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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Will Online Fitness Classes Disappear?

Research demonstrates that not everyone wants to return to the gym.

Key points

  • Online exercise classes can offer a viable business strategy beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Recent research suggests that exercisers preferred to continue exercising online or combine online and studio classes once they became available.
  • Sustaining successful online fitness classes requires experienced, expert instructors.
Source: element5digital/Pexels

Much has been written about the demise of Peloton that went from the quick expansion of business to an 80 percent fall in stock prices, with COVID-19 now moving to endemic (Elting, 2022).

Like Peloton, many gyms offered online fitness classes or packaged apps to reach home exercisers. This was a somewhat successful strategy—a report by the World Economic Forum showed that daily active users of online fitness apps increased 24 percent globally during the pandemic (Clark & Lupton, 2021)—but unlike for Peloton, it was to be a temporary measure until everyone could return to in-person fitness activities in the gyms.

But is this necessarily the case? Online exercise classes, for example, Peloton, existed before the closure of the gyms, and now more people have had exposure to ‘digital fitness’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. Are all online classes now doomed to become extinct? Does everyone really want to go back to the gym?

Not much is currently known about how exercisers felt about the diverse workouts offered on Instagram, various fitness apps, or Zoom by gyms or individual instructors. There is some evidence that they gained more followers during the lockdowns.

For example, Godefroy (2020) reported a significant rise of followers (up to a 45 percent increase) when popular influencers in France started posting online exercise videos on their Instagram accounts. Although no new digital technology was required, the influencers had to change from pre-COVID-19 postings of carefully controlled still photographs to exploit less used aspects of their technology, including moving images.

Securing an active online presence, the videotaped exercise routines successfully connected with advertisers’ products necessary for the influencers’ business. These influencers did not have any fitness qualifications but counted on their staged online presence and attractive-looking bodies to guarantee a good workout: Their workouts were a fun way to an ideal-looking body.

As fitness studios in France also offered online classes, Godefroy compared their success to the influencers’ workouts. His research focused on one large fitness chain that created an online fitness app. The popularity of this app increased hugely—more than 200 percent—during the lockdown in April 2020.

Marta Wave/Pexels
Source: Marta Wave/Pexels

As the app targeted only the gym’s existing membership, the actual number of followers was much lower than the influencers’ average followership. Unlike the influencers, however, the instructors were all certified fitness ‘coaches’ who offered classes for different levels and emphasized the correct execution of the exercises.

The gym’s online presence was first and foremost designed to secure continuous service rather than increase the membership. With a prior COVID-19 business model based on physical exercise space, the classes will likely be moved back to their fitness facilities as soon as possible.

Godefroy did not report how the followers rated their online exercise experience compared to live fitness classes. Was everyone longing to get back to the in-person gym environment?

Currently, there is little information concerning how exercisers have used digital fitness services. In a rare example, Taylor and her colleagues (2021) evaluated Pilates exercisers’ experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown in England. Similar to Godfroy’s fitness studio in France, the online classes were offered to the members who had previously participated in in-person classes in the studio.

Instead of an app, the studio offered both synchronous and asynchronous instruction through Zoom. The researchers sent a questionnaire to the clients who were participants in a class aimed at exercisers age 50 and over and now offered online.

Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

The participants, mostly women, who answered the questionnaire valued most the opportunity to keep up with their exercise routines and maintain their physical ability through the Zoom classes. The participants also emphasized that the Zoom environment sustained their social connection with fellow exercisers as well as the instructor.

The expert instructor who provided quality instruction and continued to teach her Zoom class with the same energy and care as the in-person class was central to a successful online class. The instructor was able to see the clients, know their special needs, and stop providing modifications and safety corrections online.

The participants enjoyed the flexibility that the Zoom classes offered. They now reflected on saving time when not traveling and finding parking to attend the in-person classes. One participant summarized the benefits of Zoom Pilates: “flexibility in choosing your classes, value for fees and multiple classes per week” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 183). The participants also commented on mental health benefits as they “felt calmer” or “had a boost” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 184) after the class. As a result, almost all participants (96 percent) felt positive about their Zoom Pilates class.

The researchers concluded that several aspects secured the success of the Zoom Pilates class. First, all the clients had computer skills and actually enjoyed updating their digital competence to attend the Zoom classes. Second, the previous relationship with an experienced and expert Pilates instructor who provided personalized exercises for the clients ensured a continued positive exercise experience. Third, as the participants enjoyed their classes, they invested in their progress and wanted to maintain their physical competency through the online classes.

Due to these benefits, the researchers concluded, the participants “couldn’t imagine themselves returning to post-Covid-19 class” (Taylor et al., 2021, p. 187) when the same instructor taught online classes. They preferred to continue exercising online or combine online and studio classes once they became available. The Zoom options also enabled the studio to offer more frequent classes. The clients then had more flexibility beyond the set menu of the studio classes with the same hands-on instruction and social aspects as in the in-person interactions.

Why were these clients happy to continue exercising online, yet Peloton’s popularity allegedly plummeted? The clients in a specialized Pilates studio and Zoom classes did not have to invest in expensive, exercise-specific equipment that is central to the digital fitness option by Peloton. As existing clients, they had connected with their expert instructors before moving online.

Compared to their positive experiences, investing in a Peloton bike without previous exercise experience may not attract a continuous followship even if the instructors are professional. Although these factors may explain some of Peloton’s recent loss of popularity, there, no doubt, continue to be Peloton devotees who will not sell their bikes, although the main peak in new sales may be over.

Although originally set up to ensure continued business, the online classes may not need to remain a temporary detour to digital fitness. The clients who had previous exercise experiences with a good instructor in a gym or studio setting seemed to enjoy online classes' flexibility and time savings. Curiously, the much-longed-for social element was not lost in the Zoom setting. More gym-goers, beyond the followers of the social media influencers, now seem to have the technical competence with digital media devices to exercise online.

Therefore, there may not be a return to ‘normal’ that delegates fitness classes to the gym space. Instead, this may be the beginning of a new era of hybrid fitness services. No longer a forced strategy to keep business going, online fitness may offer positive and more frequent exercise experiences for a broader clientele and new employment opportunities for competent instructors.

As a frequent participant in digital fitness classes, I certainly hope to exercise online in the future!


Clark, M. & Lupton, D. (2021). Pandemic fitness assemblages: The sociomaterialities and affective dimensions of exercising at home during the COVID-19 crisis. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 27(5), 1222–1237.

Elting, L. (2022, January 27). What is happening with Peloton? And other Pandemic lessons. Forbes,…).

Godefroy, J. (2020). Recommending physical activity during the COVID-19 health crisis: Fitness influencers on Instagram. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living 2:589813. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.589813.

Taylor, L., Raisborough, J., Harrison, K., & Dulson, S. (2021). ‘It’s like going to the regular class but without being there’: A qualitative analysis of older people’s experiences of exercise in the home during Covid-19 lockdown in England. International Journal of the Sociology of Leisure, 4(3), 177-192.

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