America’s obsession with wellness didn’t start with a global pandemic, but if there was ever a time to try miracle cures, meditation, or virtual pilates, it seems to be now, with no vaccine in sight.
“Wellness,” representing everything from HIIT workouts and vitamins to bubble baths and yoga mats, represents a $4.5 trillion market, according to the Global Wellness Institute. It’s used as a synonym for health and fitness, including personal care, beauty, dietary supplements, corporate wellness programs, and spas.
Today, the wellness industry represents 5.3% of the global economic output, with wellness expenditures ($4.2 trillion) representing more than half of all global health expenditures ($7.3 trillion), according to the WHO. The more uncertain these times get, the more attractive supplements, fitness classes, and digital wellness apps become—miracle elixirs to sanitize our fears away.
When you think of modern-day wellness, you’re probably picturing Gwenyth Paltrow, green juice in hand. Goop, her company-turned-phenomenon, argues it can boost your immune system with GoopGlow Morning Skin SuperPowder (“Drink your way to glowing skin with a power shot of antioxidants,” according to Goop’s website) or SuperElixir Greens (“for whole-body wellness”).
Will these stop you from getting COVID-19? It’s highly unlikely. But Goop’s most recent public valuation at $450 million means it doesn’t really matter.
Gwenyth Paltrow, Goop’s founder, may have learned a thing or two from Georgia pharmacist John Stith Pemberton, who advertised his miracle cure as “a valuable Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affection.”
He was talking about Coca-Cola. Yes, the soda. (Back then, it included cocaine.) Patent medicines like the original Coca-Cola syrup became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a way for people—displaced by industrialization, overwhelmed by social change, and struggling with the new world order—to find a cure for whatever maladies doctors couldn’t solve. Advertised as cures for anything from a fever to tuberculosis, they often contained alcohol, morphine, or other painkillers.
The 1906 Food & Drugs Act drew attention to these “quack” medicines and began more regulation of harmful chemicals and false advertising, but the temptation afforded by miracle cures in times of distress and societal upheaval never went away.
During the week of March 8, 2020, just as fears about the coronavirus became realized, dietary supplements and vitamin sales grew by 35%. Specifically, vitamins and minerals that claim to boost immunity skyrocketed, like elderberry (up 415% that week) and zinc (up 255%).
“People don’t know how this is going to shake out,” Joan Driggs, vice president of market research firm IRI, told Nutritional Outlook. “Vitamins and supplements, right now in particular, are viewed as a small measure of control that people have over their lives, in a really uncertain time.”
Without a vaccine, turmeric and superpowder will have to do.
Doctors always give 2 pieces of advice when it comes to your health: diet and exercise. If vitamins and supplements represent the “diet” side of wellness, what about workouts?
If there’s one space practically designed to spread COVID-19, it’s a gym. Nothing like breathing heavily in a confined indoor space, packed with a hundred other people doing the same thing and touching all the same surfaces, right?
As gyms and studios around the country closed, digital fitness stepped in. Companies like Peloton saw huge gains. Sales topped $500 million in the spring, a 66% growth that cemented their market leadership. Professional spin instructors—who have to go through a rigorous tryout process—speak directly to you through the $2,000 bike. Peloton has recently expanded its offerings to include boot camps, yoga classes, and more.
Fitness equipment sales rose 55% in March, with items including dumbbells, kettlebells, and TRX bands sold out on Amazon for months. If you were already paying $360 for 10 classes at Barry’s Bootcamp, what’s a couple hundred for a few kettlebells and bands to do the same workout at home?
The digital fitness industry—apps like Apptiv, Nike Training Club, and Glo—was already projected to grow by $5.44 billion by 2024, pre-pandemic, and that should only accelerate. Many of those apps offered free versions or downloads as the pandemic began, but as Saturday Night Live joked during their “SoulCycle at Home” sketch, “We may not have bikes, but that’s not stopping us from charging you to watch us work out. Let’s go!”
Local gyms without armies of marketers and software engineers struggled to pivot quickly into the virtual fitness space, cobbling together Instagram broadcasts or Zoom classes. These can be free-flowing dance classes in an empty studio, like Ryan Heffington’s super-popular Instagram or compilations of tiny Zoom boxes in kitchens and living rooms doing Downward Dog.
Digital fitness’s biggest drawback is that when you go to a gym, you go there for one purpose: to work out. If you pay $35 for a SoulCycle class, you’re going to give it your all. “It’s a little more challenging when you’re doing it with your fiancé eating breakfast and you just moved your table out of the way in your 500-square-foot studio apartment,” fitness instructor Andrew Slane told The Atlantic. “You really, really have to hold yourself accountable, and some days you’re just not feeling it.”
At home, there’s no stopping a casual pause to drink water, tend to a child’s bloody nose, or simply sit down and wait out a tough part of class (OK, maybe that’s just us). There’s no replacement for an instructor helping you perfect your Warrior II. The question is, will people feel safe enough to return, or will they look around their brand new home gyms and say, “Why bother?”
Perhaps the most lasting impact on the wellness industry is increased demand for mental health services. While the stress of staying at home is nothing compared to sickness or death, there’s no doubt that it’s exacerbating mental health issues like depression and anxiety, especially for those quarantining alone.
In China, where the virus originated, studies show an increase in post-traumatic stress syndrome—not just from healthcare workers, who have been thrown into combat-like conditions, but also for those sheltering in place.
Many turn to meditation to cope. Downloads for mental health apps like Calm and Headspace increased dramatically in the month of April, up to 10 million in one month. Calm saw the largest growth (31%), while apps like Headspace promoted free memberships for healthcare workers and the unemployed.
“The single most important thing that can happen right now in this pandemic is that we feel our collectivity—that we’re really here to help each other move through this,” said Tara Brach, a psychologist and mindfulness specialist, in an interview with Vox. “The ultimate gift of meditation is that it helps us come home to a space of presence that is large enough for whatever we encounter.”
Until the world sees a vaccine, wellness—even virtually—will continue to take over every aspect of American lives. After your morning meditation, pop a zinc, hop on your Peloton, and make the most of it.