When I was a child in the 1970s, my mother would take me to her gym to “work out.”
My routine consisted of coloring pictures in my journal, while she stood on a vibrating platform, allowing her body to be aggressively wiggled and jiggled for long periods of time.
I don’t remember if she used many of the other cardio or weight machines. The wiggle jiggle machine was her favorite, although I am still not convinced about its efficacy.
Nevertheless, from a very early age, I learned that it was important to invest in my health and wellness.
Truthfully, that experience informed the way in which I exercised for decades. Every time I relocated around the world, I would find reasonable living quarters, while simultaneously seeking a conveniently located and appropriately priced gym.
I always hoped that I would find my next best friends, my social groups, a new relationship—my home away from home—at my new fitness center.
But it never happened. Not once.
Occasionally, I discovered an awesome instructor. Or a great yoga class. Or a personal trainer who made me feel special and appreciated (for a price).
There was almost always something that enticed me to return and to pay the monthly membership. I would splurge on the permanent locker in the VIP area, the towel service, and the prepaid smoothies in order to give myself yet another reason to show up.
But I never truly felt “at home” and I never found my people.
Several years later, after the birth of my second child, I received an elliptical machine as a “push present” (my request). I marveled at the ability to hop onto the equipment the moment that my baby drifted off into sleep. I would watch shows on television, read books, or listen to music. It was so unbelievably convenient.
And, it was so boring.
Without a doubt that elliptical fulfilled its purpose: I satisfied my cardio obligation without sacrificing a moment of time with the kids, and for that, I will always be grateful.
However, I still longed to get back to the neighborhood gym—because at the end of the day, getting on the elliptical every day was absolutely monotonous. And lonely.
Over a decade later, a sleek-looking stationary cycle stamped with the word “Peloton” appeared in my basement gym. I ignored the bike for months. (I was not a spinner and I had no interest in cheating on my beloved elliptical.)
The first time I tried to ride, it turned into an utter disaster. I couldn’t figure out how to clip in or out of the pedals and kicked the bike in frustration. I thought the instructors were too sexy, too loud, too polished, too…everything.
Not for me. Not my style. I was a big girl and didn’t need an annoying “motivational coach” to keep me going.
In truth, spinning (or whatever the exercise modality is on a given platform) is just an excuse to bring people together—even though we are all in physical isolation. The essence of the connected fitness community reveals itself when we clip out of the bike and dig into the online forums. It’s about supporting each other as we seek physical, mental, and emotional wellness. It’s about embracing a surprisingly authentic community—through a ridiculous amount of sweat and bodily effort.
I’m not quite sure when I caught the connected fitness bug. But at some point, I began to understand the brilliance of the business model. I started to join the newly established social media groups.
Suddenly, I realized that all of those leaderboard names that moved up and down the tablet when I rode were connected to living, breathing people—people who experienced emotional responses to these classes that were similar to my own. People who were on their own individual journeys to better health and wellness. People who were struggling with kids and relationships and careers and a variety of other issues—just like I was.
Strangers, yes. But I felt closer to these strangers than I had ever felt to the folks who surrounded me in the gym, the ones who always kept their earbuds in and avoided eye contact at all costs.
I began to notice the depth and authenticity of those connections.
Financial campaigns were established for members of the community struggling with life-threatening illnesses. Participants shared the birth of their children and grandchildren, and the deaths of their loved ones. There have been several couples who met online, fell in love, and married through the connected fitness communities. And of course, there are times that people share significant parts of their fitness journeys on these online forums—from those who have made inspirational changes in their health profiles to those who are on the path but struggle to stay motivated.
There is a virtual place for each and every one of us—regardless of what our struggles or successes may be.
Not only have many of these online strangers become friends, but many real-life friends who had quietly slipped out of my life at various stages started to miraculously reappear. Every few days, I receive a notification—almost like a baby announcement—that “so and so” with whom I am peripherally connected on social media is now part of my connected fitness community.
Suddenly, dozens of former friends are squarely back on my radar and have remained there, to my delight.
For the record, my family members have all become unapologetic, connected fitness junkies. We love our bike, and we have added more options—all in the connected fitness family—including a treadmill, a strength training apparatus that resembles a large tablet with adjustable arms and digital weights, two yoga options, multiple fitness trackers that allow us to compete with friends all over the world, and a few phone application options.
My teenage son had the most visceral reaction when I broke the news to him last spring that due to the pandemic, he would finish his sophomore year of high school from his bedroom. Even more devastating to him was the news that for the foreseeable future there would be no hanging out with friends, no movies, no bowling, and no youth group weekends.
For a kid who has only recently become social and started to build a healthy peer group, these were devastating pieces of information. I tried to offer him various activities on which he could concentrate at home—he loves playing the piano and he is deeply into creating visual art. Nevertheless, he left my room that evening in tears with shoulders sagging.
The following night, I went downstairs to catch a class on the bike and found that my son had commandeered my treadmill, looking strong and happy. He said, “As long as I’m healthy and this stuff is here, I might as well take advantage of it.” Then, he flexed his biceps to show me just how much they have grown in the previous seven minutes, and said, “Okay. You can go now.”
He hasn’t missed a single day of his exercise routine in over six months—and neither have I. He has grown particularly fond of a few instructors and has made it his practice to practice yoga on the app when he wakes up every morning. He says it keeps him centered and focused in these precarious times. He understands that keeping our workout schedules on track is just one small rebellious way of saying to the world that we are not going to let this crisis bend our spirits.
When COVID-19 materialized, those of us who were already well ensconced in the connected fitness world realized how blessed we were to have fitness options in our homes. But more than the gratitude for the physical equipment, we were consoled and strengthened by the camaraderie of our online communities.
It was as if all of the connected fitness members breathed a communal sigh of relief. If we were stuck in our homes, at the very least we could continue our daily workouts without interruption. At least we were ahead of the world, able to hunker down in our respective homes and maintain a sense of normalcy.
We were comforted and soothed by our instructors, who continued to teach live classes for as long as they could, and when they couldn’t legally teach from the central studio, some managed to set up entire TV studios in their tiny city apartments or their suburban basements in order to continue teaching from home. Others continued to connect with their followers on social media, on the leaderboards, and through other modalities.
I am not pining for the days when it took me an additional 20 minutes to commute to my traditional gym, nor am I looking forward to the days when we can gather in-person to collectively sweat once again.
Pandemic or no pandemic, I believe that we were cautiously moving toward embracing connected fitness modalities—and the current situation moved that transition into full speed.
While I look forward to seeing my friends and family face-to-face to engage in personal and professional endeavors, I am grateful that these at-home connected fitness routines will remain part of my daily practice for the foreseeable future—and I am confident that I’m not the only one.
Every day, as this pandemic continues to unfold and we see the world changing before our eyes, I become ever more grateful for these online communities—and I don’t take it for granted when I disappear into my exercise cave with my online community in order to disconnect from the chaos and confusion that surround us.