Virtual Fit Squads Are on the Rise, and They’re About Much More Than Working Out

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Naomi Gugliotta looked around the table at the 17 other women she was spending a four-day weekend with in Florida. Boarding her flight back home in Oregon, she'd been nervous to meet them, but now, a day into her trip, it was hard for her to believe that up until then, the group had only DMed and texted, never met in person.

The crew was from a spattering of different states and their personal interests varied, but all were part of the Tone It Up community. "I joined TIU in April 2017 after the birth of my second child," Gugliotta says. Super motivated, she started a new Instagram, NaomiTonesItUp (now @that.healthy.blonde) where she detailed her meals and fitness routines. "It was basically a way to hold myself accountable," she shares.

Gugliotta would tag and DM with other people using TIU hashtags, and over time, their exchanges became more personal, going beyond conversations about their fitness goals and meal prep hacks. In groups like Tone It Up, and in other fitness communities like WW, Aaptiv (the world's biggest audio fitness brand), and Peloton, wellness goals make up only a fraction of the conversations members are having, both in public forums and private messages.

While it's not unusual to go to a boutique fitness class without exchanging so much as a high five with the person next to you, virtual fitness communities have become not only a place where people sweat together (virtually, of course), but also ones where they open up about personal and emotional struggles. Why are people so comfortable sharing so much of their lives with virtual strangers they've never met? And how does forming emotional bonds with an online community affect one's wellness journey? Here, members of various communities provide insider input.

It all started with the OG wellness support group

Before there were virtual fitness communities of any kind, there was Weight Watchers, now called WW. Founded in 1963, the brand viewed community as part of its mission from the get-go. "Founder Jean Nidetch would literally host meetings in her home," says WW CEO Mindy Grossman. "Fast forward 55 years, and we'll never lose the human factor or in-person meet-ups, but technology has allowed for the idea of community to mean so much more."

WW members have access to online community groups, called Connect groups, which are designed similar to Instagram. Within Connect, users can join various groups, from "young moms" to "runners," to "foodies" to "weightlifters." Hashtags, which span across communities, also unite members. According to Grossman, #NSV (which stands for non-scale victory) and #bettertogether are the two top-performing hashtags on the platform. "When I speak to people whose lives have been transformed, no one ever opens with how much weight they lost," she says. "They open with: 'I’ve been transformed,' 'I’m a better parent,' 'I ran my first 5K.'"

While members' posts often are related to wellness—ranging from healthy recipes to post-workout sweaty selfies—just as frequently they aren't. In the young moms group, for instance, members talk about breastfeeding and ask for help with postpartum depression. If wellness is the through line, life as we know it is the fodder that keeps these forums chiming.

"When I speak to people whose lives have been transformed, no one ever opens with how much weight they lost." — Mindy Grossman, CEO of WW

Case in point: Felicia Keathley joined WW a year and a half ago as a last resort. "I wanted to get weight loss surgery, but in order for my insurance to approve it, I had to prove I had tried and failed a weight loss program," she says. Happily, WW worked for her, and for the first time, she started working out regularly, eating healthy, and meditating, quickly joining six groups on Connect that came to act as her support system.

"Emotional traumas and what you're feeling are so entwined with eating habits, fitness, and all of it," she says. "You can't separate the two. So that's why people post about what's going on in their personal lives; it's all connected." Despite having met her weight loss goal, she continues to keep up with the app and the community that's been fostered in WW. Grossman says that the next iteration of WW Connect will be location-specific groups, so members in different cities can connect in person as well as online. "It’s very clear that in today’s world, community is more important than ever," she says.

Virtual high-fives are just as good as IRL ones

Similar to IRL groups like weekly run clubs or local soccer teams, the reasons why people join virtual fitness communities vary immensely. For Heather Mumm, who lives in Montana, joining Aaptiv—an audio on-demand fitness app —was a way to care for herself after her 11-year old son's attempted suicide.

"In turn, I had become very depressed and anxious. I used to always enjoy fitness classes, but my life was consumed with helping my son, and being there for my five other kids," she says. Emotionally at the end of her rope, Mumm decided to do something for herself, giving herself the gift of two hours, from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. to work out, meditate, and have some me-time.

She joined Aaptiv's Facebook page, connecting with users there. When she saw others posting about their emotional and personal struggles, she felt comfortable enough to share what she was going through as well. "People both posted publicly and also messaged me privately, telling me they had experienced something similar as a kid, or just that they were thinking of me and praying for me," she says. "We received package upon package, and letter upon letter. It was amazing and made him feel so loved."

The safe spaces created on fitness platforms are fostering improvements for emotional and physical wellbeing. "Sometimes it's really difficult to get out of bed for your workout because you are so overwhelmingly sad, but if you know other members are encouraging you or are there doing the workouts with you, you know you can't let them down." While scrolling on Instagram and reading tweets is primarily passive, there's something undeniably active and supportive about the platform that fit fams have to offer.

Virtual groups offer up accountability

Besides offering emotional support, virtual fit squads also serve up accountability, according to Virginia Beach resident Theresa Knowles. She bought a Peloton bike almost two years ago, shortly after the one-month anniversary of her father's death. She had already lost her mother as a teenager, and says she was in desperate need of something to help pull her out of a deep sadness. She immediately joined the main Peloton Facebook group and then became part of a sub-group, who would all ride together in the mornings.

"My Peloton is in the garage and the other morning it was 20 degrees out there. All I could think of was my nice, warm bed. But I couldn't let my girls [from the sub-group] down. I knew they'd be looking for me on that leaderboard," she says. Knowles opened up on the community pages about her victories—such as ride anniversaries—and hard days, knowing she'd receive nothing but support. "When I shared about losing my parents, people messaged me privately to tell me they were there if I wanted to talk, or that they had experienced something similar," she says.

While trolls persist elsewhere online, virtual fitness communities seem to have remained a relatively safe space. If someone—in any of the communities—dares to post anything snarky or mean, other members are quick to shut it down ASAP.  As fitness continues to take over the digital space, you can expect even more virtual fit squads to pop up, making it even easier to find people who motivate you—and, who, sweat-by-sweat become friends along the way.

Have you ever tried making friends at the gym? It's hard. But these tips on how to make friends as an adult make it a little easier.

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