From ‘mindful exercise’ to fast results and gadgets that record it all for us. Abi Jackson reports on the fitness trends set to work up more of a sweat in 2016
The last few years have seen some major trends emerge in the world of fitness - not least the fact that, generally speaking, we’re getting more and more into it.
The days of merely ticking a box with an exercise class, or a few weekly sessions in the gym to tone up and keep trim are, for many, long gone. We now want - and get - so much more from our fitness regimes.
What’s it doing for us? How can we improve - and is there a gadget that’ll help us record that improvement? Will it make us stronger, but also more calm, happy and motivated? Is there a sportive we can sign up and train for? And we don’t just want to participate - we want to read about our chosen disciplines, buy the gear, and share and compare on social media too.
Having a keen interest in fitness is, of course, nothing new. What is new is how ensconced it’s become in the mainstream. You no longer have to work in the industry, or be pro or semi-pro, to want to take your exercise seriously and seek to understand its mechanics; everybody can - and you no longer have to subscribe to specialist magazines to read about it; it’s right there in the features pages of the weekend papers.
While there’s still a way to go with mental health awareness, we are talking about mental health more now than in previous decades - and we’re increasingly aware that looking after ourselves is as much about managing stress and keeping our minds healthy as it is about getting our all-important five-a-day and not smoking.
Much research has found that exercise can have similar - and indeed sometimes even more effective - results than antidepressant drugs, including a Harvard review of studies dating back to 1981 which concluded that regular exercise can improve mood in those with mild to moderate depression, and also play a role in the treatment of major clinical depression.
Most people I know who see exercise as a crucial part of their lives cite ‘stress-relief’ as one of its key benefits. Getting our heart rates up and flooding our veins with oxygen triggers chemical reactions that offset the strain and exhaustion of our demanding worlds, not only helping us feel more in control and grounded, but also serving as a reminder that there’s more to life.
“Over the last year, we’ve seen an increasingly conscious approach to exercise develop, as our knowledge of our body grows. 2016 will take this further, as it becomes not just about the body but the mind,” says James Trevorrow, product innovation manager at Virgin Active. “This consciousness will continue to develop further as we increasingly link the way we exercise and the positive effect it has on our mind, utilising it to raise endorphins and help us find a balance in our busy day-to-day lives.”
As well as being a general factor across all exercise disciplines, ‘mindful fitness’ is growing in more targeted ways too, specifically with the continually growing popularity of the likes of yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi-type classes, where calm, focus and deep breathing play central roles, and for many people are the number one appeal of participating. “Yoga has become a perennial player in the trend lists and its massive range of different style, alongside its continuous results in participants means it is staying in the top list and going nowhere,” says celebrity trainer Matt Roberts, whose clients include David Cameron (www.mattroberts.co.uk).
Alongside this, our thirst for adrenalin and escapism through exercise also looks like it knows no bounds, as more and more of us sign up to personal challenges. Goalposts are forever being stretched as well - these days, as well as knowing somebody training for their first marathon, there’s a high chance somebody among your friends, acquaintances or colleagues will be ticking off an ultra, too.
“Life is about testing yourself and pushing your own limits,” says Kenton Cool, who climbed Everest for the 11th time in 2013. “We are starting to see this challenge mentality become part of our approach to exercise, how much we actually know our own bodies and how far can we push ourselves.”
It’s not just about achieving ever-more challenging targets though; the escapism plays a key part too, wanting to be more well-rounded people with multiple interests and skills, whose lives and identities no longer revolve so disproportionately around work and income.
“Adventure is catching on. In 2016, we think more people are going to be trying new things, whether that’s taking on a challenge like Tough Mudder, learning to ski, or something life-changing like walking the Nile,” says explorer Levison Wood who, along with Cool, is part of Virgin Active’s new innovation and development team, Discovery Lab.
Just like people, lifestyle trends can be full of contradictions, and as our appetite for mindfulness and a return to simpler joys grows, so too does our taste for fast results, and the tech to measure them with.
A big example of this is the relatively recent trend for high-intensity interval training [HIIT], something that’s now incorporated across countless workout classes and disciplines, with short super high-intensity bursts interspersed with short recovery periods. These workouts tend to be fast, and promise fast results too, which, in research trials at least, also deliver. “[HIIT] has stayed popular because those people who are into their training like the hard, high-intensity, barrier-pushing appeal, while for those who are less exercise-inclined, it offers a solution that doesn’t eat up too much time but does produce good results,” says Roberts. “There will always be concerns about the safety of true high-intensity training for certain individuals but, as always, provided the individual is generally in good health then the approach is fantastic for many different goals and outcomes.”
Scott MacKenzie, UK group exercise manager for Fitness First, notes that gym-goers are continually looking to “ramp up the intensity of their workouts”. Furthermore, the EPOC [Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption] effect associated with this style of training means you continue to burn calories much quicker, up to 48 hours after the workout, he adds.
Our results-driven thinking is also reflected in the ongoing trend for wearable tech, apps and activity tracking gadgets like Fitbits and Jawbone. While in terms of research, the jury’s out on the true extent of their long-term effectiveness, and if you do some digging, you’ll find there’s some mixed evidence as to whether more expensive gadgets actually garner ‘better’ results for users, the trend for ‘smart training’ is still gathering pace.
“This has been gradually growing for around the last five years. It takes a while for any technology to become normal and accepted... But look around you now,” says Roberts. “There are devices to wear on your wrist, chest and head to track your body; devices built into golf clubs, tennis rackets, bicycles and footballs that track all sorts of sports data, and there are, of course, multiple sensors built into your phone that you carry around with you every minute of every day, collecting data whether you asked for it or not.
“The difference now is that there are great apps that are delivering the information back in a clear, acceptable and simple enough way to make it interesting and useful.”