The fitness revolution

Do the rise of digital fitness platforms like Peloton spell the end of the gym? 

When lockdown happened, I found myself – along with 10.4m Brits – without a gym. Without the endorphins, dopamine and serotonin released with exercise, my mental health soon took a hit, and it got to the point where I had to just lace up and go for a run – for fear of losing my mind completely. The effect of that run was staggering, but I still missed lifting weights. So, I rounded up the kids and made them do PE with Joe Wicks with me.    

PE with Joe is just one of many options for those looking to get a sweat on at home. According to Statista, there were 37,143 health and fitness apps available from the Google Play store in the first quarter of 2019. And as fitness enthusiasts were forced to work out in their living rooms, digital fitness platforms like FIIT and TOG client Peloton rocketed in popularity. By the end of March, sales of Peloton’s £1,995 bike had risen nearly 61 per cent, with subscriber numbers almost doubling to over 886,100. 

Both FIIT and Peloton boast slick production values, infectiously enthusiastic trainers, live classes where people can exercise in real time with others around the world, technology that enables users to compete for top position on the leader board, and a vast library of on-demand content for ultimate flexibility.  

It’s this flexibility that has left 42 per cent of people uncertain as to whether they’ll be returning to their gyms at all, according to a study by training brand Future Fit. With over 12,000 fitness clubs offering members virtual training, as well as thousands of training apps available at the tap of a screen, why limit yourself to your gym’s class schedule when you can fire up your TV and work out at 3am in the morning if the feeling takes you?  

With UK gym revenues expected to take a 30 per cent dive this year, and corporate and boutique gyms alike feeling the pinch (The Gym Group lost a fifth of its members since lockdown, while boutique gym Blok has had to slam the breaks on plans for five new spaces), it seems that physical gyms will need to find that extra something in order to compete with their digital counterparts. Especially when the likes of Peloton are injecting the virtual exercise world with what it’s been traditionally criticised for lacking: community. 

Peloton’s community is one of its much lauded features – by both the company itself and its legion of fans, who boast a level of zeal comparable to CrossFit diehards. There’s even a yearly Peloton Homecoming – a sprawling event that devotees travel to from across the globe to take part in. Kevin Cornils, Peloton’s international managing director, tells me this sense of community is integral to the entire Peloton experience. 

'Members develop incredible relationships and connections with the community,' says Cornils. 'The way they motivate and interact with each other on the leader board and on social media networks is truly amazing. Every time you ride the bike, you’re doing it with others cheering you along, and motivating you to push yourself a little bit harder.' 

It sounds like a win-win situation, right? But then I wonder whether taking a live class in my living room and giving virtual high fives can really provide me with the same physical – and mental – benefits as, say, a run with my local club. When I speak with Dr Emily Ryall, reader in Applied Philosophy at the University of Gloucestershire and a Peloton subscriber herself, she isn’t entirely convinced. While she believes the accessibility is an advantage – and that it does provide motivation from excellent instructors – the virtual workout experience doesn’t come close to that of exercising with real people, in a real and shared space.  

'You can get physical exercise online, but we’re more than physical beings,' she says. 'We need social interaction that you can’t get in the virtual world. Even if you’re talking to someone in real time, you still don’t get that physical presence; you’re missing the depth and richness of that interaction. It’s not just about the exercise, it’s about talking and meeting and making new friends.' 

Chris Baugh is co-founder of Manor, which runs gyms in various TOG buildings. For him, lockdown was a stressful time, but Manor managed to adapt by hosting Zoom socials for members, before launching their own on-demand service. What he realised was that Manor members who had trained in the gym were actively bringing 'vibes, warmth and energy' to the digital space – creating a familial atmosphere that wouldn’t have been possible with a disparate group of strangers from all over. 

For Baugh, this is exactly why Manor kept 90 per cent of its subscribers during lockdown. 'People believe in what Manor provides,' he says of the gym’s focused, no-frills approach to training that eschews Insta-worthy backdrops for honest, hard and sweaty work – supported by a team of coaches that is fully invested in its members. 'In moments of crisis, people ask, “Who’s got me?” And for some people, it was Manor.' 

With Manor now open again, it’s still offering its on-demand platform so that members can supplement their in-gym training. And Baugh is excited to expand its digital product – and ethos – to a global audience. While there’s been a lot of talk about the rise of digital fitness, leaving the gym cowering in its shadow, perhaps this is the wrong way of looking at it. Perhaps what digital fitness has the power to do is to work in tandem with real-world exercise, offering those who want to keep fit even more options to do so – to benefit our wellbeing in an overwhelmingly positive way. 

‘Gyms still serve a purpose,’ says Peloton's Kevin Cornils, ‘but technology now gives more opportunities for people to work out whenever and wherever they want to. We believe that fitness is moving into the home, just as you’ve seen movies shift from the cinema into the home, where you can get a higher quality experience on your own time.’ 

As with all technology, however, caution is required. With always-on lifestyles indelibly tethered to phones, shifting the way we exercise to the digital world means not only more notifications to distract us, but also more time spent in front of a screen. Technology is also very good at exploiting what, Dr Ryall tells me, is a core human weakness: the achieving of goals. ‘Philosophically, we’re special creatures in that we can project ourselves into the future; we can imagine different futures for ourselves,’ she says. ‘So we provide ourselves with goals. We love achieving goals, and looking to the next goal – it gives us meaning in our lives. Companies play into that, providing us with goals.’ 

A common way in which companies keep us on the goal-setting-and-achieving hamster wheel is by gamifying the activity. In terms of fitness, screen-based platforms can easily turn exercise into a video game of sorts, where you’re constantly trying to level up. It’s a good motivator, says Dr Ryall, but it can also make us forget why we’re exercising in the first place. 

She gives me the example of runners going on a 15km run, constantly looking at their watches, preoccupied with their pace, and then finishing their run only to realise they’ve still got 200 metres to go, before going back out to make sure they’ve logged the right distance. In short, she says, technology is making us do things we wouldn’t normally do, and we’re in danger of not listening to our bodies, of not enjoying the feeling of being active, of not being present.  

'I think technology is changing our brain structure,' she says. 'Because everything is so immediate, we’ve lost the ability to slow down and enjoy the moment.' The remedy, she says, is to acknowledge that balance – between the digital and the natural. 

As for the future, Baugh is optimistic; for him, it’s not a case of digital fitness versus in-person fitness, but a situation where the two complement each other. 'Ultimately, it’s all good for fitness,' he says. 'There are more people thinking about and getting fit. The customer wins. For every 100 people who start their fitness journey with Joe Wicks or Peloton, there’ll be two, or five, or 10 who will have the confidence to go to the next level and enjoy real, human interaction around fitness.' 

Over the rest of lockdown, I ended up using the Nike Training app, alongside my runs, to get back into strength training. Is it a true substitute for getting out of the house, having access to all the equipment the gym has to offer and pushing myself harder just because the guy resting in between sets is watching me? Not even close; I’ll be going back to the gym soon. But will I keep on using the app for its holistic approach to fitness and unparalleled convenience? Absolutely.      

Ian Hsieh  is a freelance writer based in Cornwall. A regular contributor to  Mr Porter Journal  and  The Guardian, he writes about music, film, culture and lifestyle 

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