When your virtual fitness instructor becomes your BFF

An athletic blonde woman in a sleeveless black top and black leggings

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The announcement that my favorite yoga app, Down Dog, is casting new models to lead its virtual classes has sparked a ton of requests. “It would be nice to see more plus-sized models,” one user suggested. Others ask for the “older model,” which may make them feel less confident. There is talk of the need for more diversity.

However, most users are saddened by the fact that “Erin”, the old face of Down Dog, may no longer be ours. savasana friend. “I’m only on this app for Erin,” read one response on Instagram.

Who you train with is an emotive subject in the virtual fitness market which, according to Dr Muscle’s app, is estimated to be worth $15.2 billion by 2028. Fitness apps, from tracking apps to instructive platforms, are thriving during the pandemic and crashing habits as people feel training virtual is more convenient, less exposed, and always cheaper than a gym. Down Dog, founded by Benjamin Simon in 2015, uses pre-recorded routines to offer a range of practices for different competencies and needs. It has more than 500,000 subscribers (medium compared to Peloton’s 5.9 million members), but it inspires incredible loyalty: more than 100,000 users complete workouts every day.

I assume that the serene yogi in a crop-top that helps guide each practice is a creation of AI: Erin has the charm of an empty robot. Since the class is guided by a variety of different voices for you to choose from, it seems like she must also be some kind of fancy avatar. Further investigation revealed, however, that Erin Gilmore was a real-life “yoga, meditation, breathing teacher, and mentor” in San Francisco, who saw “healers”, had “great feelings” and considered Barbie film a “beautiful work of art”. She tells me that her app is only “expanding options while I’m pregnant with my second baby” and she’s “still working with [Down Dog] behind the scenes”.

What kind of relationship do You have with your coach? And how much can you invest with someone you’ve only seen online? An informal insta-survey reveals a one-way love rush landscape, for both men and women, where the cult of personality is key. Peloton fuels the most ardent fires of adoration, especially for Tunde Oyeneyin, a bestselling author and keynote speaker; Rad Lopez, a boxer; Cody Rigsby, a fitness guru; and Jess Sims. Any other. “I would follow Robin Arzon anywhere,” says one Peloton head instructor aficionado, while FT Weekend’s Shannon Gibson prefers an “emotional spin” with Adrian.

Tracy Anderson’s aides are so obsessed with her “fitness methodology” that they pay an extra $5,500 to “order” a mat in her real-life classes (on top of a $90 monthly subscription) and describe themselves as “Tamily”. Online users are also loyal. “I feel like Tracy Anderson is coming to my flat and working out with me,” says Kerri Lipsitz, an interior designer. Other users love the post-class online “locker” chat.

Movement and mindful meditation expert Melissa Woods also makes frequent appearances, usually followed by the words: “I love her.” Another author describes his “very close bond” with Pilates instructor Julie Pujols, a “French girl who looks like Brigitte Bardot”, whom he once met but considered “like a friend of mine”.

Online fitness guru Tracy Anderson in 2019 © WireImage

Some people (like me) like to walk in and out of class without involvement. Others are looking for a much deeper relationship on the mat. Dr Amina Abdeldaim, an allergist in New York, spoke for many when she said: “If it doesn’t look like I’m going to make friends, I don’t exercise with them.” Others go even further. Of Nike’s Kirsty Godso, one person said: “I have a much better relationship with KG than I have with most people in my life.”

The most popular instructor among my poll group is friendly, motivating, and boasts an aspirational body type. Users want a glimpse of fallibility: “I like her admitting that class hurts”, says someone from Julie Pujols. But they hate counterfeiters. “One coach pretended to be completely out of breath I guess to make us feel better,” said one user of the Nike app. “That really pisses me off.”

Age can also be an advantage: “a slightly older trainer who looks great, gives me hope.” And while there seems to be no great desire for plus-size instructors (by contrast, many intimidating bionic favorites), there is a general aversion for trainers who appear to be not exactly athletic — “as if the demonstrators were models and not sports people” — or at where they look too skinny. Given that fitness is already so emotional, like food, there’s an unspoken rule that a trainer should be inspired by; and while people want encouragement and motivation, they want a kind coach.

Personally, I want a coach to look fantastic, clearly demonstrate his techniques and push me to achieve new goals. I would never join a chat post exercise, and doubt I’d ever join a virtual trainer outside of class. I’ll be curious to see what new models Down Dog uses next. The beauty and success of Erin, I now realize, is that I hardly thought about it at all.

Jo’s email at jo.ellison@ft.com

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