AS THE LOCKDOWN DRAGGED on last year and access to a gym became impossible, Swagatika Mahapatra feared that all the strides she had made in her fitness over the years would go in vain. Mahapatra, a 28-year-old employee at an international internet security firm who lives by herself in an apartment in Haryana, had spent several years working out in gyms and in dance classes.
Even when the lockdown would be lifted later, even when gyms would be reopened, Mahapatra would go on to stay entirely indoors, stepping out only occasionally to collect essential supplies. Alone in her apartment, the streets outside her window bare, she began to wonder what she could do.
Mahapatra did what several other fitness enthusiasts did during this period. She went online.
She found a virtual trainer on a fitness app called Fittr. The two sat down over a phone call as they prepared a fitness goal and developed a nutrition chart and an exercise routine, which would be reviewed every week. The trainer would even have Mahapatra send him videos of her exercising so he could make sure she was doing it correctly.
“It was really good for me. Because I was now working out under supervision properly and there was this constant motivation to do better,” she says. Mahapatra went from 50.3 kg at the start of the lockdown to a leaner and stronger 46.5 kg a few months later, and has now, as she builds her muscle mass, brought her weight to 49 kg. “To be honest, I felt transformed during the pandemic.”
Mahapatra isn’t the only one who found a new fitness routine during the pandemic. Covid-19 affected many traditional ways of doing things, including in the world of fitness. While the fear of developing co-morbidities through a poor lifestyle in the midst of a pandemic has brought a renewed interest in health and fitness, the traditional avenues where one achieves this—gyms and fitness centres, sports clubs and swimming pools, with their closed environments and frequently touched implements—remain either closed or are seen as hazardous.
What safe avenue could people turn to with all this newfound zeal for becoming fit? One is obvious. We frequently see them when we step outside, the sheer large volume of them, sometimes in large grounds and parks or often just lined up in the corners of busy streets, their bodies attired in their hi-vis uniform, the new element of the mask upon them, their legs either furiously pushing at the pedals of cycles or simply running. In the midst of the pandemic, many fitness enthusiasts have rediscovered the great outdoors. Then there is an even more vast and unseen—although often visible in our social media feeds—crowd which, too afraid to venture out, has picked up new exercise routines in their homes. They sit in front of YouTube HIIT (high-intensity interval training) routines, some like Mahapatra consult virtual trainers, and many others assume yoga postures, while a guru on the other end of a Zoom call scrutinises them. Many have also begun to wear activity trackers or use mobile apps, fretting over such minute details, from their workout performances to their breathing patterns and average strides per minute. Some are even innovating, running marathons inside their small homes, climbing the steep stairways of their buildings again and again.
“Fitness was changing gradually over the years,” says Jitendra Chouksey, the founder of Fittr. “But Covid has changed everything now. And fitness is not going to be the same anymore.”
One would assume Chouksey to say this. He has long bet on fitness taking a more digital turn with Fittr. His startup comes with a variety of plans, from one which is free and provides basic nutrition charts and training programmes, to paid ones where virtual trainers customise these programmes and oversee progress and even plans which, with a personal trainer on video-conference, try to recreate a fitness centre within a home.
The startup, already growing rapidly over the last few years, has seen even sharper growth since the lockdown, Chouksey says. He claims the app has been downloaded over 11 lakh times, 1.65 lakh of them on paid plans. “It was very evident that fitness would increasingly become digital even some years ago. While a physical gym is great, it takes time and effort to reach one,” he says. “Going ahead, there will an offline-online hybrid model. There will always be space for a physical fitness centre, but the big push will be digital.”
Gympik, another fitness tech platform, had released a survey conducted on over 50,000 individuals in October last year, where they found that the lockdown had driven a large demand for virtual classes for yoga (87 per cent) and HIIT cardio workouts such as Zumba (72 per cent), aerobics (67 per cent) and pilates (22 per cent). According to the survey, around 84 per cent of fitness enthusiasts had tried live-streaming fitness classes during the lockdown. In 2019, this figure stood at only 29 per cent.
Fitness was a rapidly growing industry in India, with health and fitness becoming one of the most interesting segments for new startups in the last few years. Some like Cure.fit with their ambitious verticals that ran gyms, looked at nutrition, mental wellness and health were changing the scene, rolling out gyms and making workouts fun. They had to change their model overnight, providing these services online.
According to Sachin Kotangale from the Cure.fit’s leadership team, the company had been developing their digital product since October 2019. The pandemic, he says, has only accelerated their efforts. Throughout the first half of 2020, they developed the technology behind its digital variants, introducing live classes from both Cult and celebrity trainers and athletes. “From being only a minuscule chunk of our revenue, our digital services today constitute a far greater part of what we do, and we expect this trend to also continue even as things start going back to normal. However, it has been challenging to cope with this change especially given the pace it has happened at,” he says.
A digital push, while it has brought challenges, has also allowed them to provide new features, he points out. There are energy meters, for instance, which monitor how much energy is expended during workouts, class rankings, and also the option of group workouts to help users stay motivated. “The fitness industry at large has undergone a huge change in the last year and is continuing to show new trends as we move ahead. Post-Covid, we find that digital is here to stay in fitness,” says Kotangale. “While not all of it may be digital, we expect to see greater investment and uptake for the ‘phygital’ model with many players trying to develop suitable products. Hence, the business of fitness in India will be driven by tech innovation and the co-existence of offline and online services.”
Deeksha Kumar is one such user. She had been working out in fitness centres for years and was working out in Cure.fit’s Cult gyms when the pandemic broke, but has since seamlessly transitioned to its online model. But as time became suddenly available to her once the lockdown was imposed, she longed to do something more.
That’s when she began cycling.
She had briefly joined a large cycling group called the Delhi Cyclists the year before, using a rented bike. But amid the pandemic, her phone would often chirp with the conversations of people making cycling plans. She began going on long rides with the group, on a bicycle gifted by her brother, about thrice or more every week, some of these as long as 60-70 km. She recently joined a group of 29 riders from Delhi Cyclists in the 4.30 AM darkness of the capital to ride 250 km to Jaipur.
For now, Kumar has foregone the physical gym. She works out indoors using online sessions or cycles in groups where they wear masks and maintain a distance from one another. “I know they say they are taking precautions in gyms,” she says. “But I don’t think I will be going to one anytime soon.”
There are many things going for online workouts. It is safe obviously. But also convenient. Users can exercise based on their free time, instead of a predetermined appointment with a trainer. Just as Netflix liberated us from traditional TV where you watched it according to its schedule, so too did the pandemic from our fitness requirements. Online workouts are also infinitely cheaper. Chouksey points out that while the pandemic might have been bad for fitness centre owners, it has actually been good for fitness itself. More people who could not afford steep gym prices or lived in areas that did not have good fitness centres, he says, can now log in for a minimal fee and get the same type of workouts, although this will admittedly not come with the expensive equipment provided in gyms.
It was very evident that fitness would increasingly become digital even some years ago. While a physical gym is great, it takes time and effort to reach one, says Jitendra Chouksey founder, Fittr app
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But there is also a downside. Exercising in a fitness centre is often a community experience. There will be others in a gym, especially the trainers who push you. You work out now in the safe but sterile environment of a house, a majority of the individuals alone without a virtual trainer, prone to injuries from incorrect exercise routines.
Ashish Rawat, the founder of the startup Oga Fit, believes he can solve this issue. Oga Fit, whose app was launched just earlier this month, provides a variety of fitness related content from dance to yoga and exercise videos (they also provide sessions streamed live). The app comes with a motion comparison technology that compares a user’s movements with that of the trainer’s and provides feedback in real time.
“Our technology looks at 18 points of the human body and sees how close a user is to the trainer on the video,” he says. “We always realised as fitness goes increasingly digital [that whether users are able to perform exercise sets correctly] is going to become a problem.” The app also, as it calls it, gamifies the entire experience. People can choose to workout solo or host a group class, with a constantly updating leaderboard just like a video game. “Currently online sessions are doing a good job but they lack the interactivity that a physical centre provides. There is a need for something like Oga Fit that gives everything that digital does but also gives a workout experience like that of a physical studio,” he says. Oga Fit will be rolling out a subscription model soon. But for now, it remains free.
The sudden availability of free time with work now being done remotely, coupled with the renewed interest in fitness, has also led to a number of fitness challenges and people pushing their endurance limits. This is most visible with the ‘Everesting’ challenge, where an individual cycles or runs on a hill, doing it again and again until he or she achieves the elevation equivalent to Mount Everest’s. This concept has been around for some years with the wide availability of activity trackers that help you log such details, but there has been an unprecedented surge in its popularity across the globe since the pandemic. Even in India, many have cycled and run on hills—in one case an individual even climbed the stairs of his building again and again—until they achieved the mountain’s height.
“We saw record numbers in India too. Everybody it seemed was doing it or trying to do it,” says Manish Jaiswal, who earlier this year ran on a hill in Matheran near Mumbai until he managed the feat.
Jaiswal is a software professional-cum-marathon runner in Mumbai who, as part of a fitness group on Facebook, Snails 2 Bolt, also trains individuals. He had been providing exercise regimens to individuals online, with a weekly bootcamp, even before the pandemic struck. So the lockdown didn’t affect him or his group much.
Currently online sessions are doing a good job but they lack the interactivity that a physical centre provides. There is a need for something that gives everything that digital does but also gives a workout experience like that of a physical studio, says Ashish Rawat, founder, Oga Fit app
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Last year, he, along with four others, began preparing for the Everesting challenge, scouting for an appropriate running trail, before they settled on the hill in Matheran. The hill measured 6.7 km one way, and if one ran on it to its peak about 14 times, it roughly came to an elevation equivalent to Everest’s.
The group started one Friday evening in January, a car waiting at the top to help them with the descent (this is permitted) and a crew of people, including a physiotherapist, around to help them complete the challenge. When night came, most of the hill was swathed in darkness. Jaiswal didn’t even strap a light on his forehead, worried that its weight would prove an encumbrance. On the way down in the car, he would eat meals to keep his energy levels up, never once sleeping, since the rules forbid that.
One by one, three members dropped out. One gave up on his own; the two others were advised against running by the physiotherapist because their bodies had begun to hurt. Only Jaiswal and a woman, Mahejabin Ajmanwala, remained. Jaiswal finished the next day. He had run for nearly 18 hours and 58 minutes and achieved an elevation of 9,183 m. Ajmanwala ran for even longer. Her race ended early on Sunday morning. She had clocked 34 hours and 39 minutes and notched an elevation of 9,948 m.
“It was a wonderful experience,” says Jaiswal. “We had talked about doing something like this. And we did it finally during the pandemic.”