Throughout the conflicts of the 20th century, card-games provided rare, fleeting distractions during the long waits between battles. The same applied to families left at home, particularly in places where factories producing more complex toys and games had been repurposed for producing arms.
Such was their popularity that during the First World War German troops were handed packs of propagandising cards featuring illustrations depicting allies and moments from military history. Leeds-based publisher Waddington’s, who would become a leading manufacturer of playing cards in the 20th century, only started printing them in response to what was a leisure-time phenomena during the conflict. Towards the end of WW2, American and British intelligence agencies even used them to distribute secret maps to POWs, hiding plans between cards that would peel apart when submerged in water.
In March 2019, fitness coach Joe Wicks’ YouTube channel, The Body Coach TV, enjoyed a weekly subscriber increase of around 2500 people. During March this year – the same month around 20% of the global population were confined to their homes under government instruction – his channel increased its weekly subscribers by something closer to 220,000. Over the same period, searches for “home gym kit” increased by 350%.
Every crisis brings with it opportunity. As the world continues to grapple with its new found house arrest, the home workout industry is having its playing cards moment.
Much like theatres, pubs and restaurants, many gyms were reluctant to face the oncoming storm as it approached. Despite clear signs that an enforced shutdown was on its way, as late as 19th March, chains including PureGym and Anytime Fitness were assuring members their doors would still be open, albeit with new restrictions on the number of people allowed in at any one time. A Channel 4 news report from Wolverhampton captured the mood among many gym regulars: why should we be worried, “this is a place of fitness”.
When finally, on 20th March, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all social venues to cease trading for the foreseeable future, gyms and fitness centres up and down the country were forced to close their doors for good, leaving the country’s 10 million members – one in seven people – with nowhere left to run.
But by then a shift had already started to take place. Since early March, as supermarket shelves were slowly, then suddenly, cleared of toilet roll and tinned goods, stockpiling of another kind entirely had been underway. In the UK, America and Australia, retailers reported that they were starting to sell out of dumbbells and yoga mats. Sports Direct, ever the opportunist, reportedly opted to hike prices on home exercise equipment by as much as 50% on some items. As the weeks passed and the virus spread, online stores also began to report stocking and delivery issues on home fitness equipment. Many websites have since sold out completely, and Amazon remains unable to offer delivery of some items until late-May.
Then came the SEO hunters. Fitness publications, gossip magazines and content aggregators all began to churn out helpful headlines: The Best Home Gym Equipment for Your Workout Routine, 14 Great Apps To Help You Workout At Home, How to get a big butt locked DOWN. According to Google Trends, searches for “home gym kit” reached an all-time peak in popularity last week. In less than a month, the global fitness community, not to mention everybody else – the bored and isolated with a sudden interest in squats – turned their attention to working-out-from-home.
Colleen Logan, a VP at ICON Health & Fitness, a leading manufacturer of fitness equipment, described the demand for home exercise machines during this period as “unprecedented”.. Sales of their “iFit” interactive, wifi-enabled equipment rose by 200% around the world. “These machines represent the vast majority of our business and include wifi-connected treadmills, incline trainers, stationary cycles, rowers, ellipticals and strength towers,” she said. Subscribers to their iFit service rose by 250% in Italy, and 300% in China.
“The global population is really prioritising its health above all else with these home fitness equipment purchases,” she added.
Next to react were the gyms themselves. Laura Brown is a trainer at Hero Training Club in Manchester. Hero, which only opened in January this year, prides itself on offering a “360” approach to wellness. It houses four different studios, a cryo-chamber, a nutritionist, a doctor, an osteopath, and even offers counselling. When the gym closed on 17th March, Brown was part of an improvised effort to offer home workouts to its members.
“It was a case of: tripod, iPhone, Insta live,” she says, describing the first session she shot in her living room at home. “I don’t think people are after the most artistic, beautifully created content. It’s about seeing faces they know, voices that are familiar. Doing whatever we can to get a routine out to our members.” Hero quickly implemented a full weekly schedule of classes to be streamed over Instagram, including yoga, cardio workouts and barre “sculpt” workouts.
“It’s definitely a shift,” Brown continues. “As an instructor you’re used to bouncing off the energy in the room. All of a sudden it’s just you in your living room. You can’t see if people are enjoying it or struggling.” That said the response so far has been overwhelmingly positive. People have credited the daily classes with giving them routine and structure during otherwise blurry work-from-home days. “We had a Tesco delivery driver message us to say the classes are keeping her going,” Brown adds.
Hero are not alone. Gyms and training centres worldwide are exploring ways in which they can serve their members at home. Yet for many self-employed fitness professionals, largely personal trainers, who don’t have a membership base they can mobilise, the current predicament leaves them with a far greater mountain to climb.
George Rigg, a personal trainer, works for a gym chain in Bristol where he is now unable to secure new clients or work with his regulars. Like many PTs in the UK, he works on a freelance basis, attached to a gym but reliant on commission from clients to make any money. Despite the sudden shock, his reaction was quick and resourceful. Since lockdown was announced he’s been posting daily challenges on his Instagram, calling on his followers to complete 50 burpees, for instance, before challenging theirs to do the same. “As it’s gone on people have seen it reposted and then tried it the following day,” he tells me over the phone. “So it’s had a good knock-on effect.
“I think you’ve got to take the positives from it. It could be a good thing for me in the long run.”
Until recently the home workout was a distinctly quaint idea. The first televised calisthenics class (equivalent to aerobics) was hosted by California fitness coach Jack LaLanne, and featured a pedestrian routine devised with a daytime audience of housewives, children and the elderly in mind.
Considered the “Godfather of fitness” LaLanne opened America’s first health-club in Oakland California in 1939, where he worked with a blacksmith to design his own equipment, recording the sets and reps of local firemen and police officers. In 1951 he was given his own show, initially broadcast locally in California on KGO-TV. The Jack LaLanne Show went national in 1959, and ran until the 1980s. LaLanne, bulging out of a short-sleeved jumpsuit and usually flanked by his white German Shepherd, Happy, offered gentle regimes he called “trimnastics”, designed to encourage the whole family to embrace movement and healthy living. Much like the YouTube trainers of the modern day, he relied on little more than the floor or a few household items for a full body workout.
Next came the video. The first of its kind was presented by actor Jane Fonda, whose 1982 tape The Original Workout dovetailed with the spread of the VCR to precipitate an industry boom. While her videos seem pretty kitsch now, containing all the cliches of the workout tape – leg warmers, leotards and decidedly conventional body-types – they were quietly revolutionary at the time, providing for a generation of women who didn’t feel welcome in the then-predominantly male-sphere of the gym. In the ’90s and ’00s the fitness video explosion continued exponentially, becoming a vehicle for celebrities. (For UK viewers this meant Davina McCall, Eastenders’ Natalie Cassidy, Corrie’s Kym Marsh, and any number of reality stars from the TOWIE/Geordie Shore orbit.)
In the last decade things changed again with the explosion of High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT: a workout regime built on the premise that high-octane bursts of on-off exercise are the best way to improve cardiovascular fitness (a theory that’s been practiced by runners since the early 20th Century, but didn’t reach brand realisation until the early 2010s).
The rise of this new form of fast exercise, coupled with the arrival of online video platforms, spawned a seemingly endless supply of streamable workouts ranging in length from one to 30 minutes. In the age of the YouTuber, the channels’ personalities are as diverse as the regimes they offer. Whether you prefer your workouts shouted at you by an army general, or delivered silently by a poe-faced muscle-man with tattoos and ear-stretchers, there’s a coach out there for you, waiting to be beamed into your living room.
The giant of the home workout scene in the UK is undoubtedly Joe Wicks. Born and raised on a council estate in Surbiton, astronomic social media success has transformed him from a jobbing personal trainer to the head of a wellness empire apparently worth £14.5 million.
He has taken to the pandemic with more coordination than the British government, leading a series of live-streamed PE lessons which have quickly become a national rallying point. His first lesson, on Monday 23rd, has since crossed 5.5 million views, while Tuesday the 25th was watched live by 1.4 million. These are not big numbers for a workout video, they are big numbers for a broadcast of any kind. For comparison, the first early-evening edition of Jamie Oliver’s lockdown cookery show, Keep Cooking and Carry On, was watched by 440,000. Coronavirus is already turning Joe Wicks from the biggest name in health and fitness to a household name full stop.
For all the business nous, his success is largely a question of personality. Like LaLanne, his coaching style is distinct from the hypercompetitive atmospheres many associate with gyms. Through a combination of shatterproof cheeriness and a performative dislike of his own workouts, he is non-threatening and humane. He focuses on feeling good and “starting the day well”. His videos feel DIY and amateurish. He makes mistakes, gets his timings wrong, his children regularly gatecrash his routines. In this sense he symbolises the appeal of the home workout: fitness stripped of its superhuman posturing.
His continuing rise, particularly in light of recent events, will likely cause many fitness professionals to ask how they can make further in-roads into people’s living rooms. Things were already moving in this direction. Companies like ICON – who manufacture exercise equipment designed to provide interactive workouts to monthly subscribers – have proven that cloud-based gyms are viable, just as YouTubers like Wicks have demonstrated the reach available to personal trainers who coach to an online audience. Until now these have been auxiliaries of physical gyms, yet the captive audience provided by this remarkable moment could permanently redress this balance.
ICON’s Colleen Logan, thinks so. “This will, most likely, change the fitness industry forever,” she says. “As people become more accustomed to home workouts, gym operators will have to invest in their facilities to offer experiences that can’t be replicated at home to attract and retain members.”
Laura thinks so too. Hero already uses a digital platform to support members outside the club. Post-lockdown, enhancing this arm of the gym will be logical. “It adds value to your offering,” she says, “I think a lot of gyms will see that now.”
In truth, to call this moment a “gold rush” is misrepresentative. Of course, market speculators and targeted-advertisers will continue to mine the moment for profit where they can, but for most of the fitness professionals now self-shooting home workouts, this is about something greater than capital. Joe Wicks has announced that he will be donating “every single penny” of the money made by his sessions to the NHS, while few of the personal trainers expect to make any money from their efforts. They see themselves as doing it for something bigger.
Since lockdown was imposed, advice encouraging people to stay active has been everywhere. Besides shopping for essentials or caring for a vulnerable person, exercise remains pretty much the only thing locked-down citizens are allowed to leave their homes for. The NHS recommends it, however light, as key to maintaining wellbeing in isolation. The relationship between a fit body and a fit mind might be as old as Jack LaLanne, but it has never felt so material.
“There’s no money coming in for us,” Laura Brown explains. “We’ve frozen everyone’s memberships. As a company we’re making nothing. But that’s okay. The gyms will reopen one day, and in this moment, when everyone needs a bit of help, it should be the people who work in wellness who lead from the front.” George Rigg expresses a similar sense of responsibility: “I’m not making any money out of it, but it’s not really about that at the moment. It’s about keeping the online community close. Keeping everyone sane.”
This time, however long it lasts, will change how we think about our bodies. We’re going to have to sit with them, monitor them when they worry us, appreciate them when they don’t. For a world sat inside, stocks in movement will be at all time high. Whether from fear, habit, or boredom, many, if not most of us will turn to exercise – including those who were previously ideologically opposed. In the process, the fitness industry will be brought into our homes in new and unexpected ways. Every crisis has its playing cards. For now at least, the Kings and Queens are men and women in shorts, live-streaming burpees from the end of the world.