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Why immersive, multisensory classes could be the next big thing in fitness


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Graphic: Abby Maker for Well+Good

It’s hard to imagine a group fitness class that doesn’t involve a mood-boosting, carefully curated playlist. And over the past few years, gyms across the country and abroad have started experimenting with elements that stimulate not just your ears but all five senses.

And it might be just a matter of time before a way more immersive experience—including live music, scented essential oils, and videos that transport you to different locales—becomes nearly as common as a badass soundtrack.

At Sweat & Sound in London, for instance, a HIIT workout might include a secret treasure hunt in the woods. Or the studio might offer a yoga class that includes a meditation—set to live orchestra music in a candlelit church.

Think: a HIIT workout that includes a secret treasure hunt in the woods, or a yoga class with a meditation—set to live orchestra music in a candlelit church.

“The purpose of our events is to totally transport your mind away from physical intensity through sense-heightening live music and stunning surroundings,” says Ariana Alexander-Sefre, a dancer who cofounded the company with fellow dancer Martina Dalton. “By engaging different senses throughout the workout, the experience becomes pretty epic. We believe that real well-being comes from the mind; the physical benefit is a bonus.”

immersive sensory workouts
Photo: Sweat and Sound/Hannah Miles

Each Sweat & Sound event is different (some surround classgoers with visual art and elements to touch or smell as well) and invitation-only. Participants learn the exact location and details only the day before the event. Alexander-Sefre and Dalton even work with nutrition brands like Granola for Gangsters and Evermore Health to give participants a treat that’s selected to match the workout.

If you’re looking for a more regular workout schedule (as opposed to the event-with-a-capital-E feel of Sweat & Sound’s multisensory mash-ups), Balance Fitness in Milwaukee offers that—with a twist. In classes ranging from cycling and kickboxing to dance, tai chi, and yoga, you can stay extra-engaged with videos (like footage along an open road in Hawaii while you cycle) projected onto a curved screen at the front of the studio. “Filmed scenery or graphics in the background take people’s minds to a different physical destination or help them visualize the analogies we make during the workouts,” says owner Garrett Stangel.

There’s a reason that additional sound, sight, and smell elements make you work harder: The sensory details are distracting you, so you can push through the most challenging parts of your workout.

You can “visit” similarly farflung landscapes—maybe the beach in Cabo, maybe somewhere out in space—at Earth’s Power Yoga in Los Angeles, via videos that are part of the studio’s Yogascape sessions. And yoga classes at Woom Center in New York City incorporate a 3D sound system so people can feel the vibrations of music—plus visual installations and scented oils to help people get centered and calm as they practice.

immersive multisensory fitness
Photo: Woom Center

It’s not just about novelty or busting boredom, though that’s certainly a big benefit. The idea behind immersive classes is actually based on improving your performance, says Justin Anderson, a sports psychologist and founder of Premier Sport Psychology in Minneapolis.

“Research has shown that if our minds are focused on the present moment and we’re paying attention to our senses, we tend to perform at a higher level,” he explains. “You have a certain video, song, or energy being transmitted—that’s an emotion that helps drive energy to harness and focus on the drill at hand.”

In other words, there’s a reason that additional sound, sight, and smell elements make you work harder: The sensory details are distracting you, so you can push through the most challenging parts of your workout. “When we exercise, our minds go to the pain. That’s just a natural thing the brain does,” says Anderson. “In immersive classes, the videos or other elements pull people’s focus away from pain or stress from the day.”

Generally speaking, he says, the more stimuli you have to divert your mind from that moment of “wait, how many reps are left?”, the better. So while bumping music has always seemed enough to lift us through even the toughest group workouts, maybe waking up all our senses is really the way to go.

Looking for more out-of-the-ordinary sweat spots? Find out what really happens during a co-ed naked yoga class, or see the most buzzed-about studios across the country. 

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