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Technology can enhance exercise, but it can never replace it. Or can it?

With virtual fitness trainers already out in the world, can exercise avatars and nanobots be far behind? Devlin Brown reviews workout trends for 2021

17 January 2021 - 00:02 By Devlin Brown
Wearable technology took the number two spot on the American College of Sports Medicine‘s list of the top 10 fitness trends for 2021.
Wearable technology took the number two spot on the American College of Sports Medicine‘s list of the top 10 fitness trends for 2021.
Image: 123RF/Agus Trianto

As she straps the smart watch to her wrist, tiny carbon nanotubes connected to dielectric elastomers read her pulse, blood sugar level and mood. She presses "start" and nanobots too small to be detected by her senses surge into her veins as the smart watch automatically turns on the smart TV attached to her wall.

On the holographic screen she sees her avatar, Sarah. Sarah smiles at her and shouts: "Let's go!" She has programmed Sarah to be an accomplished crossfitter, and, lying in her bed, she watches Sarah perform box jumps, kipping pullups and Olympic lifts. The nanobots inside her body dispatch the effects of exercise to the various parts of her body — all without her lifting an arm. As her avatar exercises, she becomes fitter.

Far-fetched? Probably, but the rate at which nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing, it would take a brave pundit to bet against it. If another trend, the resurgence in New Age thinking, is anything to go by, readers of this article beware because this exercise dystopia — or Utopia, depending on your persuasion — has just been thought into existence!


We have bodies and we move them through space. The faster or more efficiently we're able to move them, the fitter we become. Since the advent of "physical culture" at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to the lifestyle diseases of affluence, there's been a rapid evolution of exercise culture.

When US president Dwight Eisenhower established the President's Council on Youth Fitness in 1956, our lives changed forever. Soon it would become mainstream to accept that all of us - especially the young — should strive to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes physical exercise and good nutrition.

"Go outside and play" is not an uncommon refrain in suburbia as parents try to wedge their children from Fortnite. "It's good for you," they plead.

Jack LaLanne pioneered exercise and weight training for the masses.
Jack LaLanne pioneered exercise and weight training for the masses.
Image: Wikimedia

The father of popular exercise, Jack LaLanne — who swam across San Francisco Bay at the age of 60, handcuffed and towing a half-ton boat for fun — brought exercise to the television screens of millions of people.

His celebrity fitness heir Jane Fonda pioneered the type of home fitness videos that saw many South Africans moving along to Body Beat in the mornings on SABC before work. Then there were Tae Bo, Boxercise, Zumba and, today, group classes broadcast across fibre networks around the world.

Gym equipment has also evolved. First there was a rush to find the best or most complicated machines to deliver the most effective workouts. A side-effect of this was the explosion of fads such as the Thighmaster and Shake Weight.

Today the trend looks like being back to basics — towards functional training — but our cultural love for gadgets means every now and then one explodes into popular consciousness.

In 2020, the Theragun lit up Instagram feeds around the world. A hand-held vibrating device that delivers rapid pulses to defined muscles, it was used by the likes of soccer legend Cristiano Ronaldo to entice millions to part with their hard-earned money.

The point is that exercise is woven into our culture and trends and fads will keep it exciting for years to come.


Every year, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) conducts a survey with thousands of fitness professionals from around the world and collates the top trends likely to dominate the fitness and exercise industry over the next year. These are called the ACSM Fitness Trends.

For the past decade, wearable technology and apps have been climbing the ranks. Last year, wearable technology topped the list of trends for 2020. It seemed as though only a global catastrophe could knock smart watches and the likes off their perch. And that's exactly what happened.

Online training rocketed up from no 26 on the list last year to no 1 in 2021 — with professionals agreeing it would be the top trend this year. Wearable technology had to settle for second place, followed by bodyweight training — again out of necessity, with gyms closed for long periods of time.

Also driven by lockdowns and social distancing regulations, outdoor training rounds out the top four expected trends for 2021. It was in 13th place last year.

High intensity interval training, always popular, is expected to be the fifth most popular trend of 2021.

Virtual training, which is not to be confused with online training, makes its very first appearance on the list. Virtual training combines technology and group-training methods to provide an experience similar to one that would typically occur in group classes - except that trainees can go at their own pace.

ACSM’s top 10 Fitness Trends for 2021

1. Online training

2. Wearable technology

3. Body weight training

4. Outdoor activities

5. High intensity interval training (HIIT)

6. Virtual training

7. Exercise is medicine

8. Training with free weights

9. Fitness programs for older adults

10. Personal training

Dropping one place is "exercise as medicine". According to the ACSM Health & Fitness Journal, this is a trend where "primary care physicians and other health-care providers include physical activity assessment and associated treatment recommendations as part of every patient visit and refer their patients to exercise professionals".

Training with free weights — which references the trend towards simplicity and away from machines — dropped from fourth place in 2020 to the eighth most popular trend for 2021.

Specialised exercise and fitness programmes for older adults is at no 9 and traditional personal training is at no 10.

The global industry sees fitness apps as only the 12th most popular trend for 2021. This may signal a holistic move back to the basics, but it may also be a function of the industry trying to protect itself from being disrupted to the point of becoming obsolete.

The new Apple training app, called Fitness Ally, is a case in point. The app uses the phone's camera to watch you train while it gives you real-time cues and corrects your form. Allie is a female virtual trainer who pushes you lovingly and without judgment, according to the developers, to complete your exercise.

If she irritates you, you can turn her off — but the point has been made: AI is rapidly trying to disrupt the fitness industry.

While it's unlikely Fitness Ally will make warm-blooded trainers irrelevant, the novelty factor alone is surely enough to see the developers recoup their investment, and then some.

WATCH | How the Fitness Ally app works

In June last year, Forbes made terrifying — or exciting — predictions about tech and AI in fitness. The author of the Forbes article wrote that technology was bringing us closer to a world of augmented humans, or humans 2.0.

The human 2.0 innovations include wearable exoskeletons to be able to lift heavier weights and exercise more safely, and laboratories being able to 3-D print human tissue. Of course, this discussion would be incomplete without Elon Musk's promise of merging the brain with AI for a kind of superhuman-computer hybrid. Just imagine the treadmill section at your local gym!

If data privacy concerns already keep you awake at night, you can download Signal — but perhaps it's best to check out now as it's going to get a lot worse, a lot more quickly.

But it's not all the stuff of nightmares — the promise of intelligent prosthetic limbs could change the lives of many people around the world for the better, as long as the limbs don't become conscious and go rogue.


South African professional futurist Jonathan Cherry, who owns the business consultancy CherryFlava, agrees that all indications point to a continued focus on live-streaming and online platforms.

"You just have to look at the investment in these exercise tech startups," he says, "to understand that things like Peloton [which produces workout videos that customers can live-stream] and other platforms are going to continue enjoying a rapid uptake."

Cherry says that a trend that's already taken root and which is likely to continue over the next decade is the move towards holistic health.

"More and more people are making the connection between mind and body. There's a growing understanding that what we think affects our bodies. Expect to see more research into this space, and with that, new products, services and even industries.

"Before it was meditation and mindfulness from a spiritual sense. Now we'll see the shift towards a practice that benefits health and the body. From this year onwards we're likely to see more research and development and commercialisation of this space," he says.

Looking further out into the future, Cherry says there may well be a paradigm shift with substances we know today as illegal psychedelic drugs.

"People are starting to talk about microdosing of substances, and experimentation of how microdosing these powerful drugs can alter human consciousness. I'd say that in the 10-year horizon, it's likely to start becoming a notable trend.

"Think about the use of CBD [cannabidiol] from cannabis — unimaginable a few years back but growing in popularity today. Who's to say that in the future microdosing of powerful hallucinogenic products is not going to be developed to benefit people in a variety of circumstances?"

Asked about gene doping and gene editing, Cherry was clear: "One has the sense this is happening in dark spaces and that scientists are playing with things they shouldn't be. We certainly don't know enough about the building blocks of life. There are still many discussions - especially around ethics and safety — that need to happen before anything becomes commercially viable or available."

And what about fitfluencers — popular people who use their influence on social media? "Influencers already have a large, independent media footprint, which they use to promote their own merchandise range. If you were to take this into the microdosing space, you may end up somewhere down the road where influencers are marketing their own psychedelic microdosing products, allowing fans to purchase unique products and experiences from their favourite personality."

The pandemic has fast-tracked an urgency to take wellness more seriously. There's a wealth of new research and technology to enable people to take control of their wellness
Jonathan Cherry, professional futurist

Nothing in the future is guaranteed, says Cherry. When it is put to him that the rapid advancement in nanotechnology and AI evokes the spectre of Skynet [a fictional artificial neural network-based conscious group mind and artificial general superintelligence system that serves as the main antagonist of the Terminator franchise] and a robot-driven doomsday, his answer is sobering.

"Skynet represents our fear of a dystopian future — we fear someone getting the keys to the world, so to speak, and controlling our destiny. But, in many ways we're already mindless drones — look how we engage with social media.

"It's clear that the pandemic has fast-tracked an urgency to take wellness more seriously. There's a wealth of new research and technology to enable people to take control of their wellness.

"Will people exploit this? It's likely, but that's human nature. As long as the regulators move fast enough — not to suffocate creativity but to protect society — we should be OK."

Farewell, Sarah.

And so she turned off her avatar, Sarah, and unplugged her from the wall. She walked outside, breathed in the fresh air and went for a jog.

For all the innovation and technological advancement in the world, nothing came close to the endorphin rush she got from moving her body through space until she was out of breath. Tech can enhance human experience, but never replace it. Or can it?