When Sequoia Capital funded a Pune-based startup, Fittr, with a $2million (around ₹14.6 crore) investment in April, it validated the belief that online fitness businesses would emerge healthier from the covid-19 lockdown.
Now, months after the start of the stay-at-home diktat, with gyms, swimming pools and other establishments just beginning to restart, digital fitness companies are booming. According to reports, over 50,000 new paid customers came on board when Cure Fit Healthcare Pvt. Ltd’s Cult.fit live added a paywall in May, even as the health and fitness company laid off people in other verticals.
“The pandemic has accelerated digital fitness by two-three years. The online traction that we have seen affirms that,” says Ashish Rawat, founder of the Bengaluru-based, three-year-old digital workout platform Oga Fit.
Online workouts allow for convenience—of not having to step out of home or change into fancy gear. Users can exercise any time—as opposed to a predetermined class or appointment with an instructor. The internet also gives access to a wide range of trainers, classes, and apps from across the world.
Many classes are also cheaper online than long-term gym memberships—prices increase if a personal trainer is included. Besides, it is not always good for the self-esteem to work out next to the guy who is doing 200kg bench presses.
But there is a flip side to working out on your own, or at home. Exercise is often a community experience, which is why cyclists and long-distance runners do it in groups. Gym regulars too find working out in company more motivating.
“People love working out together and (with) the experience of a trainer,” Rawat says. “Those (people) have found it difficult (to exercise at home). In a (fitness) studio, you can motivate others and pass fun remarks…. That personalization is missing at home.”
The challenge for consumers has also been to choose the right programme from the overwhelming numbers available online. For, in the absence of regulations, anybody can create a video and claim to be an expert, says Delhi-based fitness adviser Meenakshi Mohanty.
“There is no instructor to guide you on what exercise you are doing wrong or that you are at risk of injuring yourself,” says Mohanty, who takes online classes.
According to a study by the healthcare company Bupa, UK, while 61% of adults in Britain exercised during lockdown, about 7.2 million people exercising privately have potentially been hurt or injured during this period. Some exercises have proven more hazardous than others, the study says, with those doing online classes, weight training and using home gym equipment most likely to report injuries.
While exercise may have been an outlet for people getting cabin fever during these months, an increased intensity while walking and running—to shed that pent-up anxiety—could also lead to soft tissue injuries, plantar fasciitis (an inflammation of tissue across the bottom of the feet) and stress fractures.
Research by the UK fitness initiative fit4thefight showed an increase in Google searches for knee pain, sprained ankles and low back pain—all indicative of poor technique that may increase strain on joints.
“Maintaining good form has become a common concern with online training,” says Mohanty. “When you aren’t in front of your client, it becomes difficult to monitor their form and make corrections. (Though) With a little creativity and adaptability, combined with today’s technology, it can be done.”
“Motivation is better with a physical (not virtual) trainer, who corrects form and pushes you to do your best. But in most group classes, there are one-two trainers for 20-30 people, who don’t or can’t correct forms. This was the primary reason for our company,” adds Rawat. His website uses motion-sensor algorithms through the device camera to give real-time feedback.
Experts have advised moderation when returning to any fitness regime. When starting out after a long break, go for lighter weights, fewer repetitions and a walk before a run.
The manager (development) for Major League Baseball (MLB), David Palese, who is based in Gurugram, Haryana, uses the example of sport to suggest that the lockdown and its gradual easing should be viewed like any off-season or rest period by not pushing too fast or too much. Train smart and build back to game speed, he says, using an American example: “I am looking at it like there is snow and we are building for when the snow melts and we get outdoors.”
MLB runs a programme for primary school children in Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai to learn the sport.
Explaining the nuances of game-play and training to children is challenging, Palese adds, because they may never have seen or experienced it before. But building slowly over a Zoom call helps.
“We can do running form drills, agilities with cones, etc. You can do it in a 5-6m space in anyone’s living room. We are not teaching anything that’s too high level or injurious to a child. Just basic motor skills and body movements that are sport specific,” Palese says.
It’s supposed to take 21 days for a habit to change and covid-19 has given fitness enthusiasts more time than that. Even if some people return to gyms when they open, others may continue to ride on the online boom, satisfied with a trainer counting from one to 30 on FaceTime.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.