Back when a COVID-19 vaccine seemed a distant hope, many avid exercisers thought that breaking a sweat in their living room would be a temporary measure.
They bought WiFi-connected bikes, subscribed to apps with live classes, followed local trainers on Zoom, or just popped in some earbuds and rolled out a yoga mat on the floor. A lot of them realized the convenience, fun, and potential cost-savings that online workouts and fitness apps can offer. Some even wondered if a traditional gym membership was necessary anymore.
“My workout ‘commute’ has been cut down by an hour,” says Alex Jackson, 44, who lives in Kansas City and bought a Peloton bike earlier this year. “I can do 20 to 30 minutes of cardio at home, three to four days a week, which is the perfect option.”
Online workouts were becoming popular before the coronavirus hit, of course, but this year they jumped to the top of the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual fitness trends survey. And sales of free weights and exercise bikes have increased significantly, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Now, even people who have returned enthusiastically to in-person gyms are mixing in versions of their at-home pandemic routines, a combination that may prove to be the new normal.
Whatever the mix, our guide will help you design an at-home exercise plan that works for you.
Streaming a workout can make it easier to create and maintain an exercise habit because it eliminates three big excuses: inconvenience (all you need is a smartphone, tablet, or computer and space to move), the high cost (they typically run $10 to $40 a month), and a lack of time (no more commuting to a club, and some routines are as short as 7 minutes).
In addition, many of these apps have features designed to keep you motivated, which is important when you’re exercising solo, says Vanessa Kercher, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University in Bloomington. “If you can get results about beating your own record or meeting a goal, or get high fives from other participants, those are really important for your intrinsic motivation,” she explains.
To make sense of the many options, start by considering four factors: your budget, the gym equipment required, the technology you need to have at home, and whether you’ll benefit from a built-in community.
Many online workouts and exercise apps cost between a few dollars and $20 a month. Compare that with gym memberships, which average about $50 a month.
2. Gym Equipment
Many apps will have body-weight-only options or require only minimal equipment, such as dumbbells. But if you’re looking for cardio and don’t like running or biking outside, you may need to invest in a treadmill or exercise bike. And some options require access to expensive cardio machines if you want the full connected and interactive experience.
3. Technology Requirements
Most online programs will have apps accessible on a phone, tablet, or smart TV. To just Zoom with your trainer or a workout buddy, any device with a camera will do. Some apps require access to a particular device, like an Apple Watch.
For many exercisers, a key feature of online workouts is the motivation and inspiration from other people. In some cases, a dynamic instructor will keep you going, with no interaction required. Other options, such as those with internet-connected equipment, can deliver feedback from instructors or let you interact with other virtual participants. Apps may also let you interact with other users, especially on social media.
What's Right for You
Once you know the variables, consider which mix is the best fit. The options generally fall into three categories, each with pros and cons. If you’re having trouble choosing, consider a test drive. Many programs offer a free trial.
If You Crave Variety
Consider: Exercise apps or streaming workouts.
The perks: Using one of these is like having a huge collection of workout videos. Some “classes” are streamed live at set times; others are available on demand. You access them with a phone, tablet, or smart TV app, or using your computer. Phone apps are portable, of course, so you can use them at a park or gym. (Aaptiv, for example, which specializes in audio workouts, is $15 per month.)
Some of them, like Apple Fitness+ ($10 per month) and Obé Fitness ($27 per month) offer multiple types of classes (strength training, cardio, dance, yoga). Others, like Barre3’s ballet-inspired workouts ($29 per month), Seven’s 7-minute workouts ($10 a month), and SilverSneakers (for seniors; free with some Medicare Advantage plans), are narrower in focus. Most offer a variety of class lengths across all fitness levels.
The downside: There’s not much interactivity. You see the instructors—live or recorded—but nobody actually sees you. So people who thrive on the energy of others, as in a live class, may find these lacking. And you won’t get much feedback or progress tracking unless you have a fitness watch; self-motivation is key.
For Real-Time Feedback
Consider: Live virtual training.
The perks: If you’re missing one-on-one trainer sessions or live group classes but don’t feel comfortable doing them in person—or you want the convenience of popping into a live session from wherever you are—you can access a class or trainer through a web conferencing tool like Zoom. Even some gyms and studios that have returned to in-person instruction are still offering online versions.
Another benefit of live virtual training is the real-time two-way connection. A personal trainer can see you and correct your form if necessary, for example, or an aerobics instructor can give you an inspirational shout out. And there’s a sense of community. You can see others working out during group classes, and they can see you.
Online versions of live classes took off in 2020 out of necessity. For example, Lisa Kinder, a personal trainer and fitness instructor in Orange County, Calif., was working at an upscale national chain and doing one-on-one training when the pandemic hit. Two days after the gym shut down she taught her first online class. “I just listened to the community,” says Kinder, who taught several virtual classes a day during the height of the pandemic—and still does it at night.
The downside: These sessions tend to be run by independent instructors, not big fitness companies, so finding one that works for you may require word-of-mouth recommendations and trial and error. Also, this approach doesn’t offer automatic stat tracking; a personal trainer can help monitor your progress, but with group classes, it’s up to you.
For the Studio Experience
Consider: A connected fitness system.
The perks: If you’re willing and able to pay top dollar, you can take buzz-inducing studio cycling classes or even stunning treks in your own home. The Peloton Bike and NordicTrack Commercial 2450 Treadmill are good examples of how an exercise machine with an integrated touch screen, connected via the internet to classes and performance tracking, can transform your cardio workouts.
The magic ingredients here are the live, interactive virtual group classes led by the sort of engaging instructors you’d find in front of packed gym classes. The technology lets them engage with you directly while keeping an eye on your performance.
Peloton offers a variety of classes for every level, time commitment, and musical taste. For $39 per month plus the $1,895 cost of its basic bike, you get an all-access membership with real-time performance tracking and the ability to see how others in your class are doing. Members can give one another virtual high fives or schedule sessions with friends to work out “together.” (As with the $12.99-a-month stand-alone Peloton App—which you can use without buying a Peloton bike—the all-access membership also includes entry to hundreds of nonbike classes.)
Some of these devices can make your workout more challenging. The iFIT Interactive Technology—available with the NordicTrack Treadmill and other types of equipment—will automatically adjust the incline, speed, or resistance to match an instructor’s prompts or your virtual surroundings. The $2,500 high-end Peloton+ bike can also adjust resistance based on instructor cues.
In the newest equipment subcategory—wall-mounted connected fitness systems—the Mirror, $1,495 plus a $39 per month fee, is a video screen shaped (as its name suggests) like a full-length mirror, in which a virtual trainer coaches you through fitness classes. Camera-enabled technology adapts the workout to your goals, and you can do one-on-one competitions with other users. Another wall-mounted system, the Tonal ($2,995 plus $49 per month), has an interactive touch screen and fold-out arms supporting “digital weights” (electronically adjusted resistance cables, not heavy metal plates) for strength training.
The downside: They’re expensive, with big up-front equipment costs and sizable monthly fees. If you want something similar but for less money, see “Build Your Own ‘Peloton’ Indoor Exercise Bike System."
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2021 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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