Whether by chopping wood in their backyard or by way of a Jane Fonda VHS, people have always had the ability to exercise at home. But “digital fitness,” an industry trend that shows no sign of slowing, has elevated the meaning of the home workout, lifting it to boutique status. With futuristic equipment and tech, personalized guidance, and supportive communities across the globe meeting on a single platform, digital fitness could very well democratize modern exercise as we know it.
While physical spaces dedicated to fitness are seeing growth, digital workouts are succeeding, too. The fitness app market is estimated to be worth $14.7 billion by 2026, according to a report from Polaris Market Research. In July, fitness innovators Brynn Putnam, founder and CEO of Mirror; Ashley Mills, cofounder and co-CEO of Obé Fitness; and Bergen Wheeler, national director of innovation of Exhale, convened at WeWork Now, The We Company’s first on-demand workspace in New York, to explore this current fitness revolution.
Panel moderator Zoe Weiner, Well and Good’s associate beauty and fitness editor, kicked off the night by exploring how digital fitness is a natural progression of our society’s expectation for convenience. “Everything is on demand,” Weiner said, noting that her outfit was selected and delivered the night before through Rent the Runway. “And we’ve come to expect the same from our exercise.”
Convenience, some have argued, isn’t always a good thing. The option to select items for delivery with one swipe of a button has, perhaps, led us to get lazy and antisocial. We avoid face-to-face interaction in exchange for never having to get up off the couch. Digital fitness, however, promotes both movement and community, the event panel members suggested. “For the first time you no longer have to sacrifice quality for convenience,” said Putnam, whose interactive, high-tech mirror enables users to receive real-time fitness instruction.
The variety, access, and real-time instruction is what distinguishes modern at-home fitness options from previous generations. Jane Fonda (and other) videos may have provided dedicated fans with instruction to get their blood flowing, but that’s about all. “You knew when the joke was coming, you hated the music, [and that’s why] people traditionally think of at-home fitness as isolating,” said Mills, whose on-demand fitness app encourages users to take live classes, which has built accountability into community. “The live experience—and being able to call out someone’s name—is the most primal experience of being human,” she said. “It’s bonding and impactful.”
At the end of every Obé class, members are encouraged to share a sweaty selfie with their classmates. “[It’s] a great equalizer—your face is red and when you post it, you feel like a million bucks,” Mills added. She said the Obé community has rallied around this selfie prompt, cheering on one another for putting in the time to sweat. “People will do whatever it takes to connect with people,” she said.
Boutique in-person classes vs. exercising in your living room
Can digital classes really compare to in-person boutique classes? Maybe not, but for some, there are several benefits in that, Putnam argued. “To me, community is about shared experience, not necessarily synchronous experience,” she said. “Synchronous experience can be uncomfortable,” she said, citing how people can be insecure about their body or trying something new, or just grossed out by being in such close quarters in an immensely sweaty space. The ability to work out on one’s own while connecting digitally offers “connection, while still respecting people’s individual needs,” said Putnam.
“On-demand classes capitalize on efficiency and make it easier to get a workout in without having to worry about extra travel time—especially for parents with young children,” said John Honerkamp, an instructor at Rise by We.
Digital = accessible
The average cost of a single boutique fitness class across the country, according to Mills, is $27—quite a pretty penny to part with for one hour of sweating. Mills’s and Wheeler’s products cost $27 and $19, respectively, for a monthly subscription of unlimited classes. Better yet, anyone, anywhere can take them. Wheeler, whose product offerings stand out from the group’s for the brick-and-mortar studios, said that Exhale On Demand gives access to people who either don’t live near a studio or are traveling for a fraction of the cost of a single class. “We have a component of our on-demand platform that provides that in-studio experience. We try to fill the gap,” she said, referring to the fact that, until recently, home workouts were likened to solitary confinement.
Wheeler added that the on-demand feature gives access to the cult of Exhale devotees who are traveling for work or vacation. She said she’ll get messages online from clients she knows in real life who say how hard the class was, and how they’re looking forward to getting back into the studio at summer’s end. This online access doesn’t cannibalize the success of the physical studio, Wheeler said, it helps people stay connected and committed. “People can’t [always] make it to their favorite class with their favorite teacher, so we’re offering that at any time that person needs it,” she said.
Another plus to the digital workout, Putnam said, is that it lets people get back up on the fitness horse without intimidation. As a former fitness boutique owner, Putnam said she would see people drop off entirely from taking classes for one reason or another—a pregnancy, a job, or something in between. “I think the challenging piece is starting again when you have a period of not being active,” she said. “Digital fitness can help bridge the gap,” she said, explaining that there’s less to feel dispirited about when you take things at your own pace, without fear of being judged.
A few audience members questioned how online classes could offer the personalized touch of an in-studio instructor. Rise by We’s Honerkamp said he doesn’t think “digital fitness will ever replace that fist pound from a training partner or a high five from a coach.” Kurt Ellis, also an instructor at Rise by We, said that there are “certain nuances that face-to-face interactions offer that the digital platforms do not.” These are intangible elements, he said, “like human interaction, building relationships, and understanding the unique psychological, physiological, and physical factors that are associated with training individuals.” Ellis said that he believes digital and in-person fitness should coexist.
The fitness innovators countered by pointing out that during an in-person class, an instructor has to care for at least a dozen people at once. With digital fitness, users have the opportunity to subscribe to a one-on-one instructor who can provide their full attention. And, as Putnam teased, Mirror will be launching a personal training component in September. In this sense, the future is only getting more personal. We’ll just have to wait to see how buff the digital experience evolves to be.