Yehyun Kim for NPR
At the height of the pandemic, when going to the gym wasn’t an option, millions of people started exploring virtual workouts from home for the first time. Many of them now say they will not return.
While this is a boon for the companies developing these systems, it has also helped people who don’t feel comfortable in a gym or don’t have time to get there.
Linda Munson, 56, who lives in Berlin, Connecticut, has worked a home office job since the initial COVID shutdown in 2020. “I’ve been packing on the pounds,” she admits.
Munson was never really a gym person. “I’m socially awkward. I’m anxious to go out. Maybe… I’ll walk into the gym, sign up for a membership, and then just don’t go,” she says.
In 2021, she was hospitalized with COVID and diagnosed with diabetes. When her doctor told her she needed to focus more on her health, she said she’d tried before and just couldn’t do it. “The doctor said, ‘Okay, we’ll wait until you have a heart attack.'”
That was her wake-up call. “I cried in the office,” Monson says, then vows to prove him wrong. I started walking and cut out fast food. One day her son brought home a VR headset called Oculus Quest.
While messing around, Monsoon discovered popular fitness app Supernatural, and she was hooked. Supernatural lets you box, swing your arms at targets, meditate or stretch with a trainer in front of you and in your ear as you move to popular music. Plus you stand in a 3D view of exotic locations like the moon or the edge of an Ethiopian volcano.
Yehyun Kim for NPR
Yehyun Kim for NPR
The Supernatural membership currently offers hundreds of workouts and costs $179 per year, after a two-week free trial. The Oculus Quest headset needed to get there is $299. A few other workout apps designed for VR headsets (FitXR, Holofit) are a bit cheaper. In contrast, the average gym membership cost in 2021 was $507, according to an analysis by sneaker review site Run Repeat.
It’s worth it, Monson says. When you finish one [workout]You’re tired, you’re sweaty, but you think, “I could do something else.” Jumping to the beat is addictive, she says, and “a lot of fun.” “Also, there’s no one to judge you. I’m home, and I can be weird, and that’s okay.”
Munson lost nearly 50 pounds in a year, didn’t have to take diabetes medication, and can now play with her seven active grandchildren.
Yehyun Kim for NPR
Jessica Davis, a therapist in Burbank, California, has worked from home since the pandemic began. Davis preaches the mental health benefits of exercise regularly, and she lives them, too. She is a cycling lover in the peloton, and she reached her 800th ride on her 40th birthday this year. Davis was a regular in a cycling class before COVID, but her husband bought her the bike at the start of the lockdown.
Peloton comes with an app subscription and a screen that lets you ride with thousands of others in a virtual class with a live coach, but also offers runs and other equipment-free exercises. It’s not as immersive as virtual reality, but it has many of the same elements. A full membership is currently $39 per month and a bike is about $2,000. You can find a used one for less, and the company is launching a rental program.
“It was a source of comfort and relief [from pandemic stress,]Davis says. “You saved my ass.” The bike is in her dining room, and she uses it every day because she still works remotely. “It gives me freedom in my schedule.”
Research shows that this kind of flexibility is key to sticking to an exercise routine.
Another important part of maintaining a routine is sharing your joy and pain with others. While it may seem like people embracing the world of virtual exercise are working alone, many are making social connections on the Peloton and Paranormal Facebook pages.
Some write about their brushes with cancer or depression, many post sweaty selfies, and almost all of the comments are positive.
“It’s a place like no other on the Internet,” says Gene Gregg, 50, of Eugene, OR. Transitioning to female, Greg returns to his fitness routine after years of a sedentary lifestyle driving a commercial truck. I wrote about my journey [on the Supernatural page] And they only received full support.”
“You can get in there and say something like, ‘I hit 100,000 points today’ and people will know what you’re talking about,” Monson says. (For virtual workout beginners: This is a milestone that reflects hours of effort.)
The companies that built these fitness programs have attracted millions of new members during COVID.
The company went public in September 2019 with just under 1 million members, says Tom Cortez, co-founder and chief product officer of Peloton, and now has 6.6 million members. He credits the community of active members as a major reason for the growth.
Chris Milk, the co-founder of Supernatural, which launched in 2020 at the start of the US COVID lockdowns, has a background in virtual reality and film and has produced videos for some superstars. He says he was surprised and overwhelmed by the social engagement and emotional response from the paranormal community. “I never got the ‘This Kanye West video saved my life’ comment before,” Milk says.
So what will keep people working out virtually now that the world has opened up, and with it, exercise options?
Milk says he encourages super members and coaches to interact with each other on social media, and is exploring new features like adding knee targets and the option to work out virtually with other people in your headset in real time.
Peloton will be adding new features as well, and is said to be looking to expand into the video game space as it looks to keep users engaged and drive new features in the future.
Although virtual reality seemed designed for teens to play immersive video games, fitness apps seem to be the gateway to a broader audience that may not be comfortable in a traditional gym.
“If fitness turns you down, you’re welcome,” says Milk.
While gyms will likely always have loyal members who like to flex, it seems those who find they don’t always fit in will be happy to ride, duck and bag their way to fitness in their living rooms with a little help from technology.
April Fulton is a former science desk editor at NPR who lives in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @tweet.