Ozempic comes for gyms - how they’re responding

Nathaniel Meyersohn, CNN | 3/1/2024, 2:01 p.m.
America’s gyms are adjusting their strategies as more of their members take weight loss drugs.
Ozempic and other drugs used for weight loss are upending the fitness industry. Mandatory Credit: David J. Phillip/AP via CNN Newsource

America’s gyms are adjusting their strategies as more of their members take weight loss drugs.

Luxury gyms such as Life Time and Equinox are acquiring weight loss clinics with doctors who can prescribe GLP-1s, the powerful new class of medications that has proven to be highly effective at helping people shed weight, as well as designing exercise programs specifically for people taking the medications.

The industry is undergoing a major shift as Baby Boomers start to age out of the typical gym-going population, and new medications enable easier weight loss. Oprah’s famous WeightWatchers commercials are out (the company’s stock tumbled this week on the news that she was stepping down from the board), and doctors and strength training are in.

Ozempic, Wegovy and other GLP-1 prescription drugs have swept through wealthier demographics of the country. US health care providers wrote more than 9 million prescriptions for Wegovy and other injectable drugs used for weight loss during the last three months of 2022 alone. JPMorgan researchers estimate that 30 million people may be taking GLP-1 drugs by 2030, or around 9% of the US population.

While the impact of GLP-1s on exercise on the body still isn’t fully understood, gyms want to make sure they are not left behind in the shift to weight loss drugs. The industry has historically made billions of dollars from people hoping to lose weight.

But gyms are still about building muscle, too. One common side effect for some patients taking these medications is muscle loss. So gyms are now starting to market their brands to existing members who say they are on GLP-1s, and hoping they can add memberships in the future as people on these medications seek to keep and build muscle.

Planet Fitness and other low-cost gym chains also may benefit from the growth of these medications as prices fall, some analysts say. For now, GLP-1 medications are prohibitively expensive for most Americans, costing about $1,000 or more a month.

“In a world where GLP-1s become widely accessible, gyms from Planet Fitness all the way up to the highest-end brands are likely going to pull out marketing campaigns looking to boost their membership bases,” said Simeon Siegel, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers fitness companies.

Weight loss doctors and personal trainers

Life Time has launched a clinic that provides members with personal training focused on weight loss and access to doctors who can prescribe GLP-1 medications for people who qualify for them.

People taking GLP-1s are “going to want the right professional facilities and professional personal trainers and nutritionists to help them,” said Bahram Akradi, the CEO of Life Time, on an earnings call Wednesday. “We are confident that this [GLP-1] mega trend will be particularly positive for Life Time.”

Equinox has debuted a “GLP-1 protocol,” a personal training program for members on these drugs, to preserve muscle mass. The company said it launched the program in response to questions from members on GLP-1s.

The plan promises a “targeted fitness program [that] can help you retain and build muscle during the process,” Equinox says.

Xponential Fitness, which owns boutique brands such as Club Pilates, Rumble and Pure Barre, acquired a chain of weight loss medical clinics in Southern California staffed with doctors who can prescribe GLP-1s.

Budget gyms such as Planet Fitness say GLP-1s could help the chain attract first-time gym members who want to stave off muscle loss. Some analysts agree.

“If this goes mainstream, I believe gyms and fitness centers will find a brand new set of potential members,” Siegel said. “This could bring in people who never stepped foot into the gym into having a new view of your health.”

But some fitness industry observers say it’s too early to understand how GLP-1 users will exercise, and the impact to gyms.

“It is still too premature to highlight the use of the weight loss drugs and the role of clubs,” said Rick Caro, the president of Management Vision, a fitness consulting firm.

Industries preparing for Ozempic future

The gym industry is one of many that are trying to prepare for a future where more people take such drugs.

Known as glucagon-like peptide 1 or GLP-1 receptor agonists, these drugs were originally developed to treat type 2 diabetes. (Ozempic has not been approved for weight loss by regulators, though Wegovy, a similar drug, has.)

WeightWatchers launched a new membership plan for people that gives members access to doctors who can prescribe these medications. It also made a $100 million-plus deal to buy Sequence, a telehealth business that offers virtual prescriptions to patients for these weight loss drugs where appropriate.

Food companies are also bracing for GLP-1 consumers to buy fewer sugary snacks and drinks.

JPMorgan last year said that current GLP-1 users purchased around 8% less food — including snacks, soft drinks and high-carb products — over the prior year, compared with consumers who were not on these drugs.

Food giant Nestlé plans to invest more in nutritious products that it says provides “benefits” to people on GLP-1 treatments, such as its Opifast high-protein shakes.