The gyms may be shut and the workouts now virtual, but trainers and HIIT outfits are keeping up with digital trends to make sure they are ready for post-lockdown reality
On May 1, Aiswarya Krishna Vadakkoot, a senior yoga instructor at Cure.fit, received a call informing her that she’d been laid off. Initially, she thought it was a prank call. “Who tells an employee to resign forcefully, especially after the company has assured you there will be no lay-offs?” The only choice the country head of the Bengaluru-based fitness start-up gave her: to continue working until May 31 or June 15. “When I wrote to them demanding an explanation, my official ID was deactivated. Our WhatsApp groups were also muted. No one is taking our calls now and I don’t know if I am still with the company,” she says.
The company, meanwhile, reported it has terminated 800 employees with two months’ severance pay. “In reality, close to 1,500 employees have been fired and we are getting only 15 days of pay. A decision like this, after advertising they donated ₹5 crore to the PM Cares Fund, is appalling,” she adds. Is the brand taking care of its clients any better? “They aren’t issuing refunds. You can pause your membership or switch over to virtual classes,” says Vadakkoot.
Get on the mat
- Weekend’s poll on Instagram and Twitter showed that most people are working out at least a few times a week — 66% and 56% respectively. It is no surprise then that Google Trends revealed that the search term ‘home workout’ has had its biggest spike ever.
- In India, ‘strength training’, ‘toning exercises’ and ‘home exercises’ are breakout topics — search terms that grew by more than 5,000%. What’s more interesting: they’ve been looked up the most in the Northeast, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and tier-2/3 cities such as Faridabad, Meerut, Kanpur and Patna.
Making the shift
Similar stories are popping up on social media. From gyms shutting shop — Chennai-based Rupesh P closed his two-year-old Peak Health Studio (with 100+ members) because he “cannot afford the rent; I hope to resume once the situation settles” — to behemoths like Gold’s Gym, with 700 locations worldwide, filing for bankruptcy protection.
But even as the industry is reeling, workouts are growing exponentially in popularity. Online sessions and virtual challenges are taking over newsfeeds. Who didn’t try the handstand dare kicked off by four-time Olympic gold medallist gymnast Simone Biles! Barbells are being replaced by bags stuffed with books and water bottles filled with sand. And the uber rich are buying Peloton Bikes and interactive at-home fitness systems like the full-length smart MIRROR, with its built-in personal trainer. Fitness influencers are also upping their game, devising new regimens that they are sharing freely on platforms like YouTube. Like Katrina Kaif’s trainer Yasmin Karachiwala. Her Chair Circuit, which targets the legs, butt and abs, has already crossed 20,000 views, and even found new fitness recruits when she did an exclusive session for HELLO! magazine.
So the best challenge at the moment is to get your online game right. Yes, even for out-of-work trainers. Shortly after Cure.fit’s news broke last week, Jitendra Chouksey, founder of digital fitness platform Fittr, posted a video on LinkedIn, reaching out to trainers. Calling the fitness industry “recession-proof”, he says, “Means may change, but fitness will always exist. So will the demand for related products and services. If anything, more people are moving towards adopting fitness the digital way.” As one of a handful of digital players in the country, they are experiencing an upsurge in memberships at the moment. His video has already nudged 500 people to apply to the community-driven start-up (they are looking to absorb around 300-500 trainers to start with).
- Even at Mumbai-based Fitternity, choosing to go digital has helped. With a robust network of 12,000-plus gyms and fitness studios across over 20 cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Gurgaon, Bengaluru, Pune, etc, their new offerings this lockdown include FitternityLIVE (livestreaming interactive sessions), FitTV (video on demand), Personal Coaching, etc.
- Jayam Vora, co-founder and COO, says with the shift in the perception of fitness as a “luxurious activity”, there has been an upsurge in the demand of digital fitness services during the lockdown. “Users from tier 2 and tier 3 cities can also access our platform now. Post the lockdown, we will have an option for people to take the gym’s virtual tour before signing up. That way, we can also inform them of safety measures at the particular studio.”
What about gyms?
Fittr operates on a ‘freemium’ model, wherein exercise videos, diet and training plans are available for free. Those who need an additional push can enrol with online coaches for their paid personalised programmes. “Our core offering is limited to nutrition and training, but we’re planning to allow coaches to start online training in martial arts, Zumba, dance and the like.” So, is the future of fitness digital? “Physical gyms will perish, both in the short and long term; that’s the cost of evolution. The future is virtual reality and augmented reality,” says Chouksey.
Of course, not everyone has such a polarising view. But what most people agree on is that concerns about social distancing, sanitised equipment and contact points in changing rooms need to be looked into. In the last two months, Talwalkars Inshape in Chennai lost approximately ₹1.5 crore. With seven branches operating with 148 employees, the lockdown has hit them hard, says AN Rajendran, the CEO. “Unless we reach a point where there are zero cases in the city, we cannot function.” With their app under development, virtual classes are not an option either. However, when it is up, Rajendran plans to “include a facility [on the app] where members can book their workout slots, thereby avoiding overcrowding. Masks and gloves will also be compulsory, and all machines will be sanitised after use”.
Meanwhile, functional training centres are adapting quickly. The Quad’s Virtual BootCamp (launched in April) hosts parallel sessions at the same time. “We run bodyweight- and kettlebell-based training plans,” says Arvind Ashok, co-founder of the popular city-based centre. “Both are programmed such that they can dovetail or work as individual training plans. Instead of looking at it as a replacement for our in-person classes, we’ve worked hard on making it a unique experience.” The virtual sessions will stay for the rest of the year and beyond. “Once the lockdown is lifted, we will phase things out. At the beginning, we’ll have only one batch per day, with no overlap. Our training locations are large open spaces and we can easily accommodate our batches with more than six feet between each student.”
A few kilometres away, at Arena HIT, Zoom classes and online workouts were launched almost as soon as the centre shut for lockdown. “We plan to continue the virtual sessions because we have many requests coming in; we’ve also received enquiries from people from other states,” says co-founder Ananth Viswanathan, adding that, going forward, though there will be takers for the digital experience, a majority will want the experience of working out together as a group.
But, we wonder, after hosting in-person group sessions for years, was making the virtual shift tough? New Delhi-based Sumaya Dalmia admits it was daunting. Known for her outdoor bootcamps, Pilates and group workouts under her brand, Sumaya, she says, “We’ve always been known as an offline brand, but the lockdown pushed us to strengthen our online game. We’ve remained connected with our members via Zoom and personal trainers are continuing their sessions virtually.”
Living room workouts
For trainers, in the meantime, building the right dynamic with clients is the challenge. “Right now, even coaches are learning a lot. One of the main problems we face is explaining why a client should do a certain exercise; it is easier to hand out [exercise] programmes in the gym,” laughs Mumbai-based celebrity trainer Praveen Tokas, who uses online platforms such as Zoom and Skype. “For example, each person is taught squats in a different manner. The camera is a limiting factor.” While Tokas feels that things may go back to how they were, he stresses that the current situation is quite testing psychologically. “Maybe before the lockdown, someone was used to heavyweight lifting and they can’t do that any more. People have had to adjust their goals — it’s a mental battle.”
While there are the obvious drawbacks of lack of physical connection, there are several advantages of virtual sessions too, especially in terms of flexibility, privacy and time efficiency. Another positive (despite the decline in total registrations this quarter), according to Ashok of The Quad, “is that we’re able to reconnect with many of our old students who moved to other cities/countries and can now train with us virtually”.
Going forward, while most believe that people won’t stay away from gyms altogether, a hybrid approach — with virtual training and outdoor fitness — will be an appropriate solution for the post-Covid world. “The adoption of virtual training methods will definitely rise. What will be key is tracking progress and results and not just trying out workouts from different Instagram influencers,” says Ashok. “It comes down to getting help with goal-setting, adopting a hybrid and balanced approach to training and nutrition, and working with qualified coaches who can take the guesswork out and design sensible programmes, digital or not.”
Dalmia agrees. Impressed with how people have transplanted their routines to their homes, she believes the future will be a mix of offline and online. “I’ve started practising yoga virtually, with the Alo Yoga app, and I am loving it,” she says, adding that as long as clients understand the programmes they sign up for and how to periodise them, they will be fine. “Just because it is Insta-pretty, does not mean it is for you.”
Not just for influencers
- Chennai-based Mansi Gandhi’s vinyasa flow yoga classes have seen students double over the last two months. Students are from Dubai, Bengaluru and Kottayam besides Chennai, with persistent enquiries from Warsaw and France.
- It is a double-edged sword, says Gandhi, for as the geographical barriers are removed and students sign in from around the world, you are also competing with instructors globally. That said, students are loving the convenience and want to continue with online classes, and perhaps one physical class every two weeks.
- For freelance instructors like Gandhi, the move to virtual classes also addresses the issue of finding rental space for a studio. Another observation is that people prefer a live class with feedback from instructors to a recorded class. Has the switch been easy for students? “The first class is often a disaster, as they are always adjusting the camera. But it’s smooth after that,” says Gandhi, whose last physical class was on March 13.
Meanwhile, in Bengaluru, Vadakkoot is taking note. She’s putting aside her disappointment with Cure.fit and is planning to start virtual classes. And there’s only one way to go — up.
With inputs from Lesley Simeon