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Does the rise of smart at-home fitness spell the end of gyms?

Woman on exercise bike
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The fitness industry is booming with the likes of Zwift and Peloton revolutionising exercise. But will the rise of the smart home workout replace the gym? 

For the first time since the 1980s the gym is under siege. Back then it was the exercise tape pulling in time-crunched punters with flat stomach plans and hips and thighs workouts (god bless you Rosemary Conley). Today, it’s a different kind of coup: smart home fitness.

With the explosion of technology and connectivity we can now take part in premium workouts at our convenience, on-demand and in the comfort of our living rooms. Get-fit fanatics can’t swing a jockstrap without hitting a smart home fitness device designed to bring the gym to you. 

Whether it’s the exercise bike with an in-built tablet from Peloton; the Mirror, a hybrid LCD screen that streams instructor-led classes; or the wearable-powered boxing gloves from Hykso, this is the era of never-leave-the-house calisthenics. The ‘interactive home gym’ has arrived. 

Dave Thomas, co-founder of The Foundry, says the gym is under threat - simply because you don’t need to be a member of one to stay fit. The fundamental principles of fitness have remained unchanged for thousands of years, he says, namely “move more, eat well, challenge your muscles, stretch, and do whichever cardio you enjoy.” All of which can be done without a gym subscription, he says.

“Throw in walking, which offers both physical and mental benefits and is both free and technically simple, and on paper, you’ve got the recipe for good health for the general population.” 

What then, is the value of going to a gym? 

A study by Iowa State University compared gym goers to non-gym goers with similar blood pressure, heart rate, and body mass and concluded “gym members were 14 times more aerobically active than non-members”. They were also less likely to be obese. 

One argument for this acceleration of achievement is strength in numbers - the idea of an increased likelihood of hitting one’s target when tackling a health or fitness challenge with like-minded people. One study found that 95 per cent of those who started a weight-loss program with friends completed the plan, compared to the 76 per cent of those flying solo. Another, in the Journal of Social Sciences, found that participants gravitate towards the fitness behaviours of those around them. 

“Try doing a week of solo home workouts and see how motivated you feel,” Thomas says. “It’s harder when you’ve paid for a gym membership or trainer to help you meet your goals. It’s easy to make excuses when you're on your own.”

Users of Peloton, no doubt, would argue that the remote spin classes dish out motivation in spades, with instructor-led rides, personal shout-outs (“That’s it Spinboy77, go go go”), real-time leader boards, and the gimmick to give each other virtual ‘high fives’.

In fact one study by the Society of Behavioural Medicine concludes "that exercising with a virtually present partner can improve performance on an aerobic exercise task across multiple sessions." The key word here: virtually.

Smart workouts are also evolving. When Jack Rear, one of the Telegraph’s writers, trained for a half marathon using Zwift he did so in a gym three days a week (for the first time ever, no less) because the company’s new RunPod attachment does away with the need to own an uber expensive Bluetooth treadmill in the home. 

Similarly, the Kaia Personal Trainer app is pitched as a “virtual personal trainer in your pocket” using your smartphone camera and motion tracking to measure reps in real-time, indoors or at a gym.

Kevin Cornils, International Managing Director of Peloton, is less sanguine, telling us that fitness is going the way of movies and video games and “moving into the home” because “if you can get a better fitness experience at a better, more convenient location, and on your own time, it could theoretically replace the need to belong to a gym.”

Thomas isn’t so sure. “The main role of spin instructors is to motivate and support rather than [give] technical instruction. This is not to belittle these skills in any way - I couldn't be a spin instructor as it requires boundless energy, performance skills and enthusiasm - but there is less need for regular coaching feedback, as opposed to a group exercise class using weights [for example].”

This personalised feedback, Thomas says, “is critical because without it clients are at an increased risk of injury, will pick up bad movements patterns, which are harder to ‘unlearn’, and will find it tougher to achieve their goals.”

And gyms also go beyond simply teaching you how to how to train, they give you “the skills, confidence and knowledge to walk into any gym in the world and train effectively for your goals and support your life long health and fitness journey”. Something they’ve been doing for over 3000 years

Mind you, we did work out nude then. Enough said.   

Do you think the rise of smart at-home fitness spells the end of gyms? Or do you think that gyms can offer something that new technology can't? Tell us in the comments section below.