How virtual fitness classes are providing much-needed community right now

How virtual fitness classes are providing much-needed community right now

The friendly greeting from the receptionist. The smile and nod to familiar faces in your weekly bootcamp. The collective huff when an instructor shouts out another round of burpees. Even for those of us with a get-in-get-out mentality, the gym provided more social interaction than we likely realized. That made it a shock to the system when we were forced to transition to solo living room workouts nearly overnight.

This transition was an even harder hit to those who met friends for classes after work, engaged in locker room banter with other regulars and fed off the energy and motivation of a class full of people.

Among the (many) mental health challenges of a year-long pandemic is the loneliness and isolation of social distancing — and digital fitness platforms have emerged as a way for people to find meaningful connection with others.

“COVID-19 altered the way people spend their time. We are no longer commuting to large offices, meeting friends for happy hour or interacting at special events,” said Kinsey Livingston, vice president of partnerships at ClassPass. “For many people, physical activity and connectedness top the list of our mental health needs, and we are turning to virtual, outdoor and distanced studio workouts as a healthy coping mechanism for pandemic stress.”

Online communities: From underutilized feature to lifeline

Fitness has always had a strong community aspect, but being able to tap into this connection digitally has been a lifesaver for many.

“The role of community features on fitness platforms is gaining importance. Many people are seeking to re-create that feeling they used to get in group fitness classes,” said Liz Kelly, a licensed social worker for Talkspace, an on-demand therapy app. “With so many individuals trying to balance working from home, parenting young kids, supervising their children’s virtual learning and facing other stressors, fitness platforms offer a chance to engage in convenient self-care and find some normalcy.”

And the fitness industry has responded to this demand. “It’s been incredible to see the fitness community unite. Whether it’s instructors hosting Zoom workouts to keep the community together or fitness professionals across brands hosting coffee chats and interviews via Instagram live,” said Tanysha Renee, SoulCycle Instructor on Equinox+. “People are creating challenges and teams and reposting and tagging each other. I think in the end, the fitness family on a whole has found a new way to keep each other motivated and accountable during these unprecedented times.”

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At one time, the community component of digital platforms was an underutilized and sometimes snubbed feature — but when the pandemic hit, it quickly became a lifeline to the outside world.

“I think there was a time when online communities were thought of as a less-than form of connecting with people, maybe even a crutch for things that were missing in our ‘real’ lives,” said John Malangone, from West New York, New Jersey, who purchased a SoulCycle at-home bike and connected with the community on social media when in-studio classes were canceled. “Today all of that has changed. Through quarantine, remote connections were all we had and out of pure necessity have gone from taboo to being an actual tool that, if used in a positive way, can foster meaningful connections that we never had access to before.”

This shift is one that Sydney Miller, founder of Housework, an on-demand and live-streaming workout class, noticed more and more people willing to make as the pandemic wore on. “We’ve been living socially distanced lives for almost a year now and people are craving connection and are more willing to go outside of their comfort zone to meet others.” Miller said. “I think it’s still possible to find these connections even though we aren’t all in a sweaty room together; it just of course takes more of a willingness to form them.”

Re-creating the camaraderie of in-person fitness

“Group fitness classes offer a chance to be with others focused on improving their health and wellness and giving each other support. Those high-fives and cheers from a workout buddy are really meaningful,” Kelly explained. “Group fitness offers adults a chance to reclaim some of that feeling we had as kids on the playground with our friends. It is an opportunity to interact with new people that we may not otherwise encounter in daily life.”

Miller said she founded Housework in hopes of bringing the energy of in-person fitness classes to mobile devices, and she expanded the offering to include Zoom classes as well during the pandemic. “In my Zoom classes, I do everything in my power to create connections and foster the same community experience that you would find in a boutique studio prior to the pandemic,” said Miller. “Before and after class I’m on Zoom chatting with people and introducing them to each other. Over the last year, it’s been amazing and rewarding to be able to form relationships with clients that I’ve only ever met through virtual workouts, and likewise to watch them become ‘friends’ with others in the class that they’ve never met before either. Once a week, I host more formal coffee chats after class where we stick around after the workout and get to know each other better — just like we would grab coffee after class pre-COVID.”

Getting a virtual high-five or sharing a cup of coffee through a screen may not be quite the same, but in a world where most of us are socially distanced from others, it’s creating opportunity for the social interaction that’s so vital to our mental health.

“The community has filled such a void for me. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss in-person studio workouts, but Housework has this magical way of giving us that feeling on Zoom,” said Colby Berman, who lives in New York City and has become a regular in the Housework Zoom classes. “In the spring of 2020, I made more of an effort to join the ‘Housework + Coffee’ classes — we stick around after class and socialize — as well as follow my fellow members on Instagram. From there, I’ve formed great friendships and accountability partners. The community has played such a big role in my mental well-being, allowing me to feel like I’m back in a studio with dozens of people even though it’s all virtual.”

“Group fitness offers adults a chance to reclaim some of that feeling we had as kids on the playground with our friends.”

Liz Kelly, LCSW

Rodney Waites from Missouri City, Texas, took multiple SoulCycle classes a week with his wife, Missy, before the pandemic. Over the past year, he’s been accessing classes from home on Equinox+. “Live classes allowed us to get back to a routine,” he said. “Stuck in the house, these classes gave us someone to see outside of our home and a much-needed sense of normalcy. And that was huge.”

Waites began to follow and interact with instructors he liked on Instagram in hopes of taking their classes in person once gyms opened again. “Granted, it was mostly via social media, but many of the instructors made our family feel that we are getting through this thing together,” he said. And the digital interactions mirrored in-person connections.

“Junior reached out to us and asked how we enjoyed the reggae-infused playlists and asked Missy (who is of Guyanese descent) who her favorite artists were. Another instructor saw a video I posted and immediately hit me back and gave suggestions to correct my form to get more out of the ride,” he shared.

“One of the greatest benefits of being part of a community is recognizing that you are not alone,” Kelly explained. “I have personally seen many individuals gain insight and perspective from online support groups. It can be incredibly healing to have someone else validate your emotions and experiences.”

More than ever, we are craving companionship and support, and this is something that the fitness community has always provided.

Miller said that she makes it a point to still incorporate the aspects of in-person group fitness classes that make it special. “During live classes, I still love to make people feel seen during the workout by calling out their name and cheering them on. … I like to spotlight people in the class so that it is not all about me — it’s about everyone who showed up for the workout and that makes it feel even more like we are all in a room together,” she said.

While Malangone said he misses the in-person interactions he once had — like hanging out before class, grabbing brunch or making Trader Joe’s runs with other members — live classes are helping to bridge the gap. “Live classes have been a great way to re-create some of the same in-person excitement of planning and attending a class with friends. Many of us use social media to plan our rides together. We post photos, give virtual high-fives, celebrate milestones, and show gratitude to our instructors,” he said. “Social media has brought the missed connection back to life and while we can’t wait to get back to the actual studio, we still love showing up with each other anyway we can.”

Finding an emotional support network during a tough year

For many, the connections found through fitness go much deeper than simply sharing health goals.

Malangone said the connections he made in the studio carried over into his life beyond the gym. “Something about sharing the intensity of a class together creates a bond that’s palpable. We cheer for each other both in and out of the studio. We stand up for each other. We celebrate each other,” he said.

The community continued to be an emotional support network for him, even when shutdowns and quarantines kept him out of the gym.

“I’m very vocal about my struggles with anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse and how finding a community of like-minded friends to support me in my journey has been a critical part of my recovery,” said Malangone. “When the pandemic took that away from me I struggled and I relapsed. Not just with drinking, but emotionally. Like many others, I found myself in a pretty dark place.”

He turned to Facebook with the goal of re-creating a community to meet other at-home riders and found many others looking for the same thing. “Today I use the online communities to post jokes and memes, but I also try to highlight other riders and instructors so everyone can share a moment in the spotlight,” he said. “Over the past year I’ve also tried to harness a little of the collective power of the community to promote fundraisers for BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ nonprofits and, most recently, to help feed families suffering from the financial impacts of COVID.”

Waites was surprised to find the instructors so invested in the mental well-being of members. “In one conversation, the instructor Chris from Austin told us he saw a post regarding the police and George Floyd. This meant so much to us because he reached out without even truly knowing me, but knowing my family was hurting; he asked if he could do anything to help,” he said. “The SoulCycle instructors have meant so much more to us than just telling us to ‘double-tap body roll.’ The playlists and inspirational words have given us an escape by providing us our own little ‘Soul bubble’ in our home.”

Berman also recounted leaning on her online community during the pandemic: “At the tail end of 2020, my best friend tragically and suddenly lost her dad. Housework and the community were there for both me and her during that time of unparalleled emotions,” she said.

Renee said that an online community has the potential to be just as powerful as in-person connections, and she has seen that play out over the last year. “Members are so interconnected that some have even gotten others interviews for jobs, emotionally supported each other through personal illness and family loss and much more,” she said. “During the height of some of the darkest days of 2020, particularly surrounding the untimely deaths of BIPOC, the community came together to host discussions for educating and healing. All of this was initiated and organized by community members.”

And an online community may even allow people to make deeper connections than they were able to face-to-face.

“Prior to the pandemic, much interaction was limited to chats before or after class, whereas now, we all have a bit more time to connect,” Renee added. “People aren’t physically racing to the next meeting or to drop off their kids etc., so there is more time to share. Share more laughs, share more selfies and share more personal details such as new pregnancies, new promotions, break-ups, mental health struggles … Having a more in-depth connection has allowed me to truly see the members of the community and in turn, I have an even deeper appreciation for their presence, knowing all that they are juggling.”


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