How is AI going to change fitness?

Here’s something most people probably don’t know: artificial intelligence actually debuted at a conference at Dartmouth University in 1956. Yep, 11 years after the end of WW2, artificial intelligence was on the scene. At the time, there was a lot of optimism. Some people at the conference believed robots and AI machines would be doing the work of humans by the mid-1970s. Of course, that didn’t happen -- what happened instead was that funding dried up and a period called “The AI Winter” began. That ostensibly lasted into the 2000s, when IBM’s Watson peaked a lot of interest in artificial intelligence again.

Now we’re at an interesting place. Like PCs in the early 1980s or the Internet in the early 1990s, artificial intelligence is “out there” and people know about it -- Tom Cruise and Will Smith movies, for one -- but it hasn’t impacted businesses just yet. (Well, not most businesses.) Prominent Silicon Valley executives, like Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Elon Musk of Tesla/RocketX, are beginning to do more around AI -- including being scared of its potential ramifications.

I am not here to talk about robots taking over the world or our souls, which likely won’t happen in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. But I do believe that over the course of the next decade, AI will make significant changes in the health and fitness industry. We don’t know exactly what that will look like, but we can try a few predictions here and have a discussion. As Kevin Kelly says “the greatest products and services haven’t been invented yet”. He was right and AI will be part of making that happen.

The Automation Issue

This is scary for a lot of people. Some claim 47-54 percent of jobs globally could be automated. The time frame for this varies by study, but generally it’s 10-30 years out from now. Health and fitness will be affected. At brick and mortar health clubs, many logistical functions -- check-in, cleaning, operations -- could be automated to AI machines. I think it will be a little time for AI to replace conventional trainers, although products like Pixformance are already doing some of this, but truly advanced forms of AI (that we haven’t seen yet) could theoretically become trainers too. There are already AI trainers, actually.

Unfortunately, and I think this is the broadest fear with automation, you need to look at these issues from a cost perspective. All industry leaders say they care about people, and oftentimes they do -- but they aren’t evaluated and judged on what happens with people. It’s the money. If they can buy a series of AI robots for a one-time cost and not pay them recurring salaries, cost of living increases, bonuses, and health insurance, they will. It’s that simple. People are largely interchangeable in companies now anyway, and if you add a cost savings factor, it will be appealing to business owners. (But what happens when we automate executives?) Point is: automation will come for brick-and-mortar clubs, and while I am uncertain as to when that will exactly occur, it will likely be sooner than you think.


This is the other big one. As noted here, the rise of AI has a corresponding rise in potential new applications of information technology in the health and fitness sector. You can see a little bit of the writing on the wall here: Apple is clearly chasing a health care play as a major new revenue stream, and they’re also -- like Google, Facebook, and others -- gobbling up smaller companies to get ahead in AI. Eventually, these lines will mesh at a place like Google or Apple, and you’ll see high-level AI coupled with a health care/fitness model. Now, is Google going to be the new MyFitnessPal, now owned by Under Armour? Maybe or maybe not. But we’re going to see the tech companies coming to a place of health/fitness + AI, and it’s going to be interesting to see what that looks like.


This is a big one. For an average person, one of the big issues with getting on board with fitness programs -- aside from motivation -- is that they don’t seem personalized to them. Good trainers do this, of course. But oftentimes the program is some general thing, and the person doesn’t have time to investigate all the different options on the fitness market, so they give it up. But now consider something like Watson, from IBM.Watson can basically go through 200 million pages of structured and unstructured data in a few seconds, and it processes the outcomes -- sees the connection across data -- more like a human than a computer. (Hence the term “AI.”) In fact Under Armour’s app relies on Watson to create contextual information for people today. So imagine if an AI program had access to years of fitness data and doctor reports for a new gym member. It scans everything in seconds, takes into account current information (height, weight, job, busyness of schedule) and can design a personalized program that truly works for the person. Something like: “Wednesdays 6am-7am legs, Thursdays 4pm-5pm cardio -- it’s OK you never have meetings then.” It would remove excuses entirely. What a world.

What else would you add on AI in the fitness space?

See the original LinkedIn blog post here.

Bryan O’Rourke is an entrepreneur, consultant, speaker, author, executive and investor, who has successfully advised and driven global brands for over 30 years. He has presented as a keynote speaker at industry and corporate conferences on four continents. You can hire him to speak at your next event or facilitate your organization’s strategic meetings. He is widely published and quoted in periodicals like Inc. Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and is CSO of a well known Houston based health club chain. Bryan is presenting at at the IHRSA ChinaFit Management Forum event in Changsha November 15-18 2016. He and his partners are launching Vedere Ventures, a boutique private equity firm investing in and advising various health and fitness business models around the globe. To learn more visit or follow him @bryankorourke.