The gym of the future

Magic mirrors, virtual instructors, super-smart machines, the new supergym is the one in your living room. Inge Theron – aka Spa Junkie – gets plugged in

Interactive-fitness platform Peloton aims to reach 50 million people around the world
Interactive-fitness platform Peloton aims to reach 50 million people around the world

“Bring some of your workout skincare sticks as gifts and meet me at the door,” says my friend. I have managed to finagle a coveted mat in the 9.15am Advanced class taught by Tracy Anderson in Water Mill, in the Hamptons

As you open the door, it’s like a punch to the stomach – you’re hit with waves of 30-degree heat floating on 75 per cent humidity, rich with the previous classes’ hyper-charged pheromones, tequila-scented sweat and, in some cases (mine), tears. Colourful green, red and blue rubber bands hang from the ceiling like prayer flags. Anderson wafts past me, checks her pout in the mirror, fixes a stray lock of hair and adjusts one of the cameras that will be streaming our workout to thousands of subscribers live in their homes.

The new world order of fitness is all about the “connect fit” phenomenon. Its aim: to bring studio-style, group fitness classes home, so you can access the motivation, power and intensity anytime, anywhere in the comfort of your own workout space.

Peloton home bike, £1,990
Peloton home bike, £1,990

Known for having sculpted some top bottoms – Madonna, J Lo and Gwyneth’s among them – Anderson’s method is the gospel my friend swears by. “It’s changed my body and, in so doing, my life,” she says gravely. She’s not alone; thousands of proselytes around the world – the “Tamily” – regularly stream Anderson’s exercise videos into their homes. And, more recently, subscribers have started taking her classes via a super-smart, wall-mounted mirror that uses your personal fitness goals and biometric data to optimise each workout – taught in real time by TA’s best instructors, as well as by Anderson herself.

“Tracy was one of the original pioneers in at-home fitness streaming, so it was a no-brainer to bring her on as one of the first high-profile teachers on the Mirror platform,” says its inventor Brynn Puttman, who founded the Refine Method gym, which works in conjunction with different trainers and exercise gurus to produce bespoke workouts that you can access from Mirror. It requires a one-time purchase on the hardware – a Mirror costs $1,495 – and a monthly subscription ($39) that gets you 70-plus live classes per week, including the hottest body-sculpting TA classes, to stream on demand 24 hours per day. 

I try it out at a friend’s house, and it’s surprisingly good. A near-real-life instruction, without the hassle of traffic and parking. What’s great is you can auto-adjust and correct your technique using your own reflection; if motivation is an issue, you can work out by connecting with other Mirror members and friends. It’s a great solution for those who love to tone but have limited space at home, or who don’t really like running or spinning enough to invest in the equipment. 

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The gym of the future is less about gorgeous equipment and hardware. “Today’s at-home fitness is a content play,” says John Foley, co-founder of Peloton, the brand that revolutionised the industry by taking entertainment-based at-home fitness into the mainstream with its stationary bike.

Peloton is a global interactive-fitness platform and media company. Yes, they have the sexiest carbon-steel stationary bikes on the planet, with 21.5in multitouch screens that detail your ride, a branded spin shoe and a “shout-out” button so you can big up strangers and teachers alike in the class. But what makes the brand unique is the content: it produces broadcast-quality streaming classes live from its state-of-the-art studios in New York and Fitzrovia.

The bike retails for £1,990, while £39 a month gets you unlimited live and on-demand classes. The studios run up to 14 live rides daily and have a library of thousands more, taught by elite instructors such as Jess King and Ally Love – so key to the unicorn brand’s success that they are also shareholders. (Most recent IPO valuation? $4bn. Not bad for a spin instructor.)

Mirror home-gym hardware, $1,495
Mirror home-gym hardware, $1,495

Foley’s aim is to reach 50 million people in new markets with new language content by creating an agnostic platform that can support iOS, Android and web browsers – to allow access to anyone, anywhere, anytime through streaming. “Our mission is to get more people around the world fitter and healthier,” he says. “It’s not a zero-sum game; we want to provide a vast range of categories, the best instructors and the best music to get people motivated.” A great deal of his focus has gone into the tablet – whose immersive content invites you to a range of full-body workouts, including yoga – with enhanced screens, voice clarity and megapixel cameras.

Alternatively, if you are one of the 34 million old bike/treadmill owners out there, you can forgo the new bike and simply subscribe to Peloton Digital, which allows you to stream any of the thousands of cross-category classes such as running, walking, boot camp, strength, stretching, cardio, yoga and meditation on your dusty old machine. The price is certainly compelling: an entire month of content is £19.49 – less than a single boutique cycle class. 

It seems the stationary bike is the official battleground for your home gym. SoulCycle, the brand that pioneered the spin class in the United States, is also closing in on Peloton’s first-to-market advantage; its branded home bikes will go on sale in early 2020, allowing fans to access all that gooey, uplifting, soul-searching remotely. Meanwhile, industry veteran TechnoGym launched its live-stream bike in the UK in November. At £2,450 (plus classes from £34 a month) it doesn’t come cheap but, with its sleek Antonio Citterio design, it could feasibly double as contemporary design-art, should your appetite for spinning dwindle. 

Hydrow rowing machine, $2,200
Hydrow rowing machine, $2,200

When I meet with Nerio Alessandri, TechnoGym’s chief executive, at the company’s $100m Citterio-designed campus in northern Italy, he shrugs off the threat from the competition. TechnoGym, he reminds me, were the folks who originated and pioneered fit-tech back in 1996, and launched a wearable device, the Key. Today, five million people still use it to log into any of their hardware systems and capture their data. In 2012 it launched the Mywellness cloud, which allows its 15,000 clubs – and up to 13 million people – access in over 100 countries. “TechnoGym is the only company in the world to offer a fully integrated digital ecosystem connecting millions of people and operators, making the concept of wellness lifestyle possible the world over,” says Alessandri.

How does the TechnoGym bike differentiate itself? “It has the best high-touch Italian design, but we are going down a different route with an open platform, featuring branded content from the best clubs in the world, like 1Rebel and Virgin Active Revolution [£34 each a month, or £49 for the full class roster], with many more clubs to come,” Alessandri tells me. The bikes will come preloaded with more than 300 classes, and seven new classes will be uploaded per day. “It keeps the offering current with new fitness experiences from all over the world, streaming straight into your home through a subscription.”

But what if, like me, spinning is just not your thing (I swear I bulk up a jean size after just a few sessions)? Step forward Bruce Smith, one of a handful of new fitness entrepreneurs on a mission to change your experience at home. A US national rowing team coach for the world championships, he recently launched an at-home rowing machine, Hydrow ($2,200), which leverages some revolutionary innovations. The resistance mechanism is controlled by a microprocessor, and the features on the screen evolve 240 times a second in response to it. You can row a variety of waterways with top instructors from around the world, across varied workouts – some are very flexible and support HIIT rows, some are long slow distance, while some waterways are more prescriptive; during live sessions you can row solo or in teams. Monthly subscriptions will start at $38.

SoulCycle will release its home bike, POA, in early 2020
SoulCycle will release its home bike, POA, in early 2020

“We have launched ‘doubles’ – two-person teams – “and will be expanding to four- and eight-person teams soon,” says Smith. “You can even participate in a 14-mile race on the Thames past all of the historic sites in London.” 

Hydrow offers a genuinely immersive smart platform, one that recognises gender, age, fitness levels and wellness goals and provides a pathway to whole health that evolves with each individual’s needs. Between three and eight new workouts are added every day, including “On the Mat” content that features Pilates, functional strength and yoga, taught by coaches who work with the national US team.

And more options are coming online all the time. If you want to do strength training, there’s the digital weight system Tonal, which gathers data as you lift (equipment from $2,995; $49 a month membership fees). And if you fancy getting your very own rumble studio going at home, Fight Camp is the answer – a full-studio boxing gym in your home (from $1,995; classes from $39 a month), with full-screen guidance from your television as you box the floor-standing bag.

TechnoGym home bike, £2,450
TechnoGym home bike, £2,450

Sport connects us all, we know that. But what strikes me about this innovation wave in fitness is the emotional access. It’s the antidote to social media, and the mindless scrolling and fear of missing out. These platforms convene us, activate us and give us judgement-free common goals from the comfort of home. As wellness increasingly becomes a way of life, these technologies have arrived not a moment too soon.

This story was originally posted on 30 December 2019.

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