VR: There is a lot of talk about VR (Virtual Reality) taking over fitness these days. The technology is finally catching up to science fiction and there are several consumer headsets on the market today. The idea behind VR Fitness is fairly straightforward: you work-out in a video game. People are starting to experiment with weights in order to add a strength training component. Some startups such as Black Box VR believe that competition will be the driving force that keeps people coming back. From the BBC:

In my two-minute demonstration, I chest-pressed my way to victory in front of a crowd in a huge virtual arena, punching out bowling balls of fire and, inexplicably, large green birds as I pulled the machine, with more resistance piling on at every repetition.

I was rewarded with a virtual sweat band in a prize box and aching biceps for the rest of the afternoon.

There was no noticeable latency between my action and the action I saw in VR, and the graphics, while a bit strange, were immersive. It certainly beat watching rolling news programmes in the gym with the sound down.

The demo appears to have been designed with male testers in mind - the reps were heavy, and the only available profile to compete against was a macho avatar called Razer wearing green armour.

But the firm was at pains to point out to me that ultimately people could compete against each other, and that other computer-based avatars would also be developed.

Of course the concept of getting fit while playing a game is as old as sport itself, and Black Box has been developed by people who are already very motivated by fitness.

After my brief experience I couldn't say whether it would hold my attention in the long run. But on the other hand, neither has my gym membership.

              Is this the future of fitness? Probably not. It’s very expensive. Designing a full-body workout that matches up with a game and is safe to play is a bit of a stretch. You would also have to design a game that people won’t get sick of. Either that or just keep cranking out new games constantly, which would be very expensive. Don’t get me wrong, there will be a market for this. But fitness as we know it now will live on. The Telegraph sent Nick Harding to test out a bunch of VR fitness games. His conclusion:

VR has a way to go yet. There are limitations and safety considerations. If you start moving around in virtual space, it’s easy to bump into real world objects and it is neither safe or advisable to use VR headsets outside. But these are problems which will be overcome. Most likely, VR will become an addictive gateway activity to coax a certain section of the population out of sloth; a Wii Fit on steroids. People who enjoy gyms and physical pursuits will still exercise in the real world, but on a treadmill the graphics are not as good, and sadly, there are no rogue robots in sight. 

              I agree. This can be a useful tool and it will comprise a subsection of the industry. But the great thing about fitness is even as technology takes a more prominent role in our lives and society, the best fitness will always be low-tech fitness. You can have all the bells and whistles you want but just give me a pile of weights and an open trail and we’ll see who’s in better shape.              

Aerobic vs Anaerobic: When it comes to training the cardiovascular system, the fitness community is years behind the endurance sports community. This may be an uncomfortable thing for many people to hear but it is undeniably true. Some people believe that they are pioneers by using altitude training or anaerobic workouts and in believing that, they ignore the lessons learned by generations of runners, cyclists, swimmers, etc. Scott Johnson, writing for Outside Magazine, has had enough:

Over the past 15 years, there has been an explosion in fitness fads promoting all sorts of dubious concepts. Perhaps the worst of all is the idea that shorter, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can substitute for traditional long-duration aerobic base work in endurance athletes who are looking to maximize their performance.

To be clear, though many of this idea’s proponents have emerged from CrossFit, I’m not singling out that community. CrossFit can be an effective and transformational approach to working out for some athletes. My beef is with a few of its misguided adherents, some of whom claim that their HIIT programs offer new breakthroughs in training that allow athletes of all stripes to achieve the same results with less training time. Others even go so far as to say that putting in the long hours of endurance work is bad for you. To make matters even worse, much of the popular press—Outside occasionally included—seems to promote these programs.

              There is a reason that endurance athletes don’t just do HIIT all the time. In order to optimize performance, you need to build as big of a base of aerobic fitness as possible.

In 2010, a meta-analysis by Norwegian researchers examined the actual distribution of training intensity used by elite athletes across the full spectrum of endurance sports. The conclusion: The best in the world complete about 80 percent of their training volume at low intensity, 7 to 8 percent at moderate intensity, and about 12 to 13 percent at high intensity.

The 80/20 approach, as it’s called, can seem counterintuitive. Most people think they need to train hard all the time if they want to get faster. In reality, however, training slower will make you faster. The reasons come down to physiology. The sustainable duration of high-intensity work mainly depends on the aerobic capacity of your slow-twitch (ST) muscles. The more aerobically adapted your ST fibers are, the greater the intensity you can maintain for a longer duration.

              There are a lot of people in the fitness industry who think that they are treading new ground. They’re not. Elite athletes have been doing this for decades and have figured out what works. Don’t believe me? The world record for the marathon is 2:02:57. That’s an average of 4:42 per mile for 26.2 miles. The fitness industry has been very dismissive of the endurance sports community lately and seem intent on re-inventing the wheel.  Endurance athletes know what works and what doesn’t when it comes to cardiovascular training. There is no need to re-invent the wheel.

Spending Habits: Retail sales are moving online as people hunt for discounts. But where do all those savings go? From Bloomberg:

Despite their online deal-hunting, Americans aren’t skimping. What they aren’t spending on books or paper towel they’re pouring into gym memberships.

Enthusiasm for discretionary services spending isn’t isolated to barbells and stadium cycling. It finally exceeded its pre-recession peak in the second quarter, the New York Fed found, and the savings rate has ticked down to the lowest rate since the start of the recession. Solid demand is benefiting categories from financial help to healthcare.

              Fitness is in a good spot. Consumers are becoming very price sensitive when it comes to retail and less price sensitive when it comes to fitness products. The other trend is towards acquiring experiences rather than stuff. That also benefits the fitness industry. Over the last 2 years, spending on gym memberships is up over $6 billion, from just under $48 billion at the end of 2015 to over $54 billion at the end of 2017. Fitness still has a lot of room to grow and consumer attitudes are shifting in its favor.

              For example, people are willing to pay $5000 for weekend-long fitness retreats. Bloomberg sent Sheila Marikar to one such retreat in Austin for female executives and entrepreneurs. Not only do these women want to look and feel better, they also want to perform better in the office:

Beyond vanity, there’s empirical evidence linking physical fitness, CEO success, and a company’s profitability. In 2015, Peter Limbach and Florian Sonnenburg of the University of Cologne found that companies in the S&P 1500 index whose chief executive officers had finished a marathon from 2001 to 2011 were worth 5 percent more, on average, than those whose bosses had not. “The characteristics a marathon runner needs to have are quite similar to potential characteristics that a CEO needs,” says Limbach, who is working on an updated study with Sonnenburg. While approximately 2 percent of the 3,000 CEOs in the sample were women, Limbach says he has “no reason to believe there’s a difference between males and females running firms or running marathons.”

              Except that if a woman wants to clinch that CEO title, her level of fitness matters more. “What we find is that investors look into this stuff,” says Limbach. “They’re interested in whether CEOs are physically fit or not. What’s important is the stress-releasing component of being fit. You’re better at coping with stress when you have a channel to get rid of it. And I think that’s why fitness is important for females in particular. When they are CEOs, they have even more eyes looking at them and fingers pointing at them.”

              Maybe fitness is becoming the new golf. Except instead of hitting a ball around, we’re sharpening our mind and bodies. And how can you put a price on being the best version of yourself?

Cycling: Peloton is branching out into running. They’re debuting a new treadmill at CES. A $4000 treadmill. That seems a little pricey to me. From The Verge:

Like the Peloton cycling bike, the Peloton Tread will stream live daily classes — up to 10 a day, with 7,000 available on demand — on a 32-inch HD touchscreen attached to the treadmill. These running classes are led by real instructors, just like its current classes. But Peloton says the Tread isn’t just about running; it’s supposed to offer cross training-style classes, too, as well as guided hiking and walking workouts. 

Unlike traditional treadmills, which often have a series of buttons that require a forceful touch to change settings while you’re working out, the Peloton Tread has two large knobs. The treadmill’s belt is made up of 59 shock-absorbing slats, for a cushioned feel, and there’s a sound bar that gives it surround sound (on a treadmill!)

This is a risky move. The treadmill costs double the price of their bike. And while running has always been popular, running classes have never really been a thing. Where would someone even take a running class? Cycling classes are ubiquitous and serve as gateway drugs to Peloton. Are they really expecting people to shell out $4000 for something that they’ve never done before? Whether they like it or not, Peloton has been swimming in the wake of SoulCycle and FlyWheel. It’s very difficult to break new ground with a home-based product that has such a high price point. It’s one thing to try out a class for $30. It is quite another to buy a $4000 treadmill.

Inequality: There is a lot of talk about income inequality in this country but a lot less about exercise inequality. The rich are getting fitter and the poor are getting fatter. And there are structural reasons why this is happening. From Vox:

This exercise gap is widening at a time when 45 percent of American youth don’t have parks, playground areas, community centers, or sidewalks and trails in their neighborhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (That average hides a lot of inequality and variation at the state and neighborhood level.) Less than forty percent of adults live within half a mile of a park.

There’s also been a decline in public investments in city parks during much of the 20th century, and some recent revivals in enthusiasm for green spaces in cities have been threatened by local government budget crises.

So many Americans don’t have access to basic spaces for physical activity — and the government is not investing enough in low-cost exercise options.

Public parks and YMCAs are spaces that theoretically welcome everyone. I have been a YMCA member in almost every city I’ve lived in, and I took yoga and swimming classes with people from every corner of society, age group, and fitness level.

The people in my Flywheel classes tend to skew young, well-heeled, fit, and white. I know I’ve certainly benefited from these boutique facilities, but I worry about the message they send of what fitness has to look like.

              I love talking about low-tech fitness but you still need someplace where it’s safe and hospitable to walk or run. And joining a gym is a no-go if you’re living below the poverty line and guess what, there’s probably not a gym nearby if you live in a low income area. The best way to promote health and fitness is to make it the path of least resistance. If you make it easier for someone to eat a candy bar instead of an apple, then that person is going to eat that candy bar. And if you don’t make exercise convenient, then people probably aren’t going to exercise either. So what can we do?

We can make our communities more walkable or bikable. Imagine if more cities made their streets pedestrian-friendly and invested in spaces that everyone could access, such as community yoga studios, public parks, or even programs like Sunday San Francisco Streets or the Ciclovía in Bogota, Colombia, which involve closing down streets for walking and biking on the weekend. Researchers have found putting traffic-free cycling and walking routes in place increases physical activity levels for the people who live near them.

              New York City also does the same for Central Park on the weekends. And it is packed with pedestrians and bikers, especially in the summer. The other idea that I love is putting outdoor, all-weather gyms in public parks. They don’t even need to take up much room. In Colombia, I worked out at one that used rocks for weights. They can be as cheap as you need them to be. Ideally, we should have several tiers of fitness options. The first tier should be public options like parks and outdoor gyms. The second tier should be big box gyms like Planet Fitness or LA Fitness or home workouts like P90X. And the third tier should be luxury gyms like Equinox, group workouts like CrossFit and SoulCycle, or more expensive home workouts like Peloton. Right now, we are dropping the ball on the first tier.

              In case you’re skeptical about exercise inequality, The Atlantic/City Lab did a deep dive into the explosion of boutique fitness. As William Gibson said, the future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed:

As the map below shows, there appear to be two broad fitness belts, according to this metric—one across parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and the others along parts of the Plains, the Rockies, and the Northwest. The Deep South and the Midwest have the lowest ratios for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors. These places are among those with the highest levels of obesity as well. In this way, the urban fitness revolution reflects the large and growing divide in Americans’ health and well-being, no less because the classes themselves are expensive—at many boutique studios, the cost of entry is anywhere between $30 and $40 a class, if exercisers don’t buy them in bulk.

Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors are even more concentrated at the level of the city. It’s no surprise that large metros like New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles contain the greatest number of them. But looking at LQs to control for population, smaller places, including a number of fitness-oriented college towns, come to the fore. San Rafael, California—just across the bay from San Francisco in upscale Marin County—tops the list with a high LQ of 3.4. Also among the top 10 are Eugene, Oregon (2.6), which is home to the University of Oregon and is often referred to as “the running capital of the world”; Lynn-Saugus-Marblehead (2.5), a coastal boating, sailing, kayaking and fishing mecca outside of Boston; and Boulder, Colorado, home to the University of Colorado and a gathering place for runners, cyclists and skiers.

              Massive inequality, whether income or exercise, is not the hallmark of a healthy society. We need to do something about this.


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