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The gym used to be my therapy. Here’s how that’s changed during social distancing.

Social distancing put a stop to group fitness. Now it’s found a new start online.

Men in a Barry’s Bootcamp exercise class pull on elastic cords, June 2018, Nashville, Tennessee.
Not me, but someone at Barry’s Bootcamp.
Anna Webber/Getty Images for CMT
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

At one of the last classes I took at Barry’s Bootcamp before the fitness studio closed in response to the coronavirus, my instructor joked over the mic that he saw me more than he did his roommates. I had roped a gaggle of friends into going that morning, and at some point, each one (gently) ribbed my obsession.

“Did you hear him make fun of you, Alex?” “Alex, how many times a day do you go to Barry’s?”

They assume I must be going daily to have an instructor know my name and call me out during burpees. I tell them I go four to six times a week — which ends up being around $17 per class with a 30-class membership. They do the math. Their faces sharpen, brows furrow, and jaws go loose when they figure out how much of my salary I spend to sweat in a room full of other people.

And, having had this conversation several times, I’m fully aware I’m lucky to be able to afford this luxury. I make other adjustments, like not going out to eat as often, eliminating drinking because that gets expensive and is also counterintuitive to my health, and scaling back on vacations (back when we were still allowed to go away on vacations, that is).

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the results of all that time I spend at Barry’s. I like that the simple act of being able to lift a heavier weight than I could last time or do one more rep shows me that I’m getting stronger. I also like how I look in a mirror. But on top of all that, fitness is a kind of therapy that helps me work out frustration and anxiety — it’s a mental health relief and release.

Even if not everyone can relate to the idea of throwing money at a sweaty boot camp fitness program — or a cycling class, a CrossFit program, or an expensive gym — the idea of being able to escape all other responsibilities for an hour to do something you absolutely love might be a little bit easier for a lot of people to understand.

On March 15, Barry’s announced that it would close its studios because of the spread of coronavirus. Prior to closing down, the studio had shortened the length of classes to disinfect the room and weights during a mid-class break. The day after, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all gyms in New York would have to close for the time being. And as efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus have increased, gyms in many other states are now closed as well.

When it closed, I was suddenly without one of the most important things in my daily life. A couple of good friends, unironically, texted and called to check in and asked me how I was going to cope if the pandemic extended weeks, months, even a year.

In the grand scheme of things, as I’ve written before, not being able to work out or go to the gym is absolutely not dire. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to worry about my fitness habits at all, as opposed to more difficult problems.

But during a time like this, I would totally be at the gym and working off all this anxiety and stress. So I asked professionals what we could do to recreate the endorphins, peace of mind, and physical burn that exercise provides when we don’t necessarily have the gym, weights, or mindset we’re used to.

Group fitness is easy to fall for and hard to let go of

I’ve slacked off on working out at home. Exercising on your own for an hour sounds great in theory, but it’s harder in practice. A common scenario: I go online, find a workout, do the exercise, and maybe shave off a few reps. But I always find myself mystified as to how I was able to do these workouts multiple times a week without getting bored.

“It’s a lot easier to be motivated and guided by another human when it comes to working out,” Charlee Atkins, a trainer and founder of fitness company Le Sweat, told me. Atkins used to be a master instructor at SoulCycle, teaching for seven and a half years; I was a regular in her class.

“I think people come [to group classes] for different reasons, maybe the music or the sweat. But a majority of people keep coming back because of the community. I’ve always been a firm believer that a shared experience is the best experience, and working in the fitness industry for over a decade has continuously proven that to be true,” she added.

As someone who isn’t naturally inclined to gravitate toward groups of people and detested group projects in school, it’s perhaps ironic that I have to rely on other people for motivation. Maybe there’s a hint of competition there.

I’ve come to love it, though, and according to various studies collected by the National Institutes of Health, working out with other people in a social manner has benefits over working out alone.

Chris Hudson, the vice president of curriculum at Barry’s, echoed this sentiment.

“At Barry’s, I think group fitness feels particularly special because we’re all sweating in that Red Room [what Barry’s calls its studio, because of its signature red lighting] together — everyone is in the zone and it feels like a team sport, with everyone working toward the same goal,” Hudson said. “We see people inspiring and motivating each other and cheering for their neighbor’s accomplishments, and it all feeds into the overall energy of the class.”

In addition to the team dynamic are the instructors’ playlists. Studies have shown that music, especially high-tempo music, helps people perform better and maintain higher heart rates.

“The very first group fitness class I took, my exact thought process was this: ‘Man, that was a great workout, but the music was terrible,’” Atkins told me. “It was in a spin class where we were riding to Jack Johnson. I love sweating, and I love Jack Johnson, but the only time I want to sweat while listening to Jack Johnson is on a beach working on my tan! My favorite part of group fitness was creating playlists.”

I’ve experienced good classes and not-so-great classes firsthand. And what I’ve learned is that the most important, compelling aspect of a group fitness class is the instructor. Good ones figure out how to challenge their students and get them to push past the wall of “I don’t wanna do this anymore.”

How to get motivated for the gym, even if you don’t have a gym to go to right now

Recreating this instructor-student dynamic in a world where gyms and studios are shut down and we’re forbidden to be within six feet of another person (unless we live with them) is a challenge. Add to that the fact that many people, especially those living in smaller apartments, don’t have the proper gym equipment and weights to use, let alone the well-curated playlists that keep them moving.

Barry’s has swiftly transitioned into offering classes online via Instagram. It’s selling its signature equipment in a bundle — a handled long resistance band, a “bootyband” that wraps around your ankles, and a miniband that loops around your thighs — to allow students to try doing the famous workouts at home.

“Schedule a time to work out with a friend [with the social-distancing rules in mind],” Hudson says, explaining how to get motivated. “You can all watch an Instagram Live workout hosted by a favorite fitness instructor — Barry’s goes live with workouts every day on our Instagram — and keep each other accountable.”

While it’s not the same as going to a real class, a recent Barry’s Instagram Live with an instructor named Josey (one of my favorite New York City instructors) attracted around 700 viewers. As he ripped through chest, abs, and back exercises, the viewers’ comments took up the screen, cheering him and others on. The chatter mildly simulates the atmosphere in a room, although I’ve found that getting my real-life friends into the exercise too, as Hudson recommends, really helps to get me joining in regularly.

Peloton (the pricy indoor bike machine and training program) and Mirror (which allows you to work out with a trainer and participate in live classes through, you guessed it, a mirror) combine socializing with a competitive edge to their classes. One of Mirror’s workouts is a competitive cardio mode, where you try to score points by keeping your heart rate up and pushing yourself to the limit.

Meanwhile, Peloton’s leaderboard allows you to track other people’s metrics and how hard they’re working during classes. I recently took a Peloton class during a media preview of the company’s new, plush $50 million studio and got to see how the virtual leaderboard works firsthand. Seeing other people’s numbers pushed me to turn up my resistance because I wanted to defeat my new nemeses and assert dominance. And I could see how the absolute power of being the first on the list could be addictive.

There are a couple other tricks, too, to simulate the motivation. There’s NordicTrack, which I remember from my youth as my father’s strange, quasi-skiing fitness machine, for example. It’s now digital and offers interactive, individual treadmill and bicycle coaching for members. Mecayla Froerer, the director of NordicTrack iFit Training, told Vox that creating solid goals and schedules is key. And something as simple as just having a dedicated space to work out helps.

“Creating a space in your home/backyard that is dedicated to exercise is critical to workout adherence,” Froerer told Vox. “By knowing where you’ll go each day to workout, you can help eliminate many potential distractions and excuses. Having this space will also help you get in and stay in the right mindset by setting the tone for your workout.”

But sometimes the best tips for working out at home are more fundamental, like being more mindful of diets, Atkins explained. Some people might not be ready to jump head-first into a virtual workout or maybe haven’t found the right one for them. Or maybe, working out isn’t even an option right now — especially without the gym buddies and teachers who motivate them to get up and go. The longer the health crisis continues, the longer we’re kept away from those motivators. And that separation could, in some cases, be permanent.

Group fitness companies might not even be there when this is all over

The grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic trapping many of us indoors and social distancing when outdoors is that some of these group fitness studios, and perhaps some gyms too, will end up shutting down. While companies have shifted classes online and made their programs available digitally, many of them are still ostensibly on the hook for their brick-and-mortar establishments. Even Peloton, the standard for digital-first classes, has shut down its real-life studios to the public in the face of this pandemic.

That’s resulted in financial turmoil for some companies.

On March 19, the founder of Solidcore, a workout that gained cult status because of a Michelle Obama endorsement, emailed its clients that it laid off 98 percent of its staff.

“Thirteen employees will remain at the company working at very reduced salaries to get us through this unpredictable and devastating crisis,” Anne Mahlum, the founder and CEO of Solidcore, wrote in the email. “With this news, I also feel it’s prudent and necessary to tell you that I have foregone 100 percent of my salary.”

Flywheel, an indoor cycling studio a la SoulCycle, also reportedly laid off 98 percent of its workforce this past week. This not only includes instructors that make Flywheel or Solidcore the fitness experiences they are, but also the valuable staffers manning the front desk and keeping the studios functioning and clean.

Depending on how long the safety precautions hold, it’s possible that the classes I’ve grown to love might not exist and instructors I’ve made connections and built friendships with might not be working when this all shakes out.

I asked Hudson and Atkins what we could do to support instructors who aren’t teaching at the moment.

“Everybody, and I mean everybody, is providing online workouts. Some are free. Some are paid,” Atkins, who has her own workouts online, told me. “Now more than ever, your favorite trainer needs your support, and that could mean tuning in for a free workout or spending a few extra dollars a month for their app.”

Hudson echoed this sentiment.

“Tune into their fitness workouts via Instagram Live, or whatever platform they’re on,” Hudson said. “Send encouragement — let them know if you’re enjoying the workouts, or what you’d like to see more of. We’re all on the same team, and fitness professionals want to help you through this time and give their audience what they need.”

For the time being, social media and online platforms are going to be the best and only way to take these classes and keep up with your friends, some of whom might be instructors that appreciate the check-ins, participation, and feedback. The vibe and support you get in these classes are not the same as if they were in-person, sure. But maybe they could provide you (and hopefully me) the same kind of peace and accomplishment that our favorite gym classes used to provide.

I know that there are much larger things to worry about than when I can go back to Barry’s or the gym. But I think, as facetious as it may seem, there’s something valid in grieving a crucial part of my life, my day, and my mental health that’s now gone. And I just can’t wait to get back to a place in my life where I can work out with my friends again.