Could Virtual Fitness Spaces Be the Wave of the Future?

Sarene Leeds
·9 min read

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the United States, the brick-and-mortar fitness industry has taken a huge hit over the past several months. Many gyms and yoga studios remain closed or permanently shut down –—and given the indoor, close-quarters nature of these spaces, it’s understandable that clients aren’t comfortable returning to their favorite workout locations just yet. Considering that as of this writing in mid-October, more than half of the states in the U.S. are experiencing an “uncontrolled spread” of the coronavirus, in-studio workouts just aren’t realistic for the foreseeable future. Therefore, millions of Americans have no choice but to look into digital exercise options.

While many gym-goers are patiently waiting things out, citing a preference for the in-person community that exercise studios provide, the truth is, we don’t know when it’s going to be safe to work out anywhere other than outside or in our own homes. “We have to be adaptable, because this is what it is.” says Nina Endrst. Endrst is a yoga instructor, Reiki Master, intuitive guide and the founder of the SoulUnity, a virtual wellness space that launched in February 2020 in upstate New York. “I get [that people want to get back to the gym], but the SoulUnity is a community, and it’s an opportunity for us to get outside our comfort zone, in more ways than one, and connect with people who can fill us up in ways that we didn’t think was possible.”

Being adaptable is what allowed Brooklyn-based media consultant Renee Ifill to become part of a supportive community that probably never would’ve existed had it not been for COVID. At the start of lockdown, on a whim, she joined a Zoom cardio kickboxing class run by her nine-year-old son’s martial arts teacher. “All these months later,” she tells SheKnows, “this class is really our lifeline to not just fitness and moving our bodies and not feeling like we’re all going crazy, but [it’s also] a connection to each other.”

Christiane Seidel, a New York-based actor (The Queen’s Gambit; Fosse/Verdon) and mother of preschool-age twin boys, had never tried online workouts before the pandemic, but when her favorite hot yoga studio shut down, she turned to her Instagram followers for help. Multiple people turned her on to Melissa Wood Health, which, for $9.99 a month (or $99 a year), offers a full archive of over 100 workouts, with new ones published weekly.

“What I absolutely love is that [Melissa’s videos] are all super-short,” Seidel tells SheKnows. “And that’s what I needed. It’s like, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 13 minutes, and you feel good! You do your thing, and you don’t need to do anything else.” Seidel also notes that Wood’s program appeals to her as a mom of young children, “because it’s not live.” She noticed that at the start of the pandemic, a lot of studios pivoted to Instagram Live, which didn’t always work with her schedule.

Endrst, a mother herself to a toddler son, echoes Seidel’s sentiment when it comes to the appeal of short practices. She is pleased to say that the SoulUnity provides just the right amount of self-care time that everyone – whether you’re a parent or not – needs.

“This is a space where moms can meditate for 10 minutes, watch a video for 20, move for 30, 20, 15 – you have a choice,” says Endrst. “It’s built for people who have a limited amount of time. You can have a really powerful practice that grounds you within a small window.”

For $37 a month, Endrst and her team of approximately 20 instructors offer SoulUnity members a holistic library of options. Like Melissa Wood’s workouts, the SoulUnity’s practices are not live, allowing for members to participate at their leisure. There are movement workouts, ranging from yoga classes to a lively burlesque workshop (the latter personally tested out by this writer). Plus, there are guided meditations, Tarot readings, astrology readings, journal prompts, book suggestions, and activism sessions. Given the rise of mental health trauma due to the pandemic, it’s not a bad idea to consider implementing mindfulness into your workout routine, and that’s something the SoulUnity can provide.

“The mission is to empower people to heal themselves through guidance,” says Endrst of the SoulUnity. “We have activists, we have healers, we have yoga teachers, we have voice coaches – we have all these people from all these different backgrounds. What we’re doing is giving members a chance to listen and absorb from different types of people so that they can make shifts in their personal lives, but also in their communities and beyond.”

Another person who has made it his purpose to inspire people through movement and mindfulness is Ricky Taylor, a karate sensei, personal trainer, motivational speaker and founder of Knight’s Code Fitness. The Brooklyn resident is also the brains behind the online cardio kickboxing class Ifill takes on a regular basis (Taylor charges $15 per class, or $99 a month). Although Taylor’s Knight’s Code business has been operational since 2019, it took a horrifying pandemic for it to find its footing: After his employers shut down in-person classes, Taylor, like many other fitness instructors, had no choice but to pivot to online teaching. He then began using his brand-new, pandemic-initiated mastery of Zoom to build his brand.

“[I decided] I’m gonna use the Zoom that was kind of thrown in my lap, to allow me to get my word out. To get my passion out,” Taylor tells SheKnows. He started reaching out to his network (“word of mouth is the best when it comes to marketing”), including Ifill and other mothers of his karate students. Soon enough, he had a core group attending his online classes: “It’s amazing, because the support I’ve gotten from these parents who already knew me and trusted me, now they get to see a different side,” he says. “I’m the coach that’s also trying to better them, and make them feel empowered.”

Taylor’s classes can be challenging. “He’s not one you want to disappoint,” says Ifill. But she means this in a good way, highlighting Taylor’s preternatural ability to “acknowledge every single person” participating. “You’re suddenly being held accountable and being noticed,” with everyone, not just Taylor, applauding and supporting one another’s accomplishments. “This is a very special group,” Ifill says.

Yes, Taylor’s Knight’s Code classes are ass-kicking workouts (which Taylor does right along with his students), but like the SoulUnity, they’re bringing empowerment to people living through difficult times. “I see that they’re emanating confidence,” says Taylor of his students. “They look stronger – and I don’t mean physically. The shoulders are back, their chins are up, their chests are out. Knight’s Code being born through the pandemic, and being born from such a dark and nasty place, has really helped a lot of these moms and teachers rise up and feel comfortable in their own skin. It’s been amazing.”

 

Taylor also makes a point of spending the last 10 minutes of each class to focus on affirmations. “He’ll say, ‘Renee, I’ve noticed you’ve gotten so strong. I’m impressed with you,’” says Ifill. “He’s really present and watching in ways that feels great.” As part of his holistic approach, Taylor recently used Instagram to do a mental-health check-in with his followers; something, especially in these times, is imperative for balancing out physical fitness. “I think that’s so important because that’s a connection that people don’t have with themselves,” he says. “It’s no one’s fault. We’re always going, going, going. We don’t take that moment to go, ‘Hey, I’m not okay. Something’s not right. I need to address what it is.’”

As we head into a new year and another winter marked by COVID, there is still a sense of optimism that fitness will return to in-person locations someday. But for now, there are plenty of incentives to continue working out online. “This has been something I can do consistently,” says Ifill. “Initially, I probably would’ve said, ‘Yeah, I’m definitely going back to the gym.’ But when am I going to feel super-safe? I just don’t know.”

Seidel is definitely open to continuing in a hybrid model when things improve. “I’m pretty certain I would stick with a bunch of online [classes],” she says, “because it’s so flexible, and you minimize the time going to a studio.” However, she can’t deny the appeal of an actual studio: “Once it’s really safe to go to the studio, I will go back, but probably not as often. I miss the live feeling, and being in a room with like-minded people.”

Regardless of what 2021 brings, those looking to maintain their workout routines can take comfort in the knowledge that there are numerous industry professionals like Taylor and Endrst who have adapted their businesses to a world dominated by COVID-19 – and will continue to do so as we come closer to a vaccine.

“You have to either adapt early, or die,” observes Ifill of any business affected by the pandemic. “The people who did it well, they will continue to evolve, even when we move into a situation where you can have a hybrid model. Not everyone at the same time is gonna be like, ‘Well, okay, we’ve got a vaccine, let’s all go outside now!’”

Before you go, check out our favorite home gym accessories (that won’t be a nightmare for your budget):

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