The Netflix of exercise videos
Les Mills, the world’s largest group fitness company, has a range of online exercise packages to help you stay fit during the Covid-19 pandemic
On Saturday, I was sweating profusely as I cycled up and down the streets of San Francisco. Then, it was time for a ride through the Redwood forests, where the 300ft-high trees are a simulation of what it might have been like to be human in the age of dinosaurs. A couple of days earlier, I had been navigating a contemporary version of Kyoto. How, you might wonder, have I been getting around travel bans and evading quarantines the world over?
All this “travel" was done on an exercise bike in my balcony in Bengaluru, pedalling furiously while watching online exercise videos called THE TRIP.
These were just a couple of the more than 800 workouts available, ranging from yoga and pilates to high-intensity interval cardio and strength training for almost an hour. They are produced by the Auckland-headquartered company Les Mills, which has been melding exercise research, choreography, music and video training for group fitness instructors for four decades. Most of these workouts can be done on a yoga mat or carpet, some require exercise equipment.
Les Mills, named after the Kiwi Olympian who founded it, is the largest group fitness company in the world. Every quarter, fitness instructors from the US to France, Brazil and China have received videos similar to the ones online to update programmes as diverse as Body Combat, a structured yet slightly manic routine that combines judo, boxing, jujitsu with Thai kick-boxing, to Body Balance, a graceful montage that combines taichi, yoga and pilates.
Now these classes are widely available for the couch surfer who wants to get fit and the exercise junkie who seeks more challenges. Les Mills’ online offering was soft-launched three years ago in the US and UK but has been made available in a host of countries, including India, over the past several months. This year, subscriptions are on a tear in Australia and up dramatically in the US and UK as well.
Les Mills On Demand is the Netflix of exercise—superbly produced cinematography and choreography with more options than one could possibly complete (and it’s about the same price if you get an annual subscription of about ₹6,290). I have gotten so hooked that my Netflix viewing has dropped perceptibly.
Over the past few weeks, Indian exercise companies such as Cult.fit have also started offering a range of free online classes. A friend usually allergic to exercise messaged to say he tried the dance video class from Cult.fit and loved it. Crush Fitness, a popular group exercise company, is offering some of its classes online as well and its personal trainers are conducting one-on-one Skype-based classes with clients. There are also countless exercise routines on YouTube—if you can put up with the interruptions of advertisements and sift through home-video amateurishness.
In exercise, as in so much else, to each their own. I have been doing Les Mills Body Attack in packed group classes in Hong Kong for a decade. It is an almost hour-long, one-stop shop for on-the-spot running, scores of lunges, burpees and jumping jacks, as well as agility work. In its concentrated explosiveness and endurance, it reminds me a little of the 11-minute Canadian air force exercise routine 5BX my father did almost every morning for several decades (the perennially youthful actor Helen Mirren, 74, does 5BX daily).
The Les Mills library of exercise features superb cueing from its charismatic instructors, superb choreography and music. Recently, I was working through a brutal series of plank exercises, akin to a military march with one’s feet while horizontal, when the instructor on the video said, “Imagine there’s a tray of drinks on your back." My energy was flagging but my back straightened reflexively into the correct posture. The energy of the instructors is infectious; the torrent of good-humoured, verbal cues stops you from quitting—well, most of the time. Just a half-hour earlier, my stamina had been flagging as I tried to push down the stubborn bicycle pedals of my spin bike, weighed down with a 25kg wheel. But, goading me to increase the resistance from the bike’s gears was another instructor: “Can you do bigger than heavy—enormous, or gigantic?" Somehow, I found I could—but I quit 10 minutes early.
Their cinematography for exercise videos is one of a kind. The instructors are either on a stage in the middle of a brightly-lit giant studio filled with other exercise addicts or improbably, in some cases, on a jetty overlooking a lake leading a balletic Barre class. Even when drunk, I am not capable of doing Bollywood-style dancing but the scenery of the Barre class, shot on location in New Zealand, arguably the most beautiful country in the world, was so distracting that I forgot for a while how absurdly clumsy I looked (then again, when you are exercising alone, who cares?).
There are downsides. One is addiction. My trainer, who used to come twice a week to my apartment in Bengaluru to lead me through the alphabet soup of other home-based exercises I do (TRX suspension cords and the cylindrical weighted tube for functional training called ViPR), complained that I was sometimes sluggish because I had done too demanding a Les Mills routine the day before. The other problem is that some of the classes have high-impact moves so one needs to take the easier option, which every class offers, if you are middle-aged (as I am at 55) and exercising on cement floors in an apartment. I throw two heavy carpets on top of each other and am considering investing in thick rubberized mats.
What Les Mills offers is an opportunity to up the challenge of our exercise routines even as the need for social distancing has forced the closure of gyms and threatens to make us more sedentary. We need to boost our immune systems more urgently than before with regular cardio-based exercise because if and when that spikey-headed coronavirus comes for us, it will be targeting our lungs.
In a sense, Covid-19 is a gigantic test of character for countries and citizens everywhere. It requires a Spartan code among those of us lucky enough to be middle class or better off in the midst of our hitherto coddled 21st century. Our politicians will have to tell it like it is instead of grandstanding. Citizens will have to respond by drastically reducing face-to-face contact at work when feasible—and stay home instead of socializing for months together. As a British doctor, Benjamin Janaway, put it on Twitter recently in a condemnation of the UK that applies to some extent to India as well: “Watching the general public hoard food, ignore medical advice and continue to spread this virus, knowing that in just weeks we will be seeing mass fatalities, (is) infuriating, depressing and, frankly, enraging."
We are up against a virus that experts such as Ramanan Laxminarayan, who heads the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in Washington, DC, believe could infect 600 million Indians in a country with a hopelessly inadequate health system in normal times. It is a frightening prospect. This is a battle for the long haul, with high casualties already.
Stay home, stay healthy and keep up your spirits—and immunity—by exercising. There is no better way to help our loved ones, our hospitals, our doctors and ourselves during this pandemic.
Rahul Jacob covered the SARS epidemic in 2003 as the Hong Kong bureau chief of the Financial Times.