Online fitness: when sitting on Facebook is going to the gym
When Sunshine Coast yoga instructor Lauren Verona spontaneously decided to livestream one of her classes to test Facebook's live video function, she did not know what to expect.
"I kept turning the camera, and I'm sure I was missing my body half the time," she admits. "But my Facebook friends said it was amazing and they really enjoyed it... It made me realise this was the way forward."
Verona started a Facebook group, building up hundreds of members who paid her a monthly subscription fee for access to the group, where she would post her videos. That group became A Live Yogi, a website Verona is calling "Australia's first live yoga studio".
Online fitness programs are on the rise in Australia.
Adelaide-based fitness entrepreneur Kayla Itsines is the textbook case: her Bikini Body Guide fitness and lifestyle plan – sold on her website – has over nine million adherents, many of whom are active in the "BBG" Facebook groups created for individual cities across the world.
Following Itsines' programs, the individual groups organise meetups in their local areas.
Former Bachelor star Sam Wood started his online fitness program, 28 by Sam Wood, in February 2016. In two years, he has had over 100,000 clients.
A key feature of the program is access to a private Facebook group, where members receive daily advice from Wood and his team.
At present, the group has around 28,000 members.
While some of the group's members have a gym membership, Wood says the majority workout at home adding that one of the benefits of having an online social media community – as opposed to simply releasing videos – is that members are able to not just connect to experts, but also each other.
For Wood, Facebook groups, provided they are monitored closely, mimic the social element of attending a physical gym, meaning they can be "very powerful from a motivation, connection and friendship perspective".
Although she had previously produced YouTube videos, Verona says the "raw, live, candid element" of livestreaming her classes provides an experience that is very different to simply following a DVD. It also appears to be the more popular option for her clients – although a library of past classes is available to members, 70 per cent take class on the livestream.
Of course there are drawbacks to conducting a yoga class without being able to view the participants.
"You've got to keep them engaged, because you know at any stage they can get up off the mat and do the dishes," she says.
Verona says her clients are overwhelmingly people who could not make it to class otherwise, including full-time mothers, people who live in rural areas, and FIFO workers who practice at her physical studios when they are at home on the Sunshine Coast.
"To enter a yoga space is the ultimate, but we don't all have the luxury to do that," she says, adding that, although attending yoga online is "absolutely not" better than practice with a physical instructor, "it's better than sitting on the couch".
Dr Paul Marshall, associate professor in sport and exercise health at Western Sydney University, agrees that, while nothing will replace physical instruction in a gym environment, it is a bit of a case of something is better than nothing.
With 20 years personal training experience, Dr Marshall says he uses one-on-one video sessions to engage with his clients abroad, but he only feels confident doing so because he knows they are experienced. The risks increase the more removed trainers become from their clients (i.e. running a class for an undetermined number of people on a livestream, as opposed to hosting a smaller session via video call).
"What we have to be careful of getting novice people and introducing them to complex exercises," he says "Then we do need to monitor their technique in real time."
In his opinion, many of the problems with online gyms merely mimic those with physical gyms.
"If you have a gym class of 50 people and half of the people are doing it terribly up the back, you still have that issue of people not receiving feedback," he says, adding that injuries can occur in "any relatively unsupervised scenario".
Dr Marshall says one of the less considered issues with the rise of online fitness is the use of doctored images to promote programs on social media.
"The person who keeps posting the pictures of themselves telling you to join their program is probably showing you heavily photoshopped images," he warns. "If they are supplementing that with real videos, that's great, but often that is not happening."