Technology is rapidly changing how the fitness industry delivers services. In addition to wearables, apps and countless other options, technology offers—at the touch of a screen—almost any type of prescheduled or on-demand group exercise class at any venue that has Wi-Fi. This is virtual fitness, exercise programming that is carried out, accessed or stored by means of a computer, especially over a network.

What does the growing use of virtual fitness mean for group fitness instructors? Will live class participation dwindle? Is there something you can do to leverage the virtual fitness trend? Read on to find out more.

The Pre-Virtual World

Long before we could watch group fitness classes on our phones, Jack LaLanne, fitness icon and recipient of the 1986 IDEA Lifetime Achievement award, hosted a fitness television show. For more than 30 years, from 1951 to 1985, LaLanne led audiences through exercises virtually. In 1982, Jane Fonda’s

started the home exercise video market, igniting the aerobics trend. Jacki Sorensen, Judi Sheppard Missett, Richard Simmons, Gilad Janklowicz, Denise Austin and Kathy Smith—among many others—also became well-known home exercise video celebrities.

Fast-forward to today, when the options are endless. Within the next few years it may be difficult to find a computer with a built-in DVD player, and standalone DVD players will gather dust on the shelf beside VHS players. Numerous exercise businesses provide an incredible variety of classes that consumers can access at home or on the go via television, laptop, tablet or smartphone. Some providers specialize in one format, such as mind-body. Others offer a free trial period and a monthly or yearly membership option. The caliber of instructors, the workout settings, the video quality and the price all vary.

Still other companies offer public venues, video downloads, on-demand classes, in-house kiosks, wall-mounted touchscreens and more. Fitness centers, YMCAs, corporate wellness centers, universities, apartment complexes, airports, active-aging communities, medical facilities, schools and the military are among the virtual group exercise consumers. Virtual classes may be offered at a prescheduled time set by the facility; or they may be available on demand, which allows clients to choose their own workout time.

Pros of Virtual for Fitness Facilities

Virtual programming has become a turnkey service, allowing facilities to maximize space and offerings while providing members with added convenience and a wider class variety.

Here are some additional pros:

  • Virtual classes provide a last-minute option if an instructor is ill or has an emergency.
  • Clients have access to the classes anytime the facility is open.
  • Virtual classes provide a wide variety of formats, class lengths and high-quality instructors.
  • Members can create their own classes (e.g., Tabata™ followed by yoga or meditation).
  • Virtual classes allow members—especially beginners—to take an instructor-led class alone or with a small group, increasing their comfort level and creating a bridge to larger, live classes.
  • The instructor is always on time.
  • Members can go back to their favorite class at any time.
  • Facilities can repeat a class as often as needed.
  • Facilities get more use out of the group exercise room.
  • Virtual classes provide training and ideas for staff.

Cons of Virtual for Fitness Facilities

Access to virtual programming requires a good Internet connection and reliable technology. Virtual instructors are generally world-class content specialists, and they provide excellent instructional cues with level options. Their expertise enables them to address common mistakes; however, they can’t provide personalized feedback on proper body alignment.

The following are some additional drawbacks:

  • There is a lack of personal interaction.
  • Smaller classes affect group dynamics.
  • Wi-Fi glitches can interrupt the flow.
  • Safety, injury and liability issues are greater when a live agent is not available.
  • Staff need to be available for technology issues, equipment malfunctions or emergencies of any kind.
  • The content of virtual classes can be repetitive.
  • Instructor quirks may become redundant and annoying.

How Does Virtual Affect Fitness Professionals?

Fitness professionals stand to benefit quite a bit from embracing virtual programming. It’s one way for instructors to get new ideas, freshen their outlook and upgrade their skills. Program developers, choreographers and instructors can use virtual programming as an avenue to share their talents. Instructors who are looking for teaching opportunities may consider pursuing a position on a virtual team or creating their own online service.

To study the effects of virtual versus live instruction, Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota, teamed with WELLBEATS™, a virtual fitness systems provider that serves more than 1,500 facilities worldwide. Transitions, an exercise program created by 2007 National Fitness Hall of Fame inductee Linda Shelton, was the class selected for testing. Transitions is designed to safely improve physical health and fitness as well as cognitive health—all of which can diminish as we age. Each Transitions class features a multi-option intensity mix of cardio, resistance training, balance, mobility and cognitive awareness skills.

A team of MSU faculty and students designed a research project to explore the effects that a live versus a virtual Transitions program would have on cognitive health, body image and fitness measurements for women aged 45–65. Half the volunteers were assigned to Transitions classes taught live by two university students, and the other half took virtual classes. Live classes were offered four times per week, whereas participants in the virtual group could attend prescheduled virtual classes four times a week or participate on demand during open classroom times. This provided the virtual group easy access on their own time if prescheduled group times weren’t convenient or appealing. Both the live and the virtual groups committed to participating in the Transitions classes three times a week for 10 weeks.

Preliminary results suggest that both the live and the virtual versions of the Transitions program positively affected fitness parameters, body image and cognition. Participants also responded favorably to a survey about various aspects of the program, whether delivered live or virtually. The virtual group said they appreciated the convenience of the virtual access; they also said they would now be more confident walking into a live class and possibly would enjoy live classes more as a result. The virtual group indicated that they felt the instructor was teaching to them and provided clear and easy-to-follow directions, but they said they would have liked more specific feedback. Many stated that hearing the exact same cues delivered the same way every time became redundant. The majority said they preferred a live class but would be willing to use virtual as a substitute.

Live and virtual Transitions participants experienced a significant decrease in weight; body mass index; and chest, waist and hip girth measurements. Both groups also saw significant improvements in muscle endurance, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance. Live participants experienced a significant decrease in body fat (Eckmann et al. 2015).

Can Virtual Replace Live?

Although virtual group fitness is an excellent option for a club or home setting workout, most people agree that it will never replace the key instructional feedback, human connection or high level of energy created by a live instructor. However, virtual classes can attract new members and give regulars new choices—thus increasing retention rates and serving as a valuable revenue source. For virtual to be effective, facilities must market it robustly and make it user-friendly. Some facilities offer it as a complimentary addition to current programming, and others charge a nominal fee.

Benefits to Society

Given the rapid pace of change in technology, virtual fitness programming will surely continue to expand. Kiosks may soon become a thing of the past, as providers make virtual systems more affordable and easier to use. Virtual fitness offers convenience, comfort, variety, independence and a multitude of cross-training options; it provides an additional path to improved health and fitness.

Virtual Programming in Public Venues

The following companies offer virtual programming options for fitness facilities and other organizations:

Terry Ferebee Eckmann, PhD

1 Comment

  1. clint gehde on May 6, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    This is a great article and I believe most of this to still be true today. As someone who has been in fitness for the past 20yrs and now also in tech. I am excited to see what we can do to help bridge the gap between virtual and live. It’s my belief we need the live option but what if we can provide real-time feedback for the virtual. Could be amazing! We’re close and will keep working hard to get there. Replacing coaches and PT’s will never be a goal. However, augmenting the live experience will.
    Great article!

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