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Collective sweat

The future of fitness is together but alone

Illustration by Deborah Lee

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Nikolas and Brittany Loecher spent their anniversary in Napa Valley, where they drank wine, enjoyed the warm spring days away from their home in Colorado, and made a side trip into San Francisco to visit a Tonal showroom. After seeing ads for the internet-connected weight training machine with guided workouts on screen, they wanted to see it in person before making the $3,000, plus $50 a month, commitment.

The Tonal would be their third — technically fourth if you count the FightCamp interactive boxing bag they tried but didn’t love — addition to their connected home gym. It all started in 2017 when the Loechers bought their Peloton bike as a way to work off excess weight they’d gained over the years. When Brittany was pregnant with their first child, Nikolas had put on some extra pounds alongside her. “In solidarity,” he jokes. 

But soon after giving birth to their son, the Loechers received devastating news. Brittany had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and would have to undergo chemotherapy. “The news changed my entire life,” Brittany, a former athlete, tells me. The chemo caused her resting heart rate to rise, which she says prevented her from working out as much as she used to. “I was worried that I was going to die from working out. I also gained weight from all the steroids I had to take.” Nikolas, on the other hand, gained 90 pounds from stress eating through his wife’s cancer treatments.

After Brittany received a clean bill years later, the couple wanted to get more serious about prioritizing their health but had to figure out how to do so with a young, growing family. The Peloton bike felt like the solution. To the new parents, being able to jump on a bike and stream on-demand classes after their two young sons went to sleep felt like a game-changer. The two quickly became so addicted to fitting the Peloton into their schedule that when the company announced a treadmill in 2018, they pre-ordered it the minute the site went live.

The Loechers just are two of the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve purchased a connected fitness equipment in recent years. The category is quickly growing, with a variety of devices offering at-home workout solutions where users stare at screens for guided instructions instead of an in-person fitness trainer. It was creepy at first, Brittany admits. “But everyone is constantly on their phone and society is moving that way anyway,” that ultimately the convenience outweighed her initial qualms. 

“This is the future of fitness,” Nikolas says. “I can work out when I want, I don’t have to deal with driving to the gym, I can keep track of my fitness goals, and still have time to spend with my family.” 

After spending over $10,000 on their connected fitness machines, now, the couple is preparing to literally invest in connected fitness. When news about Peloton’s IPO filing broke, Nikolas immediately jumped at the opportunity, vowing to do whatever it takes to add it to his portfolio. “We called our stock broker and said we are getting that stock!” Brittany says. “I believe in this company, the product, and this future.”

Woman running on Peloton’s recalled Tread Plus
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Connected fitness used to refer to workout apps and fitness trackers, but Peloton added a new category when it combined both on an exercise machine with the launch its bike in 2014. It’s basically an indoor cycling bike with its own workout-specific Netflix: you can choose live or on-demand classes based on music genre, low or high impact, length of workout, or the coach whose teaching style you enjoy most. 

Today, there are a handful of imitators that have spun off from Peloton’s concept — Hydrow for rowing, FightCamp for boxing, Mirror for cardio exercises, and Tonal for weight training — all with the goal of bringing the boutique studio exercise experience to the home. There are also copycats of the Peloton equipment itself; Echelon, a stationary bike that similarly lets you stream a class from its touchscreen, is offered as a less expensive alternative at $999 to Peloton’s $1,999. Traditional fitness equipment NordicTrack has had to rework its collection, too, to offer on-demand classes across bikes, ellipticals, and treadmills to compete against Peloton’s offerings.

Even luxury gyms like Equinox are updating their equipment to be more tech-driven. In May, Equinox opened Precision Run, a public running studio that features custom treadmills and software designed to make the experience feel personalized the way these new, at-home exercise machines do.

The Mirror’s cardio fitness equipment.
The Mirror’s cardio fitness equipment.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Group fitness has been part of US culture for decades, but it truly became part of pop culture around the 1960s, when the term aerobics was coined. Physician Kenneth Cooper authored a book that used science-backed evidence to explain why personal fitness was beneficial your health, changing the perception that working out was mostly for cosmetic reasons.

Cardiovascular exercises became even more popular in the following decade, partly thanks to the 1972 Summer Olympics. The men’s marathon race had an unexpectedly dramatic finish, in which an impostor ran onto the tracks in the last kilometer to distract Frank Shorter, the American frontrunner. When Shorter maintained his focus to go on and win the gold, he became a household name, with enamored viewers taking up long distance running to follow in his footsteps. Across the nation, gyms began adding more treadmills and running classes boomed to help train Americans to participate in a growing number of races being held across the country.

Over the next few decades, group exercise would adapt to incorporate our TV screens — from VHS tapes and DVDs on traditional televisions to YouTube videos and fitness apps on the go. The Peloton model was a natural evolution of the way we receive content and interact with other people over the web, with classes that are offered both live and on-demand to suit the viewers’ schedule instead of confining them to a set time of the day.

The comfort of exercising in your own home, whenever you want to, is exactly why connected fitness companies hope their products will become the next must-have gadget despite the big initial price tag. “The explosion of boutique gyms are because the customer understands that better quality workouts are worth the price point,” Mirror CEO Brynn Putnam says, adding that some gyms are realizing that in-home machines are an opportunity for them to deliver their classes to new audiences, too. “The home will always be the most convenient place to work out.” 

“The formula for this to work at home is the financing program”

Tonal CEO Aly Orady says that similar to smartphones, which were first thought of as luxury items, the math may make more sense once the price of a machine is spread out over a couple years. “The formula for this to work at home is the financing program,” he says. 

Instead of dropping thousands of dollars at once, he says consumers can think of their monthly payments for a Tonal or a Peloton as a direct alternative to their gym subscription costs. “The way the cellphone is financed into the monthly mobile bill is how connected fitness will become accessible to the bulk of the market.”

Tonal’s touchscreen menu.
Tonal’s touchscreen menu.
Tonal’s wall-mounted device has interchangeable handles for a variety of exercises.
Tonal’s wall-mounted device has interchangeable handles for a variety of exercises.

Almost all of the connected fitness vendors today offer some kind of financing option through lending startup Affirm (which also handles finance options for other trendy retailers like Joybird, Warby Parker, DJI, and Casper). The most affordable of the bunch is FightCamp, which starts at $60 a month for 18 months while Tonal runs $199 a month for 24 months. Hydrow does not offer finance plans, but recently began selling its rowing machine through Best Buy which offers payment plans through its credit card. These devices also charge anywhere from $38 to $49 a month to subscribe to class content that are updated daily or weekly.

With the cost running at least $100 to $250 a month, it’s certainly higher than traditional gyms, which cost Americans around $60 on average. The monthly costs also don’t factor in other accessories, like clip-in cycling shoes, heart rate monitors, or floor mats which could add another couple hundred dollars to the total package.

The Loechers, however, say the cost outweighs what they’d been paying since they’re using their machines more often. “Once you started taking away the CorePower membership, the gym membership, the couple of boutique fitness classes, everything is pretty comparable,” Nikolas says.

FightCamp’s connected boxing bag.
FightCamp’s connected boxing bag.
Hydrow’s interactive rowing machine.
Hydrow’s interactive rowing machine.

One of the reasons the Peloton model has been so popular is due in part to society’s growing interest in self-care and wellness, with people looking to technology in the hopes of easily finding it. Self-improvement was the number one app theme last year, while the hashtag #selfcare soared from 5 million to 17 million posts on Instagram between August 2018 and July 2019. Now that people are used to finding self-care at the tap of a touchscreen, the convenience of connected fitness machines have also made them more attractive over the past few years, says Stephen Intille, an associate professor at Northeastern University specializing in health technology.

“You’ve got a human who’s trying to motivate you using humor and empathy,” Intille says. “And being motivated by a talented human versus a computer — like a Fitbit which can give you prompts but not an experience that is as rich —  makes you feel like a part of a group.” 

That encouragement can also be helpful to beginners who may be intimidated by the setting of a traditional public gym, says Matt Riccio, a behavioral psychology researcher at New York University who specializes in social factors that motivate better health. 

A guided instructor also combats the fact that workouts can be boring

“Many individuals struggle to maintain individual, or what is known as intrapersonal, levels of things like motivation, self-control, confidence, and self-efficacy. In such cases, interpersonal support from others — even, in this case, when they are not physically present — can be extremely helpful,” he says. 

Working out with a guiding instructor — virtual or otherwise — also combats the fact that exercise can often be boring. Peloton offers dozens of instructors to match the needs of its customers, from those who want form-based guidance to others who just want to be entertained for 30 minutes.  

Community is also a large part of keeping connected fitness machines engaging; all five companies offer Facebook groups for users to discuss their workouts and find people with similar goals or stats to digitally work out with. Live leaderboards, a feature that shows where the user ranks against other people who’ve taken the same class, can also help challenge people to push themselves further. 

 “We saw community engagement jump by 239 percent after releasing our leaderboard feature in March,” FightCamp CEO Khalil Zahar says. Peloton has also begun hosting annual Homecoming events in which customers across the globe travel to the company’s base in New York City to meet instructors and other members to take classes together. 

Peloton’s Leaderboard allows you to give virtual high-fives to fellow classmates.
Peloton’s Leaderboard allows you to give virtual high-fives to fellow classmates.

Still, Intille cautions that leaderboards may not always be the best motivational factor, as those who start out consistently at the bottom may find it discouraging instead. To combat this, users have begun creating their own Facebook groups that merge other commonalities, such as the Peloton #ShortieTribe for petite members struggling to hit the output that taller members are able to achieve, or Kids of Peloton for younger riders seeking classes that feature family-friendly music.

This level of interpersonal connection is why Hydrow CEO Bruce Smith doesn’t think connected fitness machines will have a negative social impact, and that the sense of community that typically form at brick and mortar gyms will be more distributed. “Connected fitness is about bringing your body and your screen life together,” he says. “The more we move toward that sense of connection and the more real that can get, the better chance we have of surviving the digital age.”

Intille says that in the short term, gyms are likely not in danger from this new wave of equipment. “It’s not that different than how people haven’t stopped going to movies because they can stream them at home,” he says. But while the Pelotons of the world are more interactive and engaging, Intille warns that these devices are still dependent on goals that people set for themselves. Though most people buy exercise equipment to lose weight, they should be regarded as physical fitness machines rather than weight loss devices, he says.

People haven’t stopped going to movies because they can stream them at home, so gyms are likely not in danger in the short term

“If people get these devices primarily for weight loss and they don’t see results, they’re gonna abandon it,” Intille says, noting that to effectively lose weight, people have to adjust their diet — something these machines cannot directly help with.

“Behavior change is also easier than sustaining it,” he adds, pointing out that these subscription models are exactly how traditional gyms make money. “The best customers are the ones who pay and don’t show up.”

Peloton claims to have a one-year retention rate of 96 percent, with the average customer completing nine to 10 workouts a month, but it does not offer rates beyond the one year mark. Other connected fitness devices have only launched in the past year, so they don’t yet offer information on how consistently members have been working out over a long period of time.

Mirror’s Apple Watch app.
Mirror’s Apple Watch app.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

If the Apple Watch and Fitbit’s partnership with insurance companies like Aetna, Cigna, Humana, and Anthem indicate anything about where connected fitness is headed, the next wave of growth may be for these equipment companies to partner with research centers and health companies to provide incentives for consumers in exchange for exercise data. While Tonal’s Orady and Hydrow’s Smith say they aren’t actively pursuing this path, the two also haven’t ruled out that possibility. When pressed, both agree that if their companies were to partner with third parties, the choice for customers to share that data would need to be on an opt-in basis.

Mirror’s Putnam, on the other hand, has ambitions beyond fitness. While other connected fitness companies focus on proprietary workout classes, Putnam wants Mirror to be the platform for other companies that want a slice of the at-home market. Traditional studios like CorePower Yoga, Pure Barre, and Physique 57 are now beginning to offer on-demand content, and Putnam thinks Mirror could be the go-to platform for customers to access all these types of classes. Mirror’s latest partnership includes a dance program featuring celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson.

The Loechers painted a Fisher-Price bike to match their own Peloton | Photo by Brittany Loecher
The Loechers painted a Fisher-Price bike to match their own Peloton | Photo by Brittany Loecher

“We think within the next year or two years, Mirror will be the platform for the best fitness experience,” Putnam says. “In the next 5 to 10 years, we see Mirror as a platform within the home for learning by doing.” She also foresees other commerce opportunities, like glasses fitting or virtual clothes try-ons at home. “There will certainly be folks who will buy multiple equipments in the home, but we offer a one-stop shop for experiences you want today and in the future.”

For now, fitness is the target goal, and it’s something the Loechers say they’ve achieved with the combination of Tonal and Peloton machines in their home. They’ve even gotten a Fisher-Price bike they painted to look like a kid-sized Peloton to encourage their sons to work out alongside them.

“This segment of home exercise equipment is still in its infancy and has so much room for growth,” Nikolas says. And while he patiently waits for the Peloton IPO to drop, he’s already making plans to add one more equipment to his home gym: whatever Peloton equipment is announced next.