Is Telefitness the Wave of the Future? Or Another Way Tech Is Keeping Us Apart?

By May 16, 2019Press

15 May 2019

 

Is Telefitness the Wave of the Future? Or Another Way Tech Is Keeping Us Apart?

 

 

The latest celebrity-approved fitness craze places you out of the studio—and in front of a screen. From the series “Out My Window, Paris Views,” 2013, by Gail Albert Halaban.

 

Realistically, I know that Obé Fitness’s instructors exist in the actual world, not just inside the glowing white box on my laptop screen. I’m also acutely aware that this white box is a set in Brooklyn, and that the toned bodies that bop around inside of it, dressed in pastel-pink leggings, don’t just lead live back-to-back exercise classes on loop. They presumably go home on occasion to do laundry, drink Lambrusco, bicker, sleep. By which I mean: They’re actual human beings, not focus group–tested avatars created by a roomful of programmers or some user-generated algorithm. But as I maniacally hurl myself around my living room on the command of the small figure bouncing across the screen of my MacBook Air, my brain keeps reverting back to the idea that I am, in fact, obeying some kind of digital elf on the shelf.

I soldier on, lunging and twirling, grateful that in the privacy of my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, no one is around to see how little control I actually have over my own limbs. But Kathryn A., who is leading this morning’s dance cardio class, does know that I’m here. My name and geographic location, along with the personal information of the other participants who have paid Obé’s $27 monthly subscription fee to tune into the class from far-flung places, are visible to her as we sign on. “Watch that tempo, Susan in St. Louis!” Kathryn intones. “Keep it up, Kelly in Greenville, South Carolina!”

These kinds of workout classes, which are beamed live to followers who can log in and sweat it out from wherever they happen to be on the planet, are part of the growing telefitness phenomenon. One-upping the on-demand streaming services that many cult instructors (Tracy Anderson; Anna Kaiser, of AKT; Lauren Kleban, of LEKFIT) have added to their lucrative businesses, this relatively new concept incorporates the accountability and go-go-go engagement of in-person classes—without having to go-go-go anywhere at all. Peloton, the company whose top-dollar bikes saved hard-core spinning fans from having to schlep all the way to Flywheel, now films yoga and meditation classes live in a West Village studio for subscribers to follow, in real time, on the brand’s app. And Alicia Keys, Reese Witherspoon, and Kate Hudson are just a few of the satisfied customers who have proclaimed their love for Mirror fitness, the $1,500 portal invented by a Harvard-educated former ballet dancer that hangs on your wall like any other wardrobe fixture; turn it on, and a trainer (real or virtual, as you prefer) magically pops up to lead you in a personalized workout via an embedded camera and microphone. The New York Times has called it the biggest celebrity-fitness sensation since SoulCycle.

Obé’s live classes are intense and, mercifully, short. In 28 minutes the session is over, and I collapse on my living-room floor, drenched and panting. Not long ago, I would have showered, dressed, and taken the subway to my job as a magazine editor in midtown Manhattan, excited to waste company time discussing with my co-workers the surreality of modern life. But a year ago, my husband and I moved with our two small children to this relatively quiet, bucolic college town. Now we live in a picturesque shingled saltbox on a couple of wooded acres, and I have an approximately 35-second commute—up the stairs to my office. I am among the eight million Americans who work from home. As I check the clock in the corner of my screen, I realize it is now 2:45 p.m. I’ve seen no one since the babysitter showed up at 8:30 a.m. Hello . . . is there anybody out there?

If I sound a little edgy on the subject of widespread isolation, I’m hardly alone. In a speech last year, British prime minister Theresa May said she was addressing “the sad reality of modern life” by appointing Tracey Crouch as the U.K.’s first “Minister of Loneliness.” Whether loneliness has risen to the level of a worldwide epidemic has been debated by experts, but, to be sure, it’s a growing problem. In a 2018 study of more than 20,000 American adults, 43 percent reported that they are “isolated from others,” and only 53 percent said they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis. There’s no blood test to prove if someone is, in fact, lonely. But the health repercussions of chronic isolation can be dramatic, according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “Social relationships can influence our biological markers, including cardiovascular functioning and immune response,” says Holt-Lunstad, who notes that loneliness can eventually affect inflammation, which is linked to everything from heart disease to some cancers. In her research, Holt-Lunstad has found that the physical impact of loneliness is comparable to that of obesity. A lack of social connection, she adds, can be as bad for our health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

I don’t think I’m in danger of dying of loneliness anytime soon. But even though remote exercise works—the more Obé classes I do, the more capable I begin to feel—it also brings out the thread of Luddite paranoia that runs through my emotional bedrock. Predictably, when I confess these reservations to Marine turned personal trainer Erin Oprea, she makes them sound, even to me, like the ramblings of a stuck-in-her-head writer. “The gym is not supposed to be your social hour,” Oprea insists, giving me a dose of the straight talk she uses to motivate Nashville stars such as Carrie Underwood. “And you don’t want the gym to be a social hour, because then you’re not actually doing the workout.” Telefitness is not the conspiracy of a bunch of Silicon Valley overlords attempting to cut us off from humanity, Oprea argues. For her, it’s a way to preach the gospel of good form beyond the realm of $125-an-hour private clients. Now, for $35 per log-in, 20 to 30 followers can join her Google Meet “sweat parties” two days a week, from across the U.S., as well as England and Australia. One devotee, Oprea notes, has dropped 60 pounds in the months since she started her remote sessions.

Interestingly, some of Oprea’s followers connect without her, she tells me, meeting on FaceTime to do her signature moves as a group. Similarly, Obé subscribers have devised ways to work out together, sometimes even via real-life meet-ups at home or on lunch breaks at work. It is not insignificant that telefitness’s early adopters are making this conscious effort to add a soupçon of social interaction to their daily lives, suggests Susan Cain, author of the 2012 best seller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. “If you’re feeling lonely, listen to that,” she says.

As Cain sees it, connecting remotely is a pale substitute for the real thing. “It might act as a filler here and there,” she continues, “but it’s not going to act as a replacement.” Several years ago, the woman who rebranded “introvert” as a positive ran smack into the limits of her own loner tendencies. Cain moved with her husband and young children out of New York City to the Berkshires—a leafy, lake-y rural area of summer homes and tiny, charming New England towns not far from where I live now. They arrived in the middle of a freezing, gray March, and found themselves alone against the backdrop of giant mountains, with no one in sight. “I was so intensely miserable,” she recalls. Six weeks later, they had moved again, this time to the densely populated bedroom community of Nyack, New York. “Find the people you need,” she reiterates. Maybe those people will be teetering in tree pose next to you at your local Bikram studio. Though if you happen to find them while lunging, in tandem, via a strong WiFi connection, so be it.