These Will Be the Biggest Health Trends of 2021
We asked a range of experts how they see things shaking out during a very challenging time
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Around this time last year, in keeping with recent tradition, we reached out to our network of health and fitness experts to forecast some industry trends for 2020. It was December 2019, just as the first documented cases of a new respiratory illness were being recorded in Wuhan, China. We were innocent of the global health cataclysm that was about to transpire, one which would force many of us to reassess what we had long taken for granted. For some, even going outside for a run became a luxury.
Amid our changed environment, here is a new batch of predictions for 2021. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate our national psyche, we asked some of our favorite contributors and other experts in the fitness world to give us their best guess about what to expect in the coming year.
More Athletes Will Open Up About Their Mental Health
I think the biggest trend in fitness will be more emphasis on mental illness and mental health. I think more world-class athletes, coaches, and industry insiders will come forward and share their stories of mental health challenges. This is an unambiguously good thing. We are not a mind and a body but a mind-body system. Just because you are a top athlete doesn’t mean you can’t go through emotional ups and downs. Athletes like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan used their platforms to great effect to help destigmatize anxiety and depression. It is incredibly freeing to get that kind of load off your chest, and the by-product is that you can help others along the way.
—Brad Stulberg, columnist for Outside, coauthor of Peak Performance and The Passion Paradox, and cofounder of The Growth Equation
Gyms Won’t Make an Immediate Comeback
Based on the number and frantic tenor of the press releases I’m getting from big fitness centers about how gyms will come roaring back next year, my guess is that gyms will not come roaring back next year. Too many people have discovered how simple, cheap, and safe home workouts can be. So good luck finding dumbbells for sale in 2021. Ditto for e-bikes, which are likely to be even trendier, since they allow spouses and friends of wildly different cycling abilities and fitness levels to ride together. And I think we will rush to be and work out together, once vaccines make gathering safe again. I also hope—and expect—we’ll see the return of large-scale, in-person events like marathons in the fall. Because a virtual Boston near home may be convenient, but it is not Boston.
—Gretchen Reynolds, Phys Ed columnist for The New York Times and author of The First 20 Minutes
It’s Going to Get Harder to Qualify for Boston
This year is going to be a very fast one for runners—and not just because of the latest generation of high-tech shoes. In particular, assuming mass-participation races are allowed, I think we’re going to see a big surge in mid-pack times that will totally recalibrate benchmarks like Boston Marathon qualifying thresholds. A lot of factors, including pent-up demand and uninterrupted training, have already produced some impressive pandemic performances from the likes of Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey. But I think a social element will also come into play for mid-packers in 2021. We’re desperate for social interaction, and outdoor runs will provide a rare and valuable outlet over the winter. The desire to catch up with friends will help incorrigible hammerheads slow their runs down to a conversational pace, more in line with the principles of “polarized training” that elites already follow. Get your BQ in this year, because it’s not going to get any easier.
—Alex Hutchinson, Sweat Science columnist for Outside and author of Endure
We Will (Re)Commit to Our Local Communities
As we emerge from the worst stages of the pandemic sometime in 2021, I’m hopeful that we’ll see a strong recommitment to our local communities: more support of small businesses such as running shops and restaurants, increased participation in outdoor activities like group workouts and smaller races, and generally people being more mindful and deliberate about keeping things closer to home.
—Mario Fraioli, author, coach, and founder of The Morning Shakeout
People Will Continue to Cook at Home
If the COVID-19 pandemic has done anything useful at all, it is to encourage at least some portion of the population to grow food, cook at home, bake bread, and preserve foods—all healthy trends, and may they flourish!
—Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, and author of Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat
We’ll Learn More About Female Physiology
We’re finally talking about the menstrual cycle and the extensive role sex steroid hormones play in the body outside of just reproductive function. People want to understand their bodies and know what the monthly fluctuation of hormones means in the context of sports and physical activity, an interest that will continue to grow in 2021. We’ll continue to talk openly and learn more about female physiology and not treat it as something to be embarrassed by or ignored. Researchers will work furiously to close the sex- and gender-data gap in sports-science research, and we’ll start to tease apart which training and nutrition interventions work (and don’t) in female bodies and where sex differences matter. We’ll also see more products and services targeted to female athletes, from training programs to supplements to apps. But until the scientific picture becomes a bit clearer, I’d advise proceeding cautiously.
—Christine Yu, health and science journalist for Outside, The Washington Post, and other publications and currently writing a book about women in sports
We Will Want More Useful Data
Tech has continued to rise, but there is also a “new pragmatism.” Essentially, we will still want nice things, but we will also want them to be simpler. If we cannot make sense of the data, then what is the point? Companies need to respond to this. I also think there will be more working out and movement for the sake of health. This is not quite the same as the recreation trend that caught steam a few years ago and is still growing, but people are beginning to understand (especially as millennials are aging) that workouts do not need to be so intense or long. Not because we are trying to get the most out of short workouts but that simply we want to feel good. We can then utilize movement for our health and not just aesthetics. Fitness will expand in this area, and it will act as an onboard ramp for many and a new activity for some.
—Joe Holder, fitness columnist for GQ
We Will Appreciate Our Local Green Spaces More than Ever
Times of crisis are a time to break down old assumptions and see things from a new perspective. Because of what we all went through in 2020, I think you’ll see the fitness and wellness industry take off as people re-prioritize their physical and mental health. If there’s one thing we all learned from going through this year, it’s the value of taking a walk. I think the public will recognize the benefits of local parks, greenways, and walkable cities and neighborhoods. We might finally realize that the space around us impacts our health. During the pandemic, the fitness industry was pushed more to online and connected group-exercise classes, like Peloton, which is great if it gets people moving. But I hope that we don’t go too far in that direction, where we’re all exercising at home in front of a screen and missing out on the joys of being outside, and more importantly, the special bond and community that arises when we go for runs or rides with friends.
—Steve Magness, track and field coach at the University of Houston, coauthor of The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance, and cofounder of The Growth Equation