Finding a Fitness Community of One

Diana J. Smith

If 2020 was the year the fitness industry had to reinvent itself, then 2021 was the year the fitness enthusiast had to undergo a change of her own. Even as the pandemic remained a looming presence, gyms reopened, classes were back in session, and dormant fitness communities awoke once more. The Lunch Break Lifters, the Barry’s Before Breakfasters, all the different flavors of yogis were back in some sort of full swing, leaving those of us who had migrated to digital fitness communities goblet squatting in the dust. And so the quest began anew to find one’s place in the fitness community and to define what that even means after two years of personal and communal health being at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

In a sense, fitness communities function like religious groups with different exercise modalities serving as gods and gyms or boutique classes acting as temples. While some may not choose to see it in such dramatic terms, I’d argue that paying hundreds of dollars a month on classes and memberships is idol worship by another name. The most popular example of this is of course Peloton users, who are frequently teased as being part of a cult. Whether or not these communities are more harmful than they are helpful is irrelevant. Fitness communities may shift based on the latest fad, but the concept itself is permanent.

The fact that there’s a community for just about any activity or idea under the sun is a testament to their importance. Fitness communities often serve as places for motivation, accountability, or just a place to vent. They are spaces where members can feel comfortable being transparent about their obsessions be it hitting a personal record on the rower or the most difficult task of all, just getting the workout started. Some of these communities create such tight bonds that members stay in touch for years and have relationships that transcend fitness.

During the height of the pandemic, I found myself adrift in a previously unexplored landscape of digital community offerings. Before lockdown, I was a bit of a fitness nomad, using ClassPass to amble in and out of classes that catered to my mood that week. Yet, left to my literal own devices (my phone, computer, and television), the need for community became overwhelming. For me, exercise is many things, one of them being a coping mechanism for my various issues; that sense of oneness that comes from being in a room with others trying to execute the same task is grounding and a bit of a metaphor for life as a whole. We’re all here in this one same space struggling in different ways to do this one same thing. I leaned on Dance Church, Humming Puppy, Yoga With Adriene, Apple Fitness+, and a bevy of intermediate weight lifting plans I’d found on Pinterest to help me feel some sort of connection not just to my own body but to a larger community. For the most part, I found what I was looking for when I got into rollerskating. Learning to rollerskate, especially in a skate park, is really a team effort when you’re just getting started and so showing up every other weekend to learn from a group of seasoned skaters provided that same grounding sense as workout classes. We were all in the same park struggling in different ways to land a clean 180.

But once the weather turned and rollerskating outdoors or at unheated indoor skateparks were no longer an option, I was right back where I started. While the Peloton community is vast and far-reaching, it lacked the intimacy I’d gotten in places like SoulCycle. It wasn’t until October of this year that an unexpected answer found its way right to my inbox. As someone who often writes about fitness and fitness-related product, I receive tidal wave of emails telling me about the latest thing that is amazing for whatever reason. A lot of these emails go ignored but one caught my eye because it made an outlandish guarantee: It was for an app called Future, which promised to “get the average user to double their weekly workouts” by pairing them with a coach.

I’d tried coaching programs before and found them lacking, especially in the digital space when coaching is conflated with algorithm-based suggestions. Future promised a real human coach who would be in charge of planning all of my workouts based on my schedule and equipment that I had readily available, no need to get any branded booty bands or dumbbells to get started. After agreeing to test the app, I was set up with an account (Future costs $150 a month, and we’ll get into value and worth later) and left to start a new journey. The rep I spoke with assured me that the app would deliver, adding that he’d been using it since January and had never missed a workout. Before you get paired with a coach on Future there is a short questionnaire about your personal goals, level of activity, and what equipment, if any, you have access to. Based on that assessment you choose from three recommended coaches. I chose Lauren, who was the only woman presented to me after the quiz.

To my surprise, Lauren was an actual person, not a face put on a robot, who FaceTimed me to dive deeper into my personal goals and what I was willing and not willing to do to achieve those goals. It took almost no time at all for me to feel like Lauren and I were in our own fitness bubble, engaging in conversations that revolved around dumbbell weights and proper hand placement during pushups. Although we occasionally talked about other things–our dogs, weekend activities, the weather, Mean Girls–our daily interactions were firmly rooted in fitness.

Lauren’s presence, while entirely virtual, had managed to fill my need for community while simultaneously removing all of the bad things that come with being part of a fitness group. There was no underlying sense of competition, no disappointing someone else if I didn’t make it to a 6 AM workout even though I said I would, and, most importantly. no awkward post-class drinks or socializing. I was supported, but not smothered.

While not everyone who loves fitness can go out and drop so much money on an app to find a strong sense of community, I will say that in the last three months I have in fact doubled my output and seen results I was not anticipating (one ab). The pricing makes sense when you look at the app like a gym membership, especially when you take into consideration that most personal trainers charge a fee per session on top of the gym fees one would already be paying. So. if you spent all of the pandemic hoarding gym equipment in your apartment, this app is actually worth the cost.

The most important thing I’ve taken from my time with Lauren is that there is a community to be found in solitude. Although Lauren is the person I speak to the most about fitness and all it entails, she isn’t hovering over me as I workout nor is she in the room with me to make sure I hit all of my sets. I am, as I’ve been for the last nearly two years, working out alone in my living room, and yet this is the most fulfilling leg of the fitness journey I’ve experienced.

I still miss the in-person groups or comparing notes on instructors with familiar faces who are ultimately strangers I sweat beside, but I no longer feel unmoored by their absence. Because, much like Lauren, they’re out there somewhere still doing their thing. And at the end of the day fitness doesn’t work without self-reliance, something that’s easy to forget with all of the gadgets and gizmos aplenty that offer all the results with none of the effort. So, while I’m still patiently waiting until I can safely and comfortably go to the same aerial yoga studio every week, I’m stuck with answering to myself, a fate which–it turns out–is not so horrible.

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