Work'ing Out, From Home Understanding how technology is transforming the way people approach at-home fitness during COVID-19

By Amaresh Ojha

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When we talk about the novel coronavirus, we often don't appreciate the full magnitude of its impact. Many small privileges and freedoms that we took for granted—of stepping out of our homes at any time, of meeting people, of visiting public spaces such as malls, gyms, and theatres—have suddenly been taken away from us. Everyday patterns have undergone a previously-unthought-of transformation. Even the subtext of our conversation has been altered by the pandemic. Words such as social distancing and community transmission have become a part of our lexicon. Fillers such as "how are you' are now used as subconscious signals to enquire after each other's well-being.

The lockdown has also brought on a range of challenges, both physical and mental. But human beings are nothing if not resilient. While fitness seekers don't yet fully trust a setting as social as a physical gym, they are resorting to tech-led home workouts and mental wellness practices to keep themselves ship-shape during COVID-19.

The virtual leap in the mental health landscape

Since the lockdown came into effect, holistic health and wellness has moved beyond being buzzword and become a non-negotiable priority. In the past few months alone, there has been accelerated adoption of tech-driven solutions to address the pandemic-induced isolation, anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as to maintain physical fitness.

Statistics amply corroborate this change in the behavior of the average consumer. Mindfulness and meditation apps are helping people overcome mental wellbeing-related challenges. By April 2020, according to a report by Sensor Tower, the number of global monthly downloads crossed the 10-million mark—an increase of 20 per cent over the total downloads in January.

Keeping physically fit through digital technology

Despite their growing popularity, home workouts have conventionally lacked an essential quality that makes gym-based workouts so appealing: on-demand access to personalized guidance from experts.

Physical gyms have multiple trainers on the floor to monitor real time, as well as to correct any errors in form and posture. They are also readily available to dispense tips on how to achieve better results or to suggest a workout routine that might be better suited to the individual, depending on their capability and fitness level at the time.

Try as they might, YouTube/Instagram video tutorials cannot achieve this level of personalization and real-time feedback. Many fitness seekers also bemoan the loss of the community aspect of gyms, where participants motivate each other and engage in friendly competition, apart from offering support and advice.

Many new-age solutions are addressing these need-gaps by integrating technology into the home workout schedule to make them more exciting, engaging, and impactful.

At-home fitness tech

Global fitness players such as Mirror, Tonal and Peloton have launched several innovative offerings that are revolutionizing the home fitness landscape. Take Mirror, the at-home interactive gym which is a full-length LCD screen that allows users to access instructor-led classes for yoga, strength, and cardio in both live and on-demand formats. The device also comes with a built-in camera that allows trainers to see and correct the form of their trainees in real-time.

Similarly, Tonal—world's smartest home gym—uses science and technology to let their users see real results has come up with a compact digital weight machine that allows users to work their muscles without the hassle of managing bulky physical equipment such as weight stacks, dumb-bells, metal plates, etc. Its real-time feedback allows for more guided workout routines, as opposed to free weights. But these revolutionary smart and intuitive at-home fitness tech products will have a slower adoption rate in the Indian fitness market.

Wearables and clothing

People have also turned to wearables, virtual workouts, fitness gadgets and applications to keep up their physical fitness. The demand has surged considerably in recent times and is expected to follow an upward trajectory for the foreseeable future. Even now, months after the first wave of lockdowns, these trends are showing no signs of slowing down.

According to a recent IDC report, the wearable industry has benefited from the renewed focus on fitness post the COVID-19 outbreak. The market for smart wristbands has grown by 16.2 per cent, while the wearables category has reported a growth of 68.3 per cent. Leading experts in the space believe that this tech-based shift towards holistic wellness is here to stay. This is because these solutions allow fitness enthusiasts to evaluate their workout performance by tracking their activity, while also encouraging them to stay active by providing personalized recommendations.

Virtual personal trainers

The biggest positive development has come in the form of the limitless flexibility offered by these tech-driven tools. Geographical boundaries have blurred. People no longer need to adhere to stringent routines. They don't have to physically visit a fitness centre, or sign up for a session at a particular time, or settle for a substitute trainer if their preferred option isn't available. By logging-in to live-streaming classes, exercisers now have the opportunity to join a class or book a one-on-one training session with their favorite trainers from across the globe—all from the comfort of their homes.

But fitness enthusiasts don't just benefit from a wealth of options. They also save on time, effort and cost that would otherwise have been spent on traveling to the gym. In other words, technological intervention—far from inhibiting the routine of physical and mental well-being—has revolutionized the way people choose to exercise. It is helping fitness seekers to manage their physical fitness whenever they want, wherever they want, however they want, and with whomever they want.

Live-streaming group classes

One of the biggest draws of a gym-based workout is the feeling of community that fitness seekers share. Live-streaming, group-fitness sessions are replicating this in a virtual environment by helping solo fitness enthusiasts to work out as part of a group. The variety of options available also allows them to access and enjoy more diverse workout routines as part of a pay-as-you-go model.

This online arrangement is also enabling a much wider audience from tier-II and tier-III Indian cities to avail expert fitness services. In pre-COVID days, such options were typically limited to top urban centers; with technology eliminating geography as a factor, fitness seekers in smaller cities and towns can now choose to access pre-recorded or live-streamed virtual sessions with their preferred trainers at extremely cost-effective prices.

Besides the fitness enthusiasts, this tech-led intervention has served as a blessing for fitness centre owners who have come upon hard times owing to the lockdown.

More importantly, these live-streaming group classes are rapidly establishing themselves a viable tool for future growth for gym owners. There is, after all, no denying that virtual outreach has the potential to provide them with a much bigger audience than a physical arrangement could have ever made possible. Live-streaming group classes also allow gym owners to build a more active and engaged community of customers to improve the retention rates at their physical centres.

Fitness apps

The lockdown has led to a direct increase in the demand for fitness and health apps. According to a recent report by MoEngage, the number of downloads grew by 46 per cent globally while, in India, the number of downloads grew by a staggering 156 per cent. The country also leads the growth in the number of daily active users, registering an increase of 84 per cent compared with the global average of 24 per cent. More and more Indians are now using apps such as MyFitnessPal, Strava and Sworkit to personalize and gamify their at-home workout routines.

Technology continues to transform the world around us for the better, addressing issues with service delivery, accessibility, trust, engagement and availability that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. This holds particularly true for the healthcare and fitness spaces, and the speed with which new-age solutions are being adopted is proof positive that these trends are here to stay. The future will be tech-driven and tech-led—and those who adapt most swiftly to the changing dynamics are the ones who will reap the maximum dividends.

Amaresh Ojha

Business Head, RoundGlass Gympik

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