Virtual Fitness Meets Reality: How COVID-19 and Millennials Are Changing the Meaning of Working Out

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

The story below is a part of  YMyHealth’s Making a Healthy Office Comeback series. As more millennials return to the office or transition to hybrid work schedules in 2022, we will be highlighting the concerns and health challenges Generation Y tells us they are facing and feature advice from millennial experts on how to maintain your healthy habits.

YMyHealth Founder, Melissa Schenkman, heading to the finish of the Strong Legs 10K in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2014. One of hundreds of 10K races she has participated in.

What does working out mean to you?

For me, the sound of running shoes hitting the pavement while running three miles outdoors with friends, weightlifting and logging miles on the treadmill at the gym, and attending yoga classes with the comradery of my neighbors, these are the sights and sounds that I have always associated with working out.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 like everything else, the sense of fitness normalcy I had come to know for more than two decades vanished.

As a long-distance runner, now, without an open gym in my apartment building and with Orangetheory classes no longer an option, unless the weather outdoors was cooperating like many of my fellow millennials, I was out of luck. I didn’t even own a pair of free weights! After a week of this ‘new normal’, I did not know how it would work out to stay fit.

Luckily about a month into the pandemic, a great friend who was well versed in using Instagram discovered two new outlets for exercise—yoga with @sashagreenberg, now at Shine World of Yoga, and B the Method Pilates with @liabartha—both which she shared with me. At the time, it had been six months since my last yoga class and a decade since I took Pilates.

While I have run marathons, the idea of Pilates and yoga weekly or more seemed daunting, especially without an instructor in the room. But my virtual Pilates and yoga classes became habits that have stuck all the way to 2022, much to my surprise.

The Power of Virtual Fitness Programs

Brittany Noelle is not surprised at all. A fitness trainer and fellow millennial, she’s found that the pandemic made people realize not only the value of virtual fitness training, but also the power of doing low intensity movement for their overall fitness and mental state. After all, sitting in the same room working for hours is very, very mentally draining.

Fitness Trainer Brittany Noelle during a virtual/video demonstration of her chair workout for clients.

“For the percentage of people that understood and adapted quickly, I think it’s been a good change for them,” said 32-year-old, Noelle, who owns Brittany Noelle Fitness, a company that crafts personal training programs to fit clients’ unique needs.

She moved her own in-person personal training sessions to virtual training with her clients. A move that like other virtual and online fitness options makes it possible to work out no matter where you are or what equipment you have, or how much time you have. The flexibility has been a saving grace for so many millennials during these continually uncertain times.

“I had been trying since before the pandemic to get people to see the beauty in online fitness programs,” Noelle said. “It was a very hard concept for people to get and now, it’s a very positive thing that more people than ever are open to the ideas of having classes in their home and working out from their homes.”

That growing interest is reflected in the fitness industry’s numbers. The American College of Sports Medicine named online training its new top fitness trend for 2021 out of the total 10 trends they identified. And the online/virtual fitness market in the United States is expected to reach $2.6 billion in 2022.

Making Fitness Possible in Office Returns

When we begin returning to the office, virtual and online fitness will offer so many benefits that we didn’t have in our pre-pandemic lives to help us stay healthy and fit.

YMyHealth Founder, Melissa Schenkman following Lia Bartha’s B the Method video of her Standing Single Arm Series work out.

For starters, virtual workouts can be done any time of day in our own homes—before or after work. We do not have to wait to take our turn on a treadmill or with equipment at the gym, and for low intensity workouts we don’t even have to spend time getting workout clothes (who are we seeing really?). All of this saves time—something we will need to conserve.

Plus, Noelle points out, “With virtual and online fitness classes, people do not have to spend the extra time or have the added pressure of getting in the car to get into the gym to get a workout done.”

I’ve learned this firsthand. Even while working from home on days filled with Zoom calls and limited time to work out, the time my virtual fitness classes have already saved me by not driving to the gym and back home, is incredibly beneficial.

Also, flexibility is a huge asset in ensuring I work out even if I only have 15 free minutes in my day. That’s because B The Method Pilates and online Orangetheory workouts that I have discovered during the pandemic offer 15-, 20-, 25-, and 30-minute workouts. Fantastic for office life too because you can still get a quality and intense workout, even if you’re short on time.

“Many people didn’t realize that working out from home is something that could work for them. Knowing that you can get set up in your home and get things done is a big positive both for the health of our communities and for the fitness industry.”
Brittany Noelle, @Brittany_Noelle

I could not agree more. As a pre-pandemic five-day-a-week runner, now after 22 months of swapping a few days a week of running for virtual Pilates instead, my core has never been stronger, abdominal muscles more defined, weight more maintained, and legs more injury free when I run than ever before.

For myself and for my fellow millennials, I hope this new virtual reality of what it means to engage in fitness is here to stay—returning to the office or not.

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