‘COVID fast-tracked what fitness was already moving into’

‘COVID fast-tracked what fitness was already moving into’

It’s one of the iron tenets of the modern fitness industry: New Yorkers will never work out at home.

 How can they in a cramped city like this one, where the apartments are tiny and the downstairs neighbors are never slow to complain?

“What in God’s name are you doing up there? Dropping barbells on the floor?”

Um, well, maybe!

Plus, city people crave human connection and a sense of belonging. For many alienated New Yorkers, going to the gym or the fitness studio or the yoga class has helped to fill that void. Good luck finding the motivation for burpees and back squats in the bedroom, not to mention the space and equipment to get them done!

That’s been the widespread theory, anyway—until it and so much else collided last Spring with COVID-19. Now, there’s a pandemic rush in the fitness world to make sweating an at-home thing and produce some much-needed profit potential for a growth-focused industry that’s been badly battered this past year.

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Late-night TV is loaded with ads for home-exercise contraptions, especially in this New Year’s resolution month of January. New York City-based Peloton

is adding a $2,495 treadmill to its line of home exercise bikes and subscription-based programming.

But it may be SoulCycle, the bike-riding fitness boutique known for its candlelit studios, carefully curated music and high-energy instructors, that is getting closest to delivering an in-class experience directly into people’s homes. And that takes a whole lot more thinking than you might imagine.

“COVID fast tracked what fitness was already moving into,” said SoulCycle instructor James Lewis, who is leading most of his classes these days from a West Village studio or a Midtown Manhattan soundstage that used to host “The Daily Show.” “A big part of that is reaching outside brick-and-mortar. It’s my job to make you smile. That’s literally my job, to bring the magic and make you smile. It’s a plus if I also get you to sweat. Now, we’re bringing people to SoulCycle we never could have reached before.”

It turns out that the exercise part of an exercise class is the easiest to do remotely. It’s the intangibles—the sense of community, the personal connection, the lasting motivation—that are far trickier to achieve over Wi-Fi.

On March 17, Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down gyms, along with bars, restaurants, casinos, movie theaters and other gathering places, across New York state. It wasn’t until Aug. 24 that the gyms were allowed to reopen at 33% capacity, though indoor yoga studios, boot camps and group fitness classes are still severely limited as a threat to public health. 

Then again, sitting on the couch all day watching Netflix

isn’t so great for anyone’s health either, physical or psychological. So fitness brands like SoulCycle, founded in Manhattan in 2006 and now owned by Equinox Group, are going where the people are.

“Foundationally, we have always been a mind-body experience,” said Melanie Griffith, who gave up a corporate-law career to lead SoulCycle classes and now trains other instructors as the company’s senior director of brand experience. “We are bringing that welcoming, inclusive experience into people’s homes.”

Different instructors do this differently.

 “Some people smile and laugh,” she said. “Some have incredible coaching language. What we have learned in our digital classes is that people at home who are riding don’t want to feel like they are just sitting in the corner watching something happen. They want to feel part of it from the beginning. I rely on my own experience as a mother, as a longtime cancer survivor and as a rider who has shifted into being an instructor who also works at the corporate office.”

SoulCycle instructor Melanie Griffith.

Equinox Media

So far, the demand for the at-home bikes has consistently outperformed forecasts, driving the company to double production at the tail end of 2020.

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 None of this is cheap. The SoulCycle at-home bike is $2,500. Unlimited access to live and on-demand classes is $40 a month through the company’s Variis app and includes other classes under the Equinox Group brand. The home bikes take 1 to 3 weeks to arrive. There are still in-person classes at limited locations, including Hudson Yards and TriBeCa Rooftop, with a COVID-era roster of safety protocols.

But even after COVID, Griffith said, the at-home classes will remain a key part of SoulCycle.

“I don’t have to see you face-to-face to know that you as a human being and me as a human being have similar issues that we battle through life,” Griffith said of leading the classes on line. “Similar obstructers. Similar needs to be accepted or seen or acknowledged. As an instructor, I stay extremely mindful of who is riding along and talk very specifically to them. Each person will interpret it as they need to interpret it. Some people will connect to the music. Some will connect to an anecdote. Some relate to a story I share. People are eager to connect, I find.”

Ellis Henican is an author based in New York City and a former newspaper columnist.

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