Online Fitness Classes Are Better Than Ever
Back in summer 2020, I had to wait patiently for the clock to strike 8 AM to take my favorite online workout class—a fuzzy, hourlong livestream beamed in from a basement in Brooklyn, exposed pipes visible at the top of the frame. Now, on a whim, I can do mat pilates in 5K resolution with LA’s most sought-after instructor, 15 minutes of abs led by two gorgeous (and gorgeously lit) dancers in matching outfits, or a yoga class set to the sounds of The Weeknd and Ariana Grande. Gyms are open, group class studios are back up and running—and yet, the digital fitness offerings continue to get bigger, better, and more robust. Two years out of pandemic lockdown, have we entered a golden age of digital fitness?
Online-only creators like Melissa Wood-Tepperberg are expanding their on-demand class offerings and bulking up their instructor rosters. Forma Pilates, the referral-only studio beloved by the likes of Hailey Bieber and Kendall Jenner, is making its core-sculpting classes available to all through slickly produced video content. The Class and Y7, boutique operations with multiple physical locations, are investing big in their digital platforms: The Class now offers yoga and meditation in addition to their signature workout, and Y7 cut a deal with Universal Music Group to bring the beat-thumping energy they’re known for to your living room. Late last year, Lululemon put its acquisition of the smart home workout device Mirror into action, launching Lululemon Studio with a catalog of over 10,000 classes (available on the Mirror or on your phone) that continues to grow every week.
In the days when everything—work, social life, cultural events—had to take place online, I assumed that when things went back to “normal,” my usual gym routine would, too. But even though I now regularly go into the office, travel freely, and meet friends at restaurants for dinner, I’ve remained staunchly attached to working out alone on a mat on my bedroom floor. And it seems like plenty of other people feel the same way. Sarah Larson Levey, founder and CEO of Y7 Studio, decided to amp up her company’s digital offerings in response to changing demand. “As we began reopening in summer 2021 we found that not everyone was jumping back into their old routines. People formed new ones that worked with how their lives and lifestyles changed,” she told me. “So many people relocated, or now have hybrid or at-home work situations… We wanted to have a place where all of our clients could practice with us no matter what.” Half of the Y7 team is now devoted entirely to building out the digital experience.
CEO of Lululemon Digital Fitness Mike Aragon looked at the hard data: “Post-pandemic, we saw people going back to gyms and attendance up by 10 percent versus pre-pandemic levels—at the same time, 60 percent of people wanted a digital or at-home option, too,” he said. Those numbers informed the company’s hybrid approach to Studio: in addition to the digital offering, members can take discounted in-person classes at eight partner studios like Rumble, Pure Barre, and Dogpound (Y7 is also a partner).
In my various conversations with people in the fitness space, all signs pointed to feedback from their community as the main reason for leveling up. Wood-Tepperberg started her platform Melissa Wood Health (now MWH) eight years ago in her living room with a $24 Amazon tripod. When I first started taking her classes, which incorporate elements of pilates and yoga into sub-30-minute burn sessions, they were lo-fi recordings shot in her apartment. Now, she has seven instructors on her roster churning out flows with multiple camera angles from a sleek production studio. “Expanding our offerings with other creators was a direct response to categories we were being asked about—more meditations, more pre- and postnatal, more challenging series,” Tepperberg explained.
According to Natalie Kuhn, co-CEO of The Class and an instructor herself, the demand has only grown as time goes on. “In a post-pandemic world the mental health crisis is unfortunately intensifying, and practices like The Class and the mindful movement offerings that we share on our platform address both the physical and the mental health of our students,” she said. “I think that’s only going to be more essential as we navigate continuously volatile times.”
I asked Liana Levi, the founder of Forma, what sorts of things her clients have been looking for in the digital space. “They just want more, period,” she told me. “We started filming every week because we needed so much content—and even then it’s like, ‘We want more.’” Levi said she was careful to make sure the online experience felt as elevated as the in-person one: Instead of teaching while demonstrating all the moves herself, the ultra high-resolution videos feature her as she would be in a real class–cueing while other people model the moves.
Levi considers herself an “in-person person,” but she’s frank about the financial upside of offering both: “On the wellness side, I wanted to give people an opportunity to try out our method from all over the world. And from a business perspective, it’s an opportunity to bring in an income while I sleep,” she said.
As I first began to notice this new wave of investment and improvement in the digital fitness space, a cynical part of me wondered whether the line between online workouts and entertainment was starting to blur. (A few weeks ago, I laughed when I got a press release announcing a Peloton instructor’s pregnancy.) But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s just a result of driven, passionate people responding to the needs of the world and wanting their product to look and feel as good as possible. While innovation in the at-home equipment industry may feel like a flop (see: the hand-me-down Peloton gathering dust in my corner), the demand for thoughtful, engaging content isn’t going anywhere.