Digital Fitness Has Progressed Decades in Only a Matter of Months, and Our Workouts Are Better for It

Photo: Stocksy/Alina Hvostikova
It’s nine o’clock on Monday morning, and my heart racing at 180 beats per minute. Keoni Hudoba is telling me to engage my core, and not to collapse out of my plank (despite the fact that my abs are on fire). A month ago, the exact same scene would have been taking place at a Barry’s studio on 23rd street in Manhattan. Now, due to the fact that COVID-19 forced gyms to close their doors, it’s taking place in my living room. In just a matter of weeks, digital fitness has seemingly progressed decades into the future, and everyone from individual trainers, all the way up to tech giants are sweating how to get in on the game.

Online workouts are hardly a new phenomenon. We called digital fitness as a rising trend way back in 2018, and that was four years after Peloton launched its revolutionary at-home bike. Early adopters like AKT, Lekfit, Aaptiv, and Tone it Up have been streaming workouts since before oat milk became a thing (that's 2017, ICYWW). In the years since, brands like Obé, Mirror, and Nike (among many others) have also staked their claim in digital fitness, so much so that in 2017, pros estimated that the global digital-fitness market would climb 33 percent to reach $27.4 billion by 2022.

While the industry was quick to lay the groundwork for at-home fitness to take off, participation en masse wasn't as fast to follow; however, that quickly shifted when studios shut their doors. In the month of March, Google searches for “at-home workouts” rose by nearly 500 (I repeat: 500!) percent. Peloton’s stock ticked up 29 percent between March 10 and April 10, and according to Marketwatch, the brand’s app reportedly saw five times as many downloads in March as it did in February (though it's worth noting a 90-day free trial likely incentivized new users). Meanwhile, Obé saw ten times as many downloads in March as in February. “The uptick that we’ve seen with coronavirus has been very real,” says Mark Mullett, the brand's co-founder.

“The uptick that we’ve seen with coronavirus has been very real,” —Mark Mullett, Obé co-founder

It’s not just the tried-and-true platforms that are winning out amidst the stay-at-home order. A number of studios that had initially resisted the push to go online have now decided to get into the game—according to data from MindBody, over 7,000 studios have launched their first "virtual" class since March of 2020. For example, Barry’s had been considering the move to digital before social distancing, but according to a rep from the brand, “the pandemic and studio closures forced them to move quickly.” On April 13, the company launched 35-minute “Barry’s at Home” Zoom classes that people can do in their living room. Likewise, Solidcore traded its in-studio souped-up Reformers for Zoom-based glider workouts, which have been so popular that the company was able to hire back at least 50 of the trainers who were laid off when its studios closed. Earlier this month, even Samsung announced that it would be partnering with brands like barre3, Echelon, Jillian Michaels Fitness, and Obé Fitness to integrate digital workouts within its SmartTV platform (I'd put money down that Apple and Google will follow someday).

When classes started getting cancelled, some instructors moved to free or donation-based classes via social media, but more-and-more found ways to monetize their content without a middleman.

But while studios (and tech behemoths) are looking to make investments in digital fitness in a big way, trainers are slowly but surely laying the groundwork to unbind themselves from big box studios altogether. Over the last few years, trainers have begun to develop their own cult followings, and have become as much of a draw to workouts, as the studios where they teach. When classes started getting cancelled, some instructors moved to free or donation-based classes via social media, but more-and-more found ways to monetize their content without a middleman.

As these trainers begin to develop their own personal brands online, they may no longer even need the studios they once relied on. "I think a really scary thing that might happen is that the smaller studios that can’t pay their trainers as much will start to lose their trainers," says trainer Anthony Crouchelli. "Because trainers will say ‘I make this much on Zoom, so why would I come teach at this studio when I make $45 a class when I can make $150 online?’ Next week, for example, he will host a one-hour class for a CrossFit gym in Sweden for a fee of a cool $1,000.

All of this begs the question: Where do we go from here? And the resounding answer across the fitness community is: TBD. Well+Good Council member and Barry's founder Joey Gonzalez says that Barry’s is “still working out what their long-term digital offerings will look like.” AARMY (which has seen a surge of online users) will be launching a more formal, paid digital platform later this year, and Solidcore is open to the idea of continuing to stream classes after its studios re-open. Whenever that may be.

The biggest takeaway from all of this is that we now have the technology—and studios both big and small finally have the motivation—to make fitness truly democratized. Taking a class with a top trainer no longer requires living in a major metro and spending $27 (or more) on a single session. We can now get the best-of-the-best workouts anywhere, at any time, for a small fraction of what they would cost in a studio. Our phones have become the centerpiece for making every single aspect of our lives—and our wellness routines—easier and more affordable. Fitness is no exception.

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