C. Victor Brick, CEO of Planet Fitness Growth Partners and the founder of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation, on the Future of Wellness.

C. Victor Brick has 35 years of success in the fitness industry and is CEO of Planet Fitness Growth Partners (PFGP), the largest privately owned Planet Fitness franchise with 80+ clubs in the US and Australia. He’s chairman of the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation and a Global Wellness Summit Advisory Board member.

Victor Brick predicts:

  • Nearly endless opportunity for wellness, as it becomes part of the healthcare delivery system
  • Mental wellness as the industry growth-driver
  • A limit to the digital fitness boom
  • A new era of inclusivity/affordability, as the “other 80%” are now a huge market opportunity
  • A new focus on resilience and positive stress

Beth McGroarty, VP, Research & Forecasting, GWI: So much has been written—so many surveys done—on how the pandemic has made wellness more important to people. What’s your take on the future of wellness?

Brick: This is the most earth-shattering event since World War 2, and it will affect every aspect of civilization for the foreseeable future. It’s creating a whole new economy and mentality, and I believe there is nearly endless opportunity for wellness if we have the courage to push wellness to go where it belongs: as part of the healthcare delivery system.

The pandemic revealed that everything we’ve been saying for years about prevention is painfully true. It’s our time; it’s a classic case of never wasting a crisis. Wellness will move to the true mainstream, and once it’s mainstream, everything changes: The medical world, governments and employers will all invest in “more wellness.”

McGroarty: Why has healthcare resisted integrating preventative wellness approaches for so very long?

Brick: The world operates in silos: The medical world, the political world and the wellness world all operate in their own silos, and they’re totally different cultures. There’s a complete lack of consensus on things like how to deal with a pandemic because we have not worked together. Even within the wellness community, everyone is in their own silo: The fitness community, the travel community and the wellness tech community often don’t know each other exists, and they’re all pushing their agenda rather than pushing wellness in general.

We must unite around one message: We’re all a critical part of the healthcare delivery system. Period.

No matter what space you’re in—fitness, yoga, nutrition—if it’s evidence-grounded, you’re part of the healthcare delivery system. And that means we’re essential businesses; governments shouldn’t close us, and we shouldn’t be forced out of business.

We must fight for our status as part of the healthcare delivery system, not just for our business survival, but because what we do saves lives. In the US, it’s crazy how the government has categorized fitness and wellness centers during the pandemic. They put us in the same category as bars and restaurants, perceived as recreation and leisure activity.

Another reason wellness hasn’t become part of healthcare is that we haven’t presented wellness as a multi-pronged total program. One market segment, like yoga, can send the message that they’re the answer and you don’t need anything else. We need a combination of so many things: a sound diet, stress-reduction, strength training, healthy sleep—and you can expand that to dozens of modalities for true wellness. Every one of us in the wellness community needs to help others in the community and send a unified “integrated wellness” message.

Another reason healthcare hasn’t embraced healthy lifestyle choices is that the benefits—especially for mental health—have remained too anecdotal. We must fund and promote evidence-based research on the benefits of holistic approaches to wellness that the medical industry will accept.

The good news is that powerful forces are coming together—from the lessons of the pandemic to young people—that will finally drive wellness to be far more integral to healthcare. Young generations really “get” holistic health and the centrality of mental wellness, and they’re going to shake up the traditional medical/healthcare system.

McGroarty: Your foundation is devoted to changing how the world treats mental health—to think beyond medication and psychoanalysis. How important is the “mental” side in the future of wellness?

Brick: Mental health will be the wellness industry growth driver and will be the mega-force that brings wellness and healthcare together.

I started the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation with my wife Lynne to honor my brother John, who suffered from schizophrenia his entire life and died from complications caused more by the medication he was taking than the disease. In all his years of treatment, in the best institutions in the world, he was never once put on a well-rounded program that included exercise, nutrition and other healthy behaviors.

We called our foundation a “mental health” —rather than a mental illness—foundation, but we should probably change our name to a “mental wellness foundation.” People are focused on mental wellness like never before, and the stigma of “mental illness” has disappeared almost completely. The main reason that employees now give when they call in sick is depression. Can you imagine telling your boss that 20 years ago?

The future: People seeking all kinds of wellness for the mental benefits. My wife and I have been in the fitness industry for 40 years, and for the first few decades, there were two main reasons people worked out: men to get bigger, women to get smaller. But a recent Euromonitor study found that for every major age group (Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, baby boomers), the #1 reason people now give for working out is for their mental wellbeing.

McGroarty: You’ve spent decades building a bricks-and-mortar fitness empire. Then COVID-19, and it’s all digital, digital, digital. What’s your long-term fitness bet? Digital? In-person?

Brick: In business (as at blackjack tables at casinos), there’s a thing called “table stakes”—the minimum buy-in. In health clubs, it used to be things like good service, clean equipment and aerobics. Today, digital has become table stakes: You have to be online, or you’re toast. But once something becomes table stakes, it’s a commodity, and the price plummets. How many online fitness programs today are free? Hundreds? Thousands? Everything is being done cheaper, faster and better, and if you jump into an online-only fitness business, you need to ponder if it will be financially sustainable two years from now.

Understand what drives your economic engine. As Jim Collins argues in his classic business book, Good to Great, great companies are committed to change while preserving the core. We’re providing online classes both at our high-end, full-service Brick Bodies Space health clubs and at our budget Planet Fitness franchise clubs, but we’re looking at it to complement—not drive—our economic engine, which is health club memberships.

There will always be value in the convenience of doing things at home: working, telemedicine, digital fitness. But it can only go so far because humans are profoundly social beings. Digital will never fully replace face-to-face meetings, work and fitness. The two most important things for mental wellness are coping skills and connectivity. While virtual can give you coping skills, it can never fully replace the connectivity of a live, in-person experience.

That’s why I’m skeptical of the “new normal” and “pivot” concepts. Taking a dramatically different direction that defies human nature is not necessarily the right thing to do. Life will never be the same, but it never is. People will continue to embrace online programs, but they will want their lives back. Their hunger to reconnect will be powerful, and that’s the big, long-term opportunity in wellness.

Digital may be the new “table stakes” in fitness, but the future is still, for the most part, face-to-face community.

McGroarty: The wellness industry has focused on elites­, while you’ve been in the budget fitness space for decades. There has been a cry for more inclusivity in wellness. Will this happen? Or is it just virtue signaling?

Brick: In the US, the wake-up to social injustice is as powerful a force as the pandemic. Everyone in wellness needs to make their offerings more accessible, affordable and inclusive because it’s the right thing to do.

But beyond the ethical imperative, the “other 80%” is where the huge market opportunities now lie.

Supply-and-demand is changing fast. Let’s be frank: Twenty years ago, there was almost no demand for wellness programs in minority communities—or for a budget fitness model—because the average person didn’t want to work out.

But I got into Planet Fitness because the affordable fitness space was an untapped opportunity. People always look at markets as pizza pies: There are only so many slices to go around. The “pie” for the health club industry used to be 15–18%, and the industry lived by these laws: never lower your rates, it cheapens the product; raise rates every year; and charge whatever the market will bear. Then Planet Fitness came along and blew that away: Let’s go with $10 a month and just cut out some extras. We have 15 million members today. Do the math: There are 300 million Americans; our members represent 5% of the population. We’ve taken the fitness industry from 18% to 23% of the population. Wow.

But that still leaves an almost 80% opportunity in the US and 90% in other countries. Almost every wellness sector now has the opportunity to dramatically increase its market penetration well beyond that old “15%,” as the demand for wellness is suddenly throughout the general public. A big part of bringing them in will be employers realizing our value and governments supporting our programs as part of healthcare.

Not every wellness business committed to inclusivity needs to think about “the millions.” For some companies, the “top 3%” will always be their core business: A luxury resort can’t just give away 20% of its rooms. But they can do great, inclusive things their way, whether community or online programs. I’m excited because the wellness pie has never been bigger, and there’s an incredible opportunity to expand that pie for everyone, forever.

McGroarty: Name one thing that becomes far more crucial in wellness in the future.

Brick: This crisis drives home the importance of physical and mental resilience.

Over time, because of modern conveniences, humans have devolved. We used to be able to survive in temperatures ranging from 110 degrees to 20 degrees below. Now, any colder than 68 degrees, we heat it; any hotter than 74 degrees, we air-condition it. Because we’ve made our lives so easy and rely on things like medications, we’ve compromised our immune systems and resilience.

We need to introduce more positive stress into our lives to get our bodies to respond and function at peak efficiency.

Positive stress is stress that gets us out of our comfort zone without going beyond what the body can handle: whether running or walking faster, eating less, holding that yoga stretch a little longer, or lifting a little more weight. Our bodies (and minds) respond to positive stress by becoming stronger and more resilient.

The pandemic essentially changes the “why” of wellness—why you push the physical and mental envelope—because we realize now that it’s a matter of survival for all of us.

That’s why our foundation has funded a $1.2 million, gold-standard study with the University of California, San Francisco on how different forms of positive stress—the Wim Hof Method, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and meditation—impact depressive symptoms. Results are coming soon.

Resilience will be the new cornerstone of wellness, and the industry needs to come together on this message.

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Why has healthcare resisted integrating preventative wellness approaches for so long? And is the “mental” side the future of wellness?

6 thoughts on “Q&A with Victor Brick: Why the Wellness Pie Has Never Been Bigger”

  1. The only thing I disagree with is including PF in the Healthcare umbrella. The professionalism of most PF staff members is sorely lacking. Most of the employees are just putting in the hours and doing just enough to keep the boss off their back. I know, what do you expect for the price. But Healthcare is not a budget, barebones business run by kids on their first job.

  2. Thanks a lot for this heartfelt, resonant and educative conversation.
    Widespread and steadily growing realisation that Mind-Body Wellbeing (MBW?) is the pathway for most, while healthcare a.k.a.“medical care” is the one for the ill, will dispel the stigma the words “mental health” evoke, and this will script the future’s prologue.
    Arrays of embedded experiences that kickstart and reinforce MBW will grow, and many will steadily become enduring Habits of Mind.
    The processes may well become the morning of The Age of Transformation.

  3. Whether Covid19 has changed people’s concept of wellness remains to be seen. What it has done is shown that people with compromised health are far more susceptible to additional disease or disorders. Since the majority of health issues in the USA, currently, are a byproduct of lifestyle choices, knowing whether the emphasis on life style changes remains once the pandemic urgency has passed is only a. matter of time.
    Hopefully, with an increased awareness of health care disparity, a generation more than wiling to talk about it, and the ability to confront the problem if we wish, we can begin to create options for more equitable health care dispersement as well as follow-up. Nothing begins with first having an awareness and then the willingness to deal with the issue. Recognizing that when one population is so extremely neglected, it impacts the rest may sadly be the one great motivator to create change. Creating the change however is the bottomline so whatever stressors stimulate that movement it is a success.

  4. Yes, I believe it is changing societies awareness of health and nutrition. I am in the Wellness sector and am looking forward to an uptick. Could not agree more that gyms and wellness should not be closed and should be considered essential! So true.

    Look forward to assisting others in their fitness journey.

    Kate LoPiccolo

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