GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected

Taking the pulse of Apple's attempt to bring its smartwatch and gym equipment together
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Until recently, gyms were disconnected places. Gym equipment rarely – if ever – worked well with wearables like fitness trackers and smartwatches beyond the chest strap, and the work we put in on the gym floor didn’t sync with outdoor fitness pursuits.

Then came Apple GymKit with its tap-and-sweat, two-way flow of data between the Apple Watch and cardio machines, promising to make the gym experience a little more seamless and our fitness tracking a little more holistic.

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At launch, the concept seemed to work well and was genuinely exciting. However, because rolling it out required both gym operators and manufacturers to buy into the idea – and serve up the enabled equipment – there was always a question mark over how soon it would hit your local gym.

Now, two years on from the fanfare unveiling in 2017, Apple has announced three new partnerships with gym equipment makers: Woodway, True Fitness and Octane Fitness. That means virtually every big player who makes equipment for gyms should be GymKit-enabled by autumn 2019.

Has GymKit invaded gyms and our fitness lives in the way Apple hoped it would or is still trying to find its place? Here's what we found out.

Why GymKit promised to change the indoor fitness game

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected

Back in October 2017, when the first Apple GymKit gym launched in Australia, it seemed strange that leaders in the performance and fitness tech world, the likes of Garmin, Polar and Fitbit, weren’t the first to crack this nut.

Read this: Apple Watch tips and tricks

Fast forward two years and the sales numbers explain a lot. According to one report from Counterpoint Technology, while the smartwatch market grew 48% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2019, the Apple Watch accounted for one-in-three of those smartwatch sales. Figures from Strategy Analytics also suggest that Apple shipped 22.5 million Apple Watch units during 2018, making it the most popular smartwatch globally.

We’ve made the Watch the centrepiece of our tech roadmap

So perhaps now it’s less surprising that the first big relationship between equipment manufacturers, gym operators and a tech company involved Apple. It’s also no surprise that for the fitness sector, having Apple take a lead represented a welcome gear change.

“It’s been a quantum leap,” says Greg Oliver, group chief executive and managing director at the Fitness and Lifestyle Group, which owns 500 gyms across the Asia-Pacific region. For Oliver, Apple’s move into the gym space marked a "coming of age" for the industry, and he believes Apple GymKit is something gym goers will come to expect as part of any club’s offering.

“We’ve made the Watch the centrepiece of our tech roadmap to make the experience so much more seamless,” says Oliver. “So that it’s used for frictionless and seamless access, for lockers, for cardio equipment and as a key component of the whole experience.

"It's recognition by one of the world’s largest companies that keeping people healthy is a very important opportunity,” he added. “And it’s a significant step change in terms of how people are assessing, managing and continuing to monitor their fitness journeys within our brands.”

Where GymKit lives in 2019

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected

All of which sounds great, but the big question is, where can you make use of GymKit right now? Let’s start with the latest stats. Apple told us exclusively that there are now 50,000 pieces of GymKit enabled equipment in 1,500 locations across 100 countries worldwide.

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Though the numbers are growing, penetration is still relatively low. On average these figures represent just 15 locations and 500 machines per country, though clearly some regions boast a higher density of enabled venues. Big brands and well-known gym chains are on board: Virgin Active (who were first to launch in the UK in London), Anytime Fitness, Fitness First, Lifetime Fitness, Planet Fitness, The Y and Equinox, all feature GymKit-enabled cardio equipment in some locations.

There are more equipment manufacturers too, with Stairmaster and StarTrac joining a list that already included the big hitters Technogym, Life Fitness and Matrix at launch. But that rollout is taking time.

Apple told us exclusively that there are now 50,000 pieces of GymKit enabled equipment in 1,500 locations across 100 countries worldwide

You could draw parallels between this space and CarPlay. While it was announced back in 2016, it’s taken time to become standard and it was only recently announced at WWDC that about 90% of cars in the US, and 75% globally, now support CarPlay.

Apple says a similar story is unfolding with GymKit, where it’s taken time for GymKit to spread but its reach is now growing.

“Our GymKit equipment partners manufacture almost 90% of all the cardio equipment in health clubs around the world,” says Jay Blahnik, senior director of fitness for health technologies, speaking to Wareable just after Apple's latest partnership announcement at WWDC. “And GymKit is becoming an increasingly standard part of their equipment offering.”

Kitting out the gyms

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected
Photo credit: by Danielle Cerullo on Unsplash

While manufacturers are enabling more premium machines, the onus is still very much on the gym operators to kit out their clubs when it’s time to refresh.

According to Jason Worthy, president of equipment makers Life Fitness, one of Apple’s key partners on GymKit, it’s taken some time for them to grasp the opportunity, but he also points out that this is changing.

“Even two or three years ago maybe only 1-in-10 operators was really heavily dialled into the digital disruption that was coming,” says Worthy, pointing to the impact of wearables and how important data was going to become.

Fast forward to today and Worthy says it’s now very rare to have a conversation with any operator that isn’t thinking about technology. “Some operators just didn’t see it as a priority but now they absolutely do,” he says.

“We’re seeing a lot of focus on tech and how integrating with wearables in general – and specifically more Apple products – is becoming a conversation starter."

It’s not just the premium clubs showing an interest either; Worthy is seeing more budget operators get on board. “They now realise that technology well-executed can be a significant differentiator for them. And they know that consumer demand is heightening,” he says.

For Greg Oliver, whose company didn’t need a second invitation from Apple to get on board from the get-go, it’s always been a no-brainer.

“We want to invest in all of the right technologies to ensure we’re continuing to try and improve the member experience and enabling people to live better lives,” he says. “It’s just part of our standard order that any of our new sites or club refits now come with GymKit cardio equipment.”

Oliver says his brands are seeing a more engaged membership as a result too.

But there’s clearly still much more work for equipment manufacturers and operators to do before GymKit becomes anywhere near ubiquitous. And for Worthy that means companies like Life Fitness helping operators understand the value of the technology and how easy it is to use and for operators to lead thereafter.

“Operators need to grab that baton and educate consumers,” says Worthy. “To say ‘use your Apple Watch, this is a great way to capture data and use that data within Apple Health to make smarter decisions and understand the impact of the exercise you’re doing.’ And maybe even go a step further and bundle up Watches with memberships.”

A free Apple Watch would certainly be a decent enticement for many potential gym members, and even more so if they can see the device having demonstrable uses once they make it to the club.

Having GymKit machines is one thing but helping members to find the best way to use them is another. So what have gyms been doing to put GymKit into practice?

How GymKit is being used

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected

At Fitness and Lifestyle Group gyms that include Barry’s Bootcamp and Fitness First, Apple GymKit is part of the induction and on-boarding process for new members at those venues with the equipment. All of the trainers also wear Apple Watches to help improve the trainer-client relationship.

Read this: Best gyms and studios using wearables to get you fit

“Trainers are engaging with some of the members who’ve chosen to share their workout data,” says Oliver.

“You can choose the people that you want to share with, compete with or banter with and that’s added another dimension to how we can continue to retain people, motivate people and keep them exercising.

“We’re trying to take people on a journey and make them a more active and healthy human being. If we’re good at making it a more frictionless experience, we will hopefully get more people staying and doing that for longer.”

That, Oliver says, improves the customer lifetime value from a business perspective.

“We’re not only looking at this as the members who are accessing our physical facilities, but we’re also looking for the Watch to be an integral part of how we assist people outside of our four walls as well.

“We’ve also created digital fitness programmes with the likes of Chris Hemsworth that Apple helped us develop and these sit on top of the watch as well.”

Future GymKit features: Beyond cardio tracking

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected
Photo credit: by John Arano on Unsplash

One area where both manufacturer and gym operators strongly agree is that GymKit technology has a big role to play in the future of the gym experience, and the current applications are just the beginning. Here’s what they tip to come next.

Oliver would like to see a gradual expansion of GymKit-enabled inventory, particularly into the area of strength and functional training.

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“For me it’s about how they continue to develop technology that brings more than just the cardio equipment into play," he says. "Technologies that we can deploy across some of the functional equipment to the extent that it would talk to some of the weight bearing equipment would be what I’d like to see over time.”

Successfully tracking resistance, range of movement, intensity level and heart rate in the weights section has long been a Holy Grail. It would allow gym goers to ditch the notebooks and leave smartphones in the locker, and still see all of the information from previous workouts. No wearable brand has really mastered this yet and Worthy agrees it’s an important next step for GymKit.

“Notwithstanding the fact that strength plays an important role in all training – whether you’re an ultra runner, a body builder or something in between – having technology that encompasses strength, functional and free-weights is important,” says Worthy.

But he admits that what really gets him excited is the potential for technology to drive a more personalised experience.

It’s time to get personal

GymKit two years on: Apple's quest to make fitness more connected

Photo credit: by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

“We’ve seen Apple really lean in and I think there’s some very exciting things coming down the line,” says Worthy, who believes the Apple Watch could act as the mobile key to a 360-degree portable digital experience gym goers can take with them anywhere.

“A lot of people go into the gym today and they do the same programme they always do. It doesn’t matter if it was six hours or six days since they were last in the gym, they tend to do the same workout,” says Worthy.

“I think it can get more granular,” he adds. “Let’s say I get on the treadmill this morning wearing a heart rate strap, what if the treadmill was able to say ‘Hey, you worked out at 8pm last night and your heart rate has not yet fully reset to base resting heart rate and so we recommend a different type of training for today. Don’t just go and run hard for 5km as it’s not going to give you the best training outcome.’ A bit like if you had a world class coach or trainer, that’s the value that you’d get.”

Worthy thinks Apple is well positioned to be the vehicle to help drive all of this knowledge into the system to create this highly personalised experience.

“What did people do outside, how much sleep did they get, how many steps have they been taking, what’s their heart rate response like today versus the last time they tried to attempt a PB. All of those variables coming in to drive a really rich personalised experience,” he says.

Creating the club of the future

What’s crystal clear from speaking to Apple, the manufacturers and the gym operators is that technology like Apple GymKit has an increasing role to play in the gym experience – and not just connecting more equipment or simply giving you ring-shaped credit for your workout. The industry as a whole is looking at how wearables can make the time we spend in the gym easier, from signing in to paying for that post-workout smoothie.

“We’re also really encouraged by the fact the manufacturers and the club chains have become much more engaged about the 'club of the future,’” says Blahnik.

“They’re really thinking not just about what happens on the equipment but how the whole club itself can be more connected to what the users expect to be connected to, whether it's their music, entertainment or their metrics. Everything from walking into their club and being able to pay with Apple Pay to being able to check in at the front desk with just their Apple Watch or their iPhone,” he says.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity in this space, and what we can bring to life with our partners. We think the future and what can happen here is very exciting.”

And if we could choose what they fix first? Please let it be smart lockers that human beings can actually understand. Or maybe your Watch giving you a tiny electric shock when you don’t put your weights back.

How we test

Kieran Alger


Kieran is a world record-setting runner and one of the UK's most experienced running journalists.

A constant tester of the latest fitness technology, he's always hunting for innovations that can make him run faster, further and generally be in better shape.

Kieran is often found wearing four GPS running watches at once. And to date he's tracked more than 50 marathons, 13 ultras and countless half marathons - including the Marathon Des Sables.

In 2022, he became the first person to run the river Danube from sea to source, a measly 1,830 miles in 66 days. And still had time to test running gear.

Kieran regularly takes running tech to the extremes for Wareable and the likes of Runner's World, Mens Health and Wired.

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