Entertainment

Quarantine put more fitness classes online, and many trainers say they're staying there

As gyms across North America prepare to reopen, many trainers who have managed to gain a following online during quarantine aren't sure whether they need to go back.

Instructors, including Britain's 'P.E. teacher' Joe Wicks, say there's little reason to go back to gym for now

Some instructors who've cultivated virtual followings since the pandemic began say they're in rush to get back to the gym 2:22

As gyms across North America prepare to reopen, many trainers who have managed to gain a following online during quarantine aren't sure whether they'll go back.

Zumba instructor Assata McKenzie, who was used to leading a packed room of dance devotees at various Toronto gyms pre-COVID, took the popular Latin-inspired workout classes online when the pandemic began.

A following for her free "Zoom-ba" workouts — streamed live via Zoom with a laptop on her North York balcony — grew quickly. McKenzie supplements her income with private online classes for small groups.

"I don't know for myself how comfortable I'll be going back to the gym, and I don't know how comfortable other people will be," said McKenzie. "I'll definitely keep the online classes going for a while."

Online classes help instructors reach new audiences

It's a sentiment shared by other fitness experts as well, many of whom feared a major loss of business when stay-at-home orders first began. Private instructors and companies are now exploring paid online models to make more money — and in some cases, they've been so successful that they plan to keep it up even as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Zumba instructor Assata McKenzie takes her 'Zoomba' workout online from her Toronto balcony. (Submitted by Assata Mckenzie)

"I think it's been a surprise to people how much they've benefited from the at-home online workout," said Jennifer Nichols, whose Toronto ballet-based fitness studio was forced to shut down last month.

Nichols wasn't sure her ballet boot camps would translate well to an online audience at first. But within weeks of offering free classes on Facebook and Instagram Live, her social media following doubled.

"I get photos sent to me with people working out with their jar of lentils or their peanut butter jar, their water bottle. With their babies strapped to their belly while they're doing barre classes," she said.

Since getting participants from New York to Denmark, she's now planning to keep half her business model virtual and develop a paid subscription service for the home workouts as facilities begin to reopen.

Jennifer Nichols performs workouts for online audiences from various locations in her home, including a rooftop. Her social media following has doubled since she started offering online classes during the pandemic. (Submitted by Jennifer Nichols)

"I really do think that there is a ceiling you reach in terms of in-person fitness classes," she said. "I definitely am enjoying this process of putting things online and finding interesting, creative ways to present the method."

Dumbbells and resistance bands flew into online shopping carts soon after isolation began. Sales of treadmills and elliptical machines also surged.

The Peloton bike, which allows spin class lovers to stream indoor cycling classes, currently has a minimum seven-week wait on orders "due to increased demand," its website says.

Big box gyms may have to lure clients back

It'll be up to larger gyms, such as Goodlife and Gold's, to get creative if they want to lure customers and trainers back amid fears of contagion and contamination.

Jean-Michel Fournier, a Los Gatos, Calif.-based executive with Les Mills International Group — the powerhouse company behind well-known, worldwide classes like BodyPump and BodyCombat — says big box gyms are facing a crossroads post-quarantine as more people have discovered options for exercising at home.

WATCH | Britain's "P.E. teacher" Joe Wicks tells CBC news about his thriving presence online since the pandemic 

CBC's Zulekha Nathoo speaks with British Youtube sensation Joe Wicks about his growth online 2:23

"People went very quickly into a frenzy of buying new equipment," Fournier said.

Not to mention YouTube fitness personalities, like the Body Coach Joe Wicks, have gained massive followings in less than two months. Wicks, known as "Britain's P.E. teacher" since the pandemic began, has hit more than 55 million views for his child-friendly workouts streamed for free from his living room.

"I think a lot of people will start to shift with online products or streaming services where they can deliver great content to their clients on a global scale," Wicks said in an interview from London. "So that if we ever have a lockdown again, you're protected. You've got an online business and maybe a physical offline business, and then you've got the best of both worlds."

Les Mills Media CEO Jean-Michel Fournier says gyms will have to embrace a 'hybrid' of facility use and supplemental online training if they're going to stay competitive as businesses begin to reopen. (Submitted by Jean-Michel Fournier)

Fournier says gyms, especially those which found success around group fitness classes, will have to offer access to alternative technologies to stay competitive. That includes providing members with digital training so they can get coaching and private lessons when it suits them.

"You're going to have this hybrid model between going to the club and exercising at home," said Fournier. "And clubs need to embrace that."

Ready to re-shape online presence

Nichols already is.

While she says nothing compares to "that energy in the room" of a real-life class, she's also ready to re-shape her online instruction.

"I'll bring in guest teachers and film in fun locations," she said. "It would be great to film a class from a beach or in the park or at the cottage and tailor the workout."

For McKenzie, the shift is more personal. Her sister recently tested positive for COVID-19 but has so far been asymptomatic.

"That was my wake-up call," she said.

She says when it comes to people trying to stay healthy but also stay safe, they shouldn't have to choose.

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