Home is the new gym.
Peloton, a company that makes high-end stationary bikes and treadmills that stream live classes, is snapping up new users and is currently valued at $4 billion. Similar devices replete with plenty of venture capital funding — Tonal, Hydrow, Mirror — are popping up every day, each with the promise of being the exercise routine that you’ll actually stick with.
But as many people know from failed New Years’ workout resolutions and weight machines gathering dust in the basement, fads change. Remember Zumba? Of course everyone knows they’re supposed to work out. But most people don’t make it past six months in any exercise regimen, according to Mark Eys, a professor in the kinesiology and psychology departments at Wilfrid Laurier University.
Why is it so hard to sustain exercise?
“People have to have a positive attitude toward the activity,” Eys said. “These are activities that people have to enjoy, that they can self regulate, that are convenient. Ultimately, people have to find the time and motivation to do these activities and put aside competing activities like Netflix or other things that are easy and quite attractive.”
People quit because they don’t enjoy the activity, or that “initial surge of optimism” passes, said Eys.
Even if people find an exercise that compels them, time is a major roadblock. Eys said the biggest issue with getting people to exercising is that they don’t perceive themselves to have enough time.
Enter these new, tech-laden, at-home brands — which are trying to create the gym experience without having to leave home. Classes vary in length but are usually about 30 to 45 minutes, and are marketed as workouts people can fit into their busy schedules.
There also are a number of other reasons the new crop of at-home work equipment might have longer staying power than previous generations.
These new companies combine at-home exercise devices with screens that stream live and pre-recorded classes, for which users pay a monthly access subscription.
In many ways, this is the natural progression of the old-school workout tape. But in addition to better screens, these companies are integrating other buzzy tech terms — social media, gamification, VR — to make exercise more habit forming and fun. Or at least less arduous than other forms of exercise.
“I think the reason this might be different is because of the zeitgeist we find ourselves in: We relate to people digitally and have conversations over social media,” Dr. Sari Shepphird, a sports psychologist with a private practice in LA, told Recode. “Now we can have a way to have the social aspect of working out in a way we’ve become used to.”
The social element could help people stick with exercise.
These exercise devices allow varying levels of interaction with other riders, from Facebook integration to being able to communicate with others during your classes.
“Theoretically, the coaching/social features should positively influence motivation while removing the potential for intimidation that comes with the physical presence of other people, who might be critical observers,” said Panteleimon Ekkekakis, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, who studies what makes exercise pleasurable and what contributes to sustained behavior.
Eys, who studies group workout dynamics, agrees.
“A lot of the work we do focuses on the social component, so we would be the first to say that building a social aspect, if done correctly, would be a step in the right direction toward maintaining physical activity,” he said.
Still, he warned against “pseudo social environments” that might exist in online exercise groups. “We don’t know how genuine those interactions are,” Eys said.
Shepphird thinks the social groups geared around these devices might serve as an alternative place for people to post about their workouts, since it’s become passé on other social media.
Both she and Eys said that working out with your actual friends would be ideal.
“Having an app to do this with my friends and connect versus always having different partners would be a lot more successful,” Eys said.
At-home device makers are promoting their “community” in pages and pages of ad copy. These communities connect riders in the app, on social media and in real-world events. Riders can talk with each other and even in some cases with their instructors.
A number of these at-home devices are also adding in elements of gamification to capture people’s attention. Many include some form of public leaderboard. That means in addition to quantifying your own workout, you can see how well you performed compared to others — friends or total strangers.
Flywheel, which began as a studio-only bike workout but has recently branched out into selling bikes and live class subscriptions for at-home use, lets you compete against friends and strangers alike who are currently taking or have ever taken the class.
“We engage our at-home community in our broader community initiatives,” Matt O’Connor, Flywheel’s general manager of the company’s home fitness business, told Recode. “Later this month, one studio will be able to compete against another.” All at-home users constitute their own “studio.”
Turning activities into games has been used in everything from sales to education, and it’s shown some promising results, but it still needs more scientific study.
Home exercise devices are also incorporating virtual reality in varying ways. This comes in the form of seeing yourself race onscreen against other people or immersing yourself in beautiful locales (instead of your spare bedroom). People using Hydrow’s rowing machine can see the scull and hear their oars hitting the water. At-home biking startup VirZOOM is using full VR headsets to make riders not only feel like they’re racing in actual pelotons, but other more far-out scenarios like riding horses or flying a pegasus.
These efforts are in their early stages, but you should expect to see more advanced AR and VR with time.
Bells and whistles alone, though, aren’t likely to keep your attention.
“Electronic gizmos of all kinds typically have a ‘novelty’ effect that wears off after a while,” Ekkekakis said. “Anything that anyone says at this point is speculative since there are no long-term (or even short-term) studies on the subject.”
Flywheel, which has both in-studio and at-home classes, said its recurring user bases are growing but would not provide statistics on if workout habits differ between the two types of business.
What’s perhaps most promising about the at-home exercise devices is their ability to change. The devices’ digital screens allow companies to continually update their content.
“The background changes, the music can change, the options change — even the type of exercise can change,” Shepphird told Recode. “Most of us have complained at one point in time about being bored by the same old exercise. This type of technology allows us to change things up without fundamentally changing anything.”
Already, the existing field of at-home devices is altering their offerings to widen their customer base and to keep up with changing tastes.
Peloton now offers an app that lets people use their own devices to access routines, without having to spring for the $2,000 bike: It features yoga, meditation, and running classes. Flywheel owners can also take its streaming barre or crossfit classes.
“We believe that a product is a living, breathing thing,” Flywheel’s O’Connor said. “We’re constantly thinking about and investing in making our product better.”
That’s good, because the only thing constant about fads is that they’re always changing.