The psychological and social benefits of online workouts

Jo Proudlove and daughter Eve, 9, follow the daily online “PE with Joe” Joe Wickes’ exercise class on “Fancy dress Friday”, dressed as superheroes, at…
Jo Proudlove and daughter Eve, 9, follow the daily online “PE with Joe” Joe Wickes’ exercise class on “Fancy dress Friday”, dressed as superheroes, at…
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Exercise is good for us. But group exercise may be even better. Feeling accountable to our running buddies or fellow yogis keeps us motivated and committed to our routines in ways that solo sessions often don’t. Research also suggests that working out with others has a more calming effect, and a greater impact on stress and well-being than exercising alone.

In the era of social distancing and mandatory lockdowns, crowding into gyms and studios for communal cardio isn’t possible. It may, however, be possible to capture some elements of the group experience via online exercise classes from Peloton, Mirror, Daily Burn, and more. But when it comes to the mental and emotional aspects of group classes, how do these home-fitness options stack up against the IRL kind?

Image for article titled The psychological and social benefits of online workouts

Building a virtual community

Since the onset of Covid-19, home-fitness companies have rushed in with deals in the hopes of wooing potential new customers. Peloton extended its typical month-long free trial to 90 days, with classes that people can do even if they don’t own a $2,245 Peloton bike. The workout-streaming app Daily Burn extended its 30-day free trial to 60 days. Companies that usually specialize in in-person classes are also getting in on the home-fitness action: Barry’s Bootcamp is posting free 20-minute cardio workouts on Instagram, while yoga chain CorePower Yoga made its catalog of online classes temporarily free.

Among the enthusiastic exercisers making good use of such offerings is Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University whose research focuses on how exercise impacts the brain.

While self-isolating, Suzuki says she’s been working out for at least 30 minutes each morning, sometimes adding a spot of yoga in the afternoon. She’s streamed workouts on Daily Burn, dabbled in Peloton’s non-bicycle workouts, and tried out everything from actor Chris Hemsworth’s Centr app to Venus Williams’ new live workouts on Instagram, which feature weight-lifting with a bottle of champagne. Suzuki’s verdict: There’s a lot of community to be found in online fitness.

“That community aspect feels, for me, even more important now that we are isolated, either with your family or I’ve been isolated with only my cat for company,” says Suzuki. Neurologically, “social connections can be a real mood booster.”

Some of that sense of community can be captured via livestream, as with Daybreaker, a yoga-and-dance event during which participants can watch one another do the disco from their various quarantined homes. Participants’ social-media comments are read aloud during Warrior Flow yoga, pilates, and meditation classes. Mirror, a device that looks like a regular full-length mirror, but doubles as a portal to live and on-demand workout classes, allows users to share emoji and notes that appear on screen. There is, of course, a business imperative for these companies to find ways to incorporate community as much as possible: That’s what distinguishes them from free offerings on sites like YouTube or Jane Fonda workout videos of yore.

Both Mirror and Peloton have now suspended live classes because of the coronavirus. Instead, they’re focusing on incorporating social elements into the workouts. The Peloton bicycle’s leaderboard, for example, allows participants to compare their real-time peddling stats against others who have previously taken the class. Brad Olson, the company’s senior vice president of member experience, notes features offered by Peloton such as virtual “high fives,” and “’Here Now’,” which allows you to see which other members are taking the same live or on-demand class.

Suzuki believes that pre-recorded exercise classes can still provide peer-based motivation. She says that a good pre-recorded class should always feature a diverse set of class members, with different levels of ability, performing the exercises. “You see someone struggling like you, and you think, ‘If they can do it I can do it,’” Suzuki says. “Or some people are motivated by seeing someone really fit—’Wow, that person is doing all eight rounds.’”

Image for article titled The psychological and social benefits of online workouts

The benefits of a little social distance

There are obvious downsides to the home-fitness option. You can’t simply invite the person on the next bicycle to get coffee after class, and despite community-building efforts, it’s unclear whether people reap the same level of motivation from virtual exercise partners.

At the same time, some people may feel relieved not to have to deal with the peer pressure that can come with in-person workouts. Brynn Putnam is the founder and CEO of Mirror, which has more than doubled its sales in the weeks since the pandemic struck the US. A former dancer with New York City Ballet who went on to found a boutique studio before creating Mirror, Putnam told Quartz in an interview last year that doing workouts in the privacy of one’s own home can quell not-so-healthy competitive instincts.

“I personally find the group environment often encourages people not to listen to what’s right for their body and take on moves and challenges that are not the right fit,” she says. “A lot of times in group fitness, ego gets in the way of effective exercise.” Indeed, research suggests that the dynamic of group classes compels some people to push themselves beyond their physical limits and injure themselves.

A related benefit, according to Putnam, is that exercising at home can be a body-positive alternative for people who might feel self-conscious or judged in a room where most participants look the same. At her studio, she says, “people would come to look at the gym and say they were going to spend some time trying to get into better shape, stronger or thinner, before they felt comfortable tackling the class. They felt like they didn’t fit in.” At home, you can exercise without feeling lots of eyeballs on you.

Image for article titled The psychological and social benefits of online workouts

The power of positive cascades 

Before the pandemic, rampant loneliness among people of all ages was already a major social concern. Now we’re more isolated than ever—a state that’s linked to depression, sleep loss, and many other physical and mental health problems.

Doing lunges with people on your computer screen may not be a perfect replacement for in-person workouts, anymore than a Zoom birthday party is the same as a bash with friends. But home-fitness options are what we’ve got right now. And they can still bring about social benefits that last long after we’ve hit the shower.

Exercise releases serotonin and endorphins in our brain, chemicals that are known to mitigate stress and depression and help us regulate our moods. That could come in handy when you’re quarantining with your family or roommates. “Particularly these days, you might be in very close quarters with people, and keeping a cool head and an even keel is even more important,” Suzuki notes.

For those who are self-isolating solo, exercising at home may help curtail loneliness after the fact. One 2016 study, for example, suggests that daily exercise creates a “positive cascade,” increasing the likelihood that people will engage in social activities which further improve their mood. By this logic, a home workout may not necessarily provide the same social stimulation as the real thing, but it may make participants more likely to pick up the phone afterward and dial a friend.

Even as some countries begin easing lockdowns, it’s likely that a good number of people will opt to stay away from gyms and studio classes—whether over concerns about spreading infections, or because the recession and job loss has many people reevaluating their budgets.

In that context, it may turn out that the new wave of home fitness options was prescient in understanding that its target demographic was never people who would otherwise go to group workout classes, but people who might otherwise not have the chance to work out at all.

“The idea of making a date with a friend and going to class and coffee is a wonderful part of life,” Putnam told Quartz. “But there’s a huge segment of the population that struggles to make that happen.” These days, we’re all in that struggle together—and many of us are willing to take some semblance of camaraderie, however we can get it.