Shaken not stirred; fitness fads for 2021

Did Covid affect exercise trends?

Although it has its critics, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is recognised internationally as the leading organisation for exercise and fitness professionals. Since 2006, this body has conducted an annual survey of health and fitness professionals working in or around the fitness industry – all to explore industry fads and trends. Individual practices in the fitness world are, I’m going to say, on the quirky side, and often influenced by personal preferences, philosophies or the latest celebrity craze or fashion. Experts outside the industry often ‘side eye’ these practices, challenging the evidence basis of the media-driven exercise trends and methods.

As usual there is an inevitable bias to the survey which goes out to an ACSM mailing list of health and fitness professionals, those with ACSM accreditations, subscribers to their publications, and participants in their courses and conferences. Respondents included fitness centre staff, personal trainers, community fitness and physical activity and health consultants.

We took a look at the 2019 fads and trends, so let’s take a look at the 2021 list

  1. Online training (#26 in 2020!!)
  2. Wearable technology (top 3 since first appearing in 2016)
  3. Body weight training (first appeared 2013, top 10 since)
  4. Outdoor activities (added 2010, #13 last year)
  5. HIIT (high intensity interval training – top 5 2014 to 2021)
  6. Virtual training (separated from virtual online training for the first time in 2021)
  7. Exercise is Medicine (been around for a while – slips and slides)
  8. Strength training with free weights (previously strength training – free weights joined the list in 2020 at #4)
  9. Fitness programs for older adults (top 10 since 2007)
  10. Personal training (top trend since 2006)
  11. Health/wellness coaching (top 20 for years, health added to descriptor in 2019)
  12. Mobile exercise apps (top 20 since 2019)
  13. Employing certified fitness professionals (debuted 2019)
  14. Functional fitness training (using strength training to improve activities of daily living)
  15. Yoga (of course)
  16. Exercise for weight loss (won’t go awaysigh!!!)
  17. Group training (around forever but only made the list in 2017)
  18. Lifestyle medicine (evidence- based practice to help individuals and families become habitually physically active – first on in 2020)
  19. Licensure for fitness professionals (regulation of fitness professionals??)
  20. Outcome measurements (measuring up the Ying yang to track apparent progress)

Given the global responses to the Covid pandemic and the prevalence of full or partial lockdowns, it is no surprise that online activity options, self measurement, exercise using one’s body weight for resistance and a desire for outdoor activities, top the 2021 list. It will be interesting to see whether those trends persist over the following years as people discover that they can be active on their own without specific exercise facilities. I’ve got my eye on numbers 13 and 19 as this has been major source of tension for years, particularly with Exercise is Medicine (#7) and Lifestyle medicine (#18) sitting on the top 20. The question for consumers, and indeed for the medical professionals being asked to refer clients to fitness professionals for exercise assistance, is ‘can we really trust these people?’. Keep an eye out for a blog coming up SOON on the Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs)!!

Dropping off the list this year were circuit training (surprising to me), worksite health promotion and workplace wellbeing (not unexpected – the effectiveness of Corporate Fitness has been questioned for some time), and exercise programmes specifically designed for children (yay! – Let’s get play back in the equation and stop trying to get children to train and engage in formalised exercise).

Does all of this matter? Does this help? Does this list reflect the trends and fads in New Zealand? I’m not sure. It is interesting and could provoke some good discussions. What’s not on the list is probably of most interest to me – no core training (slipped off a few years back), no self mobilisation/foam roller stuff (joined and left the list pretty promptly), and nothing on injury prevention warm up programmes (not sure they were ever on any list!). Why do things disappear – presumably if they were offering noticeable benefits they would still be TRENDING, otherwise they are just a FAD.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Best, Phil


  1. Thompson, W.R. (2021) Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2021. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 25(1): 10 -19.