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.'