Last spring, when fitness clubs were ordered to close because of the pandemic, they started offering online classes as an option to their exercise-deprived clients. It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but it has become a long-term change in the way — and the places — that people work out.
Clubs are ramping up their online offerings to reach members who have realized that they like exercising at home.
"We took what we thought were lemons and made some pretty cool lemonade," said Kyle Beste, senior vice president of fitness and nutrition for the Life Time fitness clubs. "What we thought was a stopgap solution has evolved into a new way of thinking about our business."
By linking its clubs, Life Time is offering more than 600 livestreamed classes a week, with several hundred more available via on-demand recordings. As it ratchets up production, the company is eyeing as many as 1,000 livestreamed classes a week in everything from yoga to cycling, strength training to cardio workouts.
"If the members want to take a thousand classes a week, we'll give them to them," he said.
Life Time is far from the only club making this move. The YMCA360 program offers a wide range of online programs, from its Silver Sneakers classes for senior citizens to kids' yoga. National fitness chains like LA Fitness and Orangetheory also have jumped into livestreaming.
Technological innovations — including Zoom, YouTube and FaceTime — have opened the online door to small, independent clubs, as well. There even are individual trainers who've gotten into the act, such as Minneapolis-based Kelsey Lindell, whose sessions are offered as part of the Shape Society Collective, a co-op fitness organization.
And it's not just the clubs. The companies that make exercise equipment also offer streaming and on-demand classes. Peloton is perhaps the best known because of its advertising, but it has plenty of company, including Nordictrack and Bowflex.
Even fitness clothing companies have gotten into the market. Nike has launched its Training Club App. In addition to exercise classes, Reebok is offering wellness sessions. And the Mirror, recently purchased by Lululemon, offers real-time interactive training.
Of course, there also are the video offerings that were around before the pandemic but have stepped up production, including Crunch Fitness and Beach Body.
This is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon, either. A recent report by British-based AMA Research, which tracks trends in health care, said that interest in online fitness classes is growing worldwide and predicted that the gains will continue at least through 2025.
"Online fitness courses are rapidly gaining popularity due to the growing health awareness among the people, increased internet penetration and rise in smartphone users," the report said. Everyone "from children to adults are taking huge interest in online fitness courses."
Times are changing
One of the main motivators in Life Time's surge in online classes was the realization that the landscape of the workaday world is changing.
Various economic analysts are predicting that even after the pandemic all-clear is sounded, many people will continue to work from home, at least part time. And that means that many people likely will continue to exercise from home.
"We want to meet people where they are," Beste said.
"Most people are still working from home," agreed Nastassia Smith, Life Time's senior director of Group Fitness Operations. "It's their new normal."
Smith doesn't expect the in-club classes to disappear; they're still a major draw. But having the classes available online lets people choose which ones they want to attend in person and which are better squeezed into a busy schedule by connecting remotely.
They've also proved popular with the class leaders.
"The instructors can keep connected with the members of their classes," Beste said. "They get a lot of energy from the classes."
There was an adjustment period when the online classes first started, Smith admitted.
"People had to learn to engage virtually," she said. "We were creating a whole new way of connecting."
The goal is to make the person at home feel like they are part of the class. To that end, one of the spots in the class — person No. 7, if you're into details — is replaced by a video camera.
"You're just one of the people in the class, where 30 other people sweat with you," Beste said.
There is also much more flexibility in finding a class that fits into a person's schedule. All of the more than 150 Life Time clubs across the country are linked to the same web page, which means a member can tune into a class from the East Coast as early as 4:30 a.m. Twin Cities time or one from the West Coast as late as 8 p.m. The club from which each class originates and the name of the instructor also are listed.
"You can take a class from your favorite instructor or try something new," Beste said. "You can shop locations. You can shop instructors. You can look for a time and format that works for you."