The top 5 fitness trends in 2021


January 26, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic influenced how we work out.

For the past 15 years the American College of Sports Medicine has surveyed more than 4,000 health and fitness professionals worldwide to get their predictions for what they think the trends in health and fitness will be for the year to come. If you are looking for some fresh ideas for invigorating your workout routine for the new year, these fitness trends (not fads, but what professionals see becoming most popular) can help get you started.

This past year’s survey asked 4,300 health and fitness professionals to rank 41 possible trends on a scale of 1 (least likely) to 20 (most likely to be a trend). The results, which were released in the January/February issue of ACSM Health Fitness Journal were especially interesting this year because some of the emerging trends were related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, online fitness training moved up from ranking 26th in the 2020 survey results, to No. 1 for 2021, as millions of adults worldwide were affected by fitness facility closures, working at home and lockdowns.

The top five fitness trends for 2021 as reported by the ACSM survey:

Online training

Virtual online training was first introduced on the annual survey in 2019 and debuted at No. 3 before dropping to No. 26 in 2020 when the “virtual” was dropped from the title in favor of the more specific online training. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the temporary closure of fitness facilities around the world. People were also working remotely as never before, forcing an innovation in the delivery of fitness programming,” said ACSM past president Walter R. Thompson, PhD, FACSM, ACSM-CEP, lead author of the survey. “Online training was developed for the at-home exerciser. This trend uses digital streaming technology to deliver group, individual or instructional exercise programs online.”

Online training is available 24/7 and comprises live classes (live-streamed workouts) and prerecorded ones. Look for online training through your favorite fitness facility such as the YMCA, boutique studios, on YouTube and through other fitness companies that are expanding services to meet the changing needs of the customer.

Wearable technology

Wearable technology was the No. 1 trend since it was first introduced on the ACSM survey in 2016 (the only exception was a drop to No. 3 in 2018) and includes fitness trackers, smart watches, heart rate monitors and GPS tracking devices. Examples include fitness and activity trackers like those manufactured by Fitbit, Samsung Gear Fit2, Misfit, Garmin and Apple. These devices can be used to count your daily steps. They also track heart rate, body temperature, calories, sitting time, sleep time and much more. New innovations include electrocardiogram technology and measuring blood pressure and oxygen saturation.

Body weight training

Body weight training appeared for the first time on the trends survey in 2013 (at No. 3) and has stayed in the top 10. Body weight training uses minimal or no equipment, which makes it an inexpensive way to exercise effectively, from anywhere, to build strength. Wall squats, pull-ups, lunges, glute bridges, bear crawls, planks and side planks are all examples of body weight exercises. For more advanced options for body weight training, try adding resistance (dumbbells or ankle weights), increasing time or repetitions, or add the challenge of balance.

Outdoor activities

Another category that moved up in the rankings due to the pandemic was outdoor activities. Walking, group cycling, running and hiking have become more popular than ever as people sought ways to stay active while staying safe. The outdoor environment offers a great space for physical activity that is convenient, affordable and less intimidating than a gym for many of us. The journal of Health and Sport Sciences reported that participation in physical activity is more likely to be continued if the activity is viewed as enjoyable; and that outdoor exercise increases enjoyment, and exercise-related satisfaction. Regular outdoor physical activity, rather than indoor activities, may therefore be a more effective approach to creating a consistent fitness routine. 

High-intensity interval training (HIIT)

HIIT continues to be popular due to its ability to provide a powerful workout in a short period of time. The No. 1 trend in 2014 and 2018, it fell to No. 3 in 2019 and No. 2 in 2020 and is now the No. 5 trend. The HIIT workout focuses on fast-paced routines that burn calories and get the heart rate elevated in short maximal-effort intervals, with short periods of recovery in between. HIIT can be modified for all fitness levels and for individuals with health conditions, such as diabetes and being overweight. It can even be accommodated to a variety of exercise modes, from cycling to walking to swimming and even group fitness classes. 

According to the ACSM, benefits of this type of training include:

  • Improved aerobic fitness
  • Improved blood pressure
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Improved insulin sensitivity (because it helps the exercising muscles more readily use glucose)
  • Better cholesterol profiles
  • Managing a healthy body weight 
  • Improved muscle mass

In addition to benefits listed above, research suggests that HIIT elevates BDNF, a protein that stimulates the growth of new brain cells. This means that older adults who want to reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s should consider adding HIIT workouts to their exercise program.

Moves to consider include push-ups, squats, butt kickers, tricep dips and lunges. Check out this beginner-friendly, ready-to-go HIIT workout. Always listen to your body, make modifications when needed, and be sure that proper form is a top priority. As with any high-intensity workout, don’t forget to include a warm-up and cool down. 

When looking for new fitness routines, be mindful that trends are different than fads. Be wary of fads or programs that promise results that seem too good to be true. If you are starting a physical activity program for the first time, or if you have any underlying health conditions, be sure to get clearance from your healthcare provider before you get started. Whatever you do to stay active, be sure you enjoy it and you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.