Oliver of children’s fitness. Unlike Jamie, who was able to have a physical presence in people’s lives and relied on traditional media channels such as TV, print and radio to drive his campaign, PE with Joe was the ‘new media’ equivalent. Using digital channels like YouTube, which has over 2 billion active monthly users and more than 5 billion videos are watched every day, the series reached people of all ages and demographics. While the delivery mechanism has changed, both Jamie and Joe’s campaigns succeeded because of their purpose-driven nature. True, the circumstances in which PE with Joe was launched were exceptional, but Joe and his family’s commitment and dedication to helping the nation be happier, healthier and fitter was clear for all to see. According to recent interviews, this has been a passion project of his for a long time and with rumoured book deals, an enormous reach and influence, and a desire to continue, Joe’s future as the nation’s PE teacher certainly looks bright.

Looking at the wider landscape you find that Joe was not alone in his efforts during lockdown. Fitness influencers and personal trainers responded to the closure of fitness facilities and the higher than normal engagement rates they were seeing on their channels with a host of daily at-home workouts made easy by platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, IG Live and Facebook Live.

Fitness influencer and Under Armour ambassador Bradley Simmonds uploaded regular workouts to his IGTV throughout lockdown, from hardcore Tabata classes to cardio and HIIT, all receiving in the region of 45k – 65k views. Esmée Gummer, Zanna Van Dijk and Stef Williams, to name a few, uploaded regular workouts to their IGTV and YouTube channels and Ciara Madden, aka Ciara London, teamed up with DJ Mercedes F Benson to create tailor-made mixes for Ciara’s Body by Ciara followers on Instagram.

With fewer demands on their time, many saw lockdown as a chance to incorporate fitness into their daily routine and, with sales of at-home gym equipment spiking in March, lockdown proved to be an opportune time for influencers to build loyalty, increase their followings and build consumer relationships outside of the traditional fitness studio. Social stars helped paved the way for the nation to get fit and keep moving while simultaneously fostering long-term loyalty from their followers. Savvy brands, either with existing influencer relationships or freshly signed ones, were quick to make the most of this boom with well-placed partnerships.

One of the most agile brands to pivot to this way of connecting with consumers was, unsurprisingly, adidas. Focusing on sharing skills, positivity, and hope, its #hometeam campaign has been a masterclass in bespoke influencer content; drawing upon the reach and knowledge of its influencer network, the brand has an impressive library of video content dedicated to workouts, masterclasses, and perspectives on mindfulness. It will be very interesting to see the long-term outcomes of the campaign.

An interesting dynamic is seen when looking at a gym like Third Space. On closing its doors quickly, it successfully pivoted to provide a regular schedule of online classes hosted by its trainers who, in their own right, are key opinion leaders in the fitness space. The brand’s master trainers hosted multiple classes every day of the week via IG Live, resulting in the rapid growth of their personal social channels as well as their profiles. As the faces of their gym, viewers bought into the trainers versus the facility and, with Coronavirus accelerating the transition of the fitness industry online, they now find themselves in a strong position to explore direct revenue streams, rather than relying on clients from gym and studios.

With gyms slowly reopening, the shift in consumer behaviour to viewing the home as a genuine contender to the fitness studio will present challenges for physical facilities. They will now need to work even harder to recover financially and not only keep their members but also their trainers.

Those who doubted influencers’ permeance in our future pre-lockdown may need to revaluate. At least in the fitness industry, brands and potential sponsors are seeing continued evidence of their importance not just in marketing metrics, but also in the ability to build meaningful connections with audiences. Furthermore, with the realisation is it possible to both work out effectively from home and reach your fitness goals while being cost- and time-efficient, a question mark remains around how many people will switch from their new online fitness habits and return to gyms and the longterm impact this will have on the sector. The fitness industry had already boarded the digital train pre-COVID-19 – but our time in lockdown will only continue this acceleration.