Health is wealth
From wearable fitness trackers to personalised meal delivery kits, wellness has cemented itself as a core concept in our everyday lives. But with the market tipped to reach a $7trn valuation by 2025, there is an ever-growing price tag on feeling good
Death is the ultimate inevitability – it is one of life’s only certainties. For all of our advances in medicine and technology, it remains the one human malady that can’t be cured. But not according to a growing number of extreme longevity pioneers. For them, escaping death isn’t just a science fiction fantasy, but something they believe may be possible for humans of the future.
Tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson is the poster boy for this emerging group of immortality obsessives. While he may not be a household name compared with fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Johnson has garnered much media buzz over the past year. Dubbed ‘the man that’s ageing backwards,’ he has been eager to share his $2m-per-year extreme anti-ageing regime with his followers on social media.
As routinely shown in videos uploaded to his YouTube channel, from the very moment he wakes up each day, every minute of Johnson’s life is engineered towards achieving one specific goal: reversing the ageing process. A team of over 30 doctors and health experts are on hand to monitor his every move, using real-time data to implement a strict and uncompromising health regime.
If Johnson’s data-driven algorithm tells him to take over 100 pills a day and wake up each morning at 4.30am, then that’s exactly what he does. He has even experimented with injecting himself with his teenage son’s plasma in an effort to further reduce his ‘biological’ age. The routine is certainly not for the faint-hearted – but Johnson is far from timid when it comes to his approach. In fact, he embraces his position as a human guinea pig, claiming that his work on longevity will usher in “the most significant revolution in human history.”
While Johnson is an extreme case, he is certainly not alone in his quest for a longer, healthier life. Biohacking may seem like a niche hobby for the ultra-rich, but many of its core principles and practices are slowly trickling into the mainstream. According to McKinsey, the global wellness market is now worth more than $1.5trn, and continues to grow.
In a post-Covid world, we are spending more on health and wellbeing than ever before, with wearable fitness trackers, vitamin capsules and supplement shakes now a part of daily life for many. With millions of people around the world embracing daily monitoring of their health and fitness progress, Bryan Johnson’s world of biohacking and rejuvenation doesn’t seem like the fringe idea it once may have been. But how far will the average citizen go in their quest for wellness – and at what cost?
What happens in Silicon Valley rarely stays in Silicon Valley. The North California technology hotspot has birthed some of the most innovative and ubiquitous products of the past three decades, changing the very nature of our world in the process. Ideas that originate in Silicon Valley soon ripple across the globe, attracting the attention of tech enthusiasts before entering the mainstream. And the next obsession du jour is extreme anti-ageing.
In 2022, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos reportedly invested in Altos Labs, a new biotech company focused on reversing the human ageing process through ‘cellular rejuvenation programming.’ PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has donated over $3m to the Methuselah foundation, a biomedical charity that seeks to extend the healthy human lifespan and ‘make 90 the new 50 by 2030.’
Both men were early investors in Unity Biotechnology, a firm that seeks to ‘slow, halt or reverse diseases of ageing.’ And while Bezos and Thiel may be among the firms’ best-known backers, they certainly aren’t the only ones throwing money at these radical new fields of study. Altos Labs has succeeded in raising $3bn in funding for its work, which will be carried out in two labs in the US and one in the UK by an all-star team of scientists – with a number of Nobel laureates among the ranks.
Longevity, it seems, is the next frontier for Silicon Valley. According to Thiel, scientific breakthroughs in anti-ageing research will allow us to eliminate age-related disease “in the same way that we can fix the bugs of a computer system.” And death, he says, will be “reduced from a mystery to a solvable problem.”
With billions being poured into new biotech firms, investors are betting big on life-extending innovations. But despite Silicon Valley’s enthusiasm for ‘solving’ ageing, these companies are only at the very beginning of their research, with any significant breakthroughs likely to be many years away. In the meantime, though, the tech world’s longevity enthusiasts are focusing on what they can control – achieving ‘perfect’ health in the here and now.
And they don’t want to keep their wellbeing secrets to themselves. They are committed to bringing them to the masses – but it won’t come cheap.
Wellness at a cost
From Bryan Johnson’s $37-a-bottle ‘longevity’ olive oil to Freshology’s $130-per-week premium food delivery service, it appears that health now comes with a hefty price tag. And while it is certainly true that there is no need to part with such eye-watering sums of money to enjoy a healthy lifestyle, data shows that consumers are increasingly prioritising spending on wellbeing.
‘Wellness’ is a vague and fluid term, and has come to encapsulate everything from fitness and nutrition to mental health and spiritual balance. In recent years, consumers have been taking a more holistic approach to their health and fitness goals, embracing the concept of ‘wellness’ with open arms. According to a 2022 study carried out by McKinsey, 50 percent of US consumers now consider wellness to be a ‘top priority’ in their day-to-day lives. The firm predicts that the wellness market will continue to grow by up to 10 percent each year over the next decade, as wearable technology, nutrition apps and on-demand fitness services increasingly become fixtures of our everyday.
Incredibly, this wellness boom could see the market reach a $7trn valuation by 2025. In a post-Covid world, consumers have increasingly looked to take their health into their own hands, with a surge of interest in personalised, data-driven trackers and devices. For many, the pandemic served as a stark and unwelcome reminder of the importance of good health – both individually and collectively. Many of the wellness trends ushered in by repeated lockdowns have lingered long after the world’s great return to ‘normal,’ with remote fitness classes and mindfulness apps still proving popular with consumers in a post-Covid climate (see Fig 1).
The most significant trend that the pandemic accelerated, of course, is digitalisation. Almost overnight, most facets of our lives moved online, prompting a digital transformation of society that might have otherwise taken years to materialise. The wellness industry, too, was pushed to adapt to a digital era – something it managed with aplomb.
Customers are increasingly comfortable with trading their privacy for personal reward
In 2020, a record 527 million wearable fitness devices were sold, up from 384 million the year before. With gyms closed and group exercise classes no longer an option, housebound consumers turned to devices and services that could keep them focused on their goals while lockdown measures remained in place.
Wellness brands rushed to expand their online offerings, with health and fitness apps generating just shy of 2.5 billion downloads in 2012. The meal kit market also saw a sustained surge in demand, with provider Gousto seeing its sales rise by 129 percent over the course of 2020, allowing it to achieve coveted ‘unicorn’ status. Rival provider HelloFresh also saw impressive revenue growth of 122 percent in the second quarter of 2020, while the vitamins and supplements market also noted a significant jump in sales. Consumer spending might have slumped in most areas during the pandemic, but the wellness space boomed. With no signs of the wellness trend cooling down post-pandemic, the door has been opened to a new wave of health-related products and services for spend-happy customers.
The wellness market is growing ever more crowded. New companies continue to spring up with remarkable regularity, each offering an innovative solution to whatever may be ailing you – whether that be a lack of sleep, low energy or an insufficiently challenging workout plan. Despite the variety of wellness products and services flooding the market, consumers are still hungry for more. Last year, McKinsey found that a third of survey respondents expressed a desire for additional products and services in the wellness space, with a significant portion of those surveyed saying that the current offering is simply insufficient to meet their needs.
Millennials and Gen Z appear to be driving this booming trend. Indeed, the younger generations have a seemingly insatiable appetite for all things wellness, desiring products and services at a rate six to seven percentage points higher than those of any other age bracket. This is certainly good news for the thriving wellness market, which has successfully captured the next generation of consumers. Commanding a remarkable $360bn spending power, Gen Z is a lucrative market to unlock. But Gen Z consumers are also a fickle bunch, meaning that wellness companies can’t rely on returning custom and brand loyalty – they need to stay abreast of the latest trends in customer demands if they wish to stay relevant in an increasingly saturated market. And what might wellness innovation look like in the next five years? Well, in the case of millennials and Gen Z, wellness is all about personalisation. For digital natives who have grown up online, data sharing is part of the online experience.
While they are attuned to the risks of privacy violations, they have fewer qualms than previous generations about sharing their personal data – especially if that means they will have a more personalised and streamlined e-shopping experience. According to research carried out by McKinsey, 49 percent of millennials and 37 percent of Gen Z express a strong preference for highly personalised products, services and apps. From nutrition plans tailored to users’ diet preferences, BMI and activity levels, to customisable haircare products formulated to each customer’s hair length and type, brands have been quick to embrace personalisation. Soon, however, customers will start to expect this level of tailored offerings as the norm – meaning that wellness companies will have to get creative with new ways to keep things bespoke.
All industries – the wellness market included – will need to prepare for the oncoming artificial intelligence (AI) wave. But the wellness industry is already largely data-driven, making it a promising candidate for harnessing the benefits of AI. Already, a number of mental health apps are offering AI-powered therapy chatbots as part of their care packages, allowing consumers to access around-the-clock advice and support – albeit in text-only form. Leading mental health chatbot Wysa boasts of a user base of over five million people, and has partnered with the UK’s National Health Service to support patients through the mental health care pathway process, demonstrating the extraordinary reach this technology can have. With human therapists oversubscribed and in scant supply, chatbots may offer some comfort – but there remains some understandable scepticism over allowing a largely unregulated set of algorithms to carve out an expanding role for themselves in the mental healthcare space.
Shifting corporate culture
In the post-Covid world, consumers aren’t just prioritising wellness in their personal lives. Workplace wellbeing has risen up the corporate agenda at businesses large and small in recent years, with many employers offering wellness perks as part of their core benefits package. Free subscriptions to mindfulness apps and discounted offers on gym memberships and fitness classes are just some of the benefits that many workers have come to expect from their employers, but some firms are taking their wellness offer one step further.
In 2019, professional services firm PwC launched a pilot study to identify the benefits of wearable technology in the workplace. A group of UK-based workers were given a device to wear on their wrists, as they would a fitness tracker. Instead of recording exercise targets, however, this device was synced up to their work calendars and was designed to track the physical and mental impact of their working life. By measuring heart-rate-variability, the device showed pilot participants how particular work patterns were creating additional stress – whether that be back-to-back meetings or a lack of time away from the screen. Each participant could access a personalised dashboard with their mobility and body response data, and were able to see in real time how different working habits and practices were impacting them both physically and psychologically.
Their employer, too, had access to this anonymised data, and when the pilot came to an end, PwC began to act on the information it had collected. The data showed that workers needed to be encouraged to take more regular breaks, so the firm sought new ways to incentivise staff to spend some time away from their desks. This included empowering their managerial staff to introduce walking meetings, among other ideas, to encourage more movement throughout the working day.
Some workers might baulk at the idea of sharing their physiological data with their employer. Understandably so – there are certainly some real ethical questions to consider when it comes to this level of monitoring in the workplace. But, perhaps surprisingly, a 2021 poll carried out by PwC showed that more than 44 percent of respondents would be willing to use wearables and other sensors to track their productivity – and for this information to be shared with their employer if that led to benefits and improvements in the way they work.
If anti-ageing scientists do manage to unearth the mythical fountain of youth, it will come at a cost
Since the PwC trial, a number of other firms have launched their own wearable pilots. IHP Analytics, a company specialising in performance science, started its own trial during the first Covid-19 lockdown, with over 2,000 staff members volunteering to be part of the pilot group within four hours of its launch. This willingness to share such personal physiological information with employers perhaps reflects a wider shift in attitudes towards data sharing.
Indeed, if consumers are already sharing their physiological information with fitness firms such as Fitbit, and are content with passing along blood samples to nutrition science companies such as ZOE, then perhaps they are now less reluctant to give out this data elsewhere. In fact, research has shown that when customers feel that there are benefits to be gained from sharing their personal information – whether that be a more personalised service or a more convenient payment process – they are happy to part with their personal data. According to a poll carried out by PwC, 62 percent of respondents would be willing to use a wearable device if that meant they could reduce their health insurance premiums. In our data-driven age, it seems that customers are increasingly comfortable with trading their privacy for personal reward.
In the words of the IMF, “the global economy is limping along.” Recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic has been long and slow, while the far-reaching consequences of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have prompted cost-of-living crises in many developed economies across the globe. Inflation has soared in much of the world, and economists have warned that both the US and the UK may officially enter recession in the early months of 2024.
Against this decidedly gloomy economic backdrop, it is hardly surprising that consumers are looking to rein in their spending. Spiralling food and energy bills have meant that many people have found their disposable income to be dramatically reduced over the course of the last 18 months, and have cut down on what they deem to be ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. Indeed, a recent survey carried out by the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that two-thirds of adults in the UK were spending less on non-essentials as a result of the rising cost of living.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this prolonged economic slump might spell trouble for the costly wellness industry. But if past recessions have taught us anything, it’s that certain industries have the power to defy downturns. In the early 2000s, Estée Lauder’s Leonard Lauder coined the term ‘the lipstick index,’ to describe how cosmetics sales tend to pick up during times of economic hardship. The concept is now an established economic indicator, with analysts noting how shoppers often turn to modest luxuries during downturns. And the same trend is once more emerging during the current cost-of-living crisis, with consumers looking to treat themselves and stay well even as they cut back on spending elsewhere.
In the UK, gym memberships are up by 3.9 percent compared with 2022, and retailers have noticed an uptick in beauty and cosmetics spending. A survey carried out by McKinsey at the start of the current cost-of-living crisis found that more than a third of customers around the world would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ increase their spending on diet programmes, nutrition apps, juice cleanses and food subscription services over the next 12 months. Despite widespread economic pressures on personal finances, it seems that we have never been so content to keep spending on wellness.
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, concepts of wellbeing and self-betterment have become deeply ingrained in our personal and professional lives, with consumers embracing data-driven improvement plans and health ‘solutions’ like never before. It’s clear that there is a real appetite for ever more options in the wellness space – and consumers are crying out for highly-personalised products that monitor and respond to their physiological data.
With Silicon Valley’s brightest minds pushing the boundaries of biohacking, the future of the health and wellness industry might not be so far removed from the experimental pilots currently being pioneered by the world’s most prominent longevity enthusiasts. But one thing is for certain – if anti-ageing scientists do manage to unearth the mythical fountain of youth, it will come at a cost. In a generation of wellness-obsessed consumers, however, there may well be many who are happy to pay that price.