Marcia Ra-Akbar has been in the fitness industry for over 20 years with a goal of bridging the gap in minority health and wellness. (Courtesy Photo)

By Marcia Ra-Akbar
AFRO Guest editor

The fitness industry has come a long way since the early boom of the 80s. In the more than 20 years that I have been in this sector operating fitness gyms, running classes, managing personal trainers and training my clients, the innovations in fitness technology and continued advancements have been nothing short of stunning. Wearable fitness gear like apple watches, artificial intelligent weight machines that learn your behaviors and grow with you, on-demand workouts, online personal training, fitness gaming and apps have been with us for years. 

And despite the exponential growth in the global fitness economy, to the tune of $94 billion in 2018, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sports Club Association, there is a continued rise in obesity within the African-American community. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African-American women have the highest rate of obesity than of any other group in the nation. Statistics put out by the department say 80% of African-American women are obese or overweight. African-American men are close behind at 70%. 

I got into fitness to serve this specific community. As a fitness professional, my goal and passion have always been to bridge the gap in minority health and wellness using fitness as my vehicle. The journey, however, hasn’t been easy. I learned early on in my career that the playing field wasn’t equal. Food deserts, safety concerns, long work hours and financial constraints greatly limit potential. Technological advances have come a long way in fitness to solve some of these problems, but the high-ticket prices and buy-in have been challenging. 

This past year has been life-changing for all of us in many ways. The pandemic and quarantine have disrupted our lives, impacting our daily routines on fundamental levels. Schools closed and businesses, both small and large, took a hit. By May 2020, most states mandated their fitness clubs to shut down, crippling the industry and its workers. As a matter of survival, the fitness industry as a whole upgraded its existing digital infrastructure to drive user engagement and user experience. 

The fitness industry went almost entirely online, and a surge of new participants took notice. Fitness brands like Peloton partnered with celebrities like Beyonce to create buzz and attract more users. Fitness instructors live-streamed their classes on zoom with unlimited capacities. Clients worked with their trainers via fitness apps all from the comforts of their living rooms and small spaces around the house. With heightened health concerns, more people dialed into their physical and mental health. Amid the pandemic, the challenges some communities faced decreased. Home gyms surged, YouTube videos on health and wellness skyrocketed. Fitness became more accessible and affordable.

For the first time, I saw both buy-in and accessibility. Mindbody Business reported that 7% of their fitness app users used live-streaming fitness in 2019 but during the pandemic, that percentage increased to 80. The quarantine showed us that we could work out anywhere. 

As fitness gyms reopen, many trainers, instructors and gyms will continue to provide this hybrid model because it works. As I look into the future, I am excited and hopeful to be in an industry dedicated to building generational health across state lines and global shores. What we have learned about ourselves on a spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical level has been a blessing. COVID-19 has forever changed the fitness industry, and for that as a silver lining, I am grateful.

Follow Marcia Ra-Akbar on Facebook @mraakbar or contact her at Mraakbar2@gmail.com.