Can Digital Fitness Extend Beyond Hardy Base To Reach Those Who May Benefit Most?

David Shaywitz

Whether you are an “exercist,” who relentlessly talks up the benefits of regular exercise to anyone who will listen, or instead are like the vast majority of people and conscientiously avoid exercise, you will find something appealing in the recently published Exercised, by Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman.

Those who assiduously avoid unnecessary exertion – pretty much the definition of exercise – turn out to have years of evolution on their side. According to Lieberman, “let’s go strenuously exert ourselves for the next half hour, just for the heck of it” is a sentiment no living creature has ever expressed (at least until quite recently). 

Instead, movement was always purpose driven – to find food, escape predators, procreate, celebrate, socialize. No wonder, then, that few are thrilled to hop on a treadmill and plod drearily, step by tedious step, to absolutely nowhere.

On the other hand, throughout the history of our species, a lot of activity was baked into life –including through old age.  (Yes, old age. “Contrary to the widespread assumptions that hunter-gatherers die young,” Lieberman writes, “foragers who survive the precarious first few years of infancy are most likely to live to be 68-78 years old.”)  

Today, with the ubiquity (at least in the United States) of electricity, running water, and grocery stores, you can meet many of your essential needs with little physical effort. 

The problem, Lieberman argues, is that there is now an overwhelming amount of data pointing out that exercise is good for you – really, really good for you. While not a magic bullet (cue Jim Fixx invocation, as Lieberman dutifully acknowledges), exercise seems to help forestall a surprising range of diseases, and can improve cognitive performance (including perhaps through improved sleep) and elevate your overall sense of well-being.

While the mechanisms underlying these benefits remain to be worked out (unless you accept the reductionist explanations offered by Lieberman, which I suspect even he might acknowledge are frequently tidy and simplistic), the underlying message is compelling. 

As Lieberman summarizes, Michael Pollan style:

  • “Make exercise necessary and fun
  • Do mostly cardio but also some weights
  • Some is better than none
  • Keep it up as you age.”

Given the pronounced benefits of exercise across the lifespan – and the particular benefit for those who may be older, less fit, or both – it seems mystifying that leading digital fitness programs seem intent on targeting primarily those who are young and already fit, or at worst, fit-adjacent. The toned models who famously (or infamously) grace Peloton ads are clearly positioned as aspirational examples – “This could be you if you sign up today!”

While some non-exercisers have surely been inspired to join Peloton, many users (especially during the pandemic) would otherwise be exercising in a boutique class. Home cycling may be more convenient, but it’s attracting many of the same customers, or at least seems to be pulling from the same pool of (relatively young, fit — and affluent) customers.

My mind keeps returning to the vast majority of people to whom these ads are clearly not speaking, and who, when they see these ads, are likely put off by and discouraged by depictions of such dissimilar people.

Yet many of these same disaffected viewers, as Lieberman reminds us, could benefit profoundly from exercising more, and while fancy digital fitness equipment is hardly required, the ability of technology to afford users an engaging, compelling experience and a sense of community also should be utilized to serve the enormous population of older and/or less fit customers as well. 

This feels like an obvious and compelling business and health opportunity that so far seems to have been all but ignored.

One physician who has locked onto this need is Dr. James Beckerman, a cardiologist in Oregon who I knew from my internal medicine training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, although we had largely lost track of each other since then. It turns out, he is now focusing his efforts on encouraging exercise and building communities – including an inspirational and apparently highly impactful effort known as “Heart to Start.”

As you watch this video – and you should – not only will you feel authentically inspired, but the contrast between the very real participants in this video, and those featured in the typical digital fitness commercial couldn’t be more striking.

(And if you find yourself thinking “Gosh this could be the basis for a TED talk,” turns out – you’re right. Beckerman gave one on the topic, in 2017 – enjoy it here.)

You don’t have to be Yenta the Matchmaker to see the possibilities. 

  • Imagine if the cutting-edge technology that has delivered transformative products like Peloton could be channeled toward the millions of far less fit people who might be interested in getting healthier.
  • Imagine also that such a platform could help foster the sense of community and connection that Beckerman’s participants clearly savor — and that Peloton’s current user base, for example, already enjoys.
  • Imagine what could be accomplished just by bringing these existing technologies to an established population – the remarkable possibilities for the health and well-being of participants. 
  • Imagine the upside for the business able to deliver this.

Seems time to stop imagining and start working.

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