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Young man using laptop and exercising at home

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Since last year, formerly on-the-go Canadians have adapted to the notion that there is no place like home.

Much as foodies now look to their own kitchens or takeout for a taste of entertainment and experimentation, many gym-goers, yoga junkies and hardcore HIIT-ers have turned to their private antiseptic rooms and strong WiFi connections to simulate the experience that once belonged to sweat-filled shared spaces.

And even though there’s been a loss of communality that gyms and studios offered, many exercise seekers have accustomed themselves to the affordability, practicality and hermeticism of the home fitness experience and won’t relinquish it when they reach the post-pandemic world.

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“I do kettlebell training and Pilates at two different clubs. Both are live or on-demand and without having to commute I can fit them into my schedule,” says Jessica Brooks, a media teacher in Toronto. “I am working out now more than I’ve been able to since my first daughter was born six years ago.”

Like it or not, the shift in fitness is real. Peloton, the wired spinning service that brought high-end gyming into the home at exactly the right time, has become the holy grail of pandemic fitness, earning US$1.8-billion in total revenue in its most recently completed fiscal year, a 100-per-cent increase year over year. Last March also saw luxury fitness brand Equinox pivoting to launch its online platform Variis in the U.S. One year later, the company has no plans to retreat from its online expansion. “It just does not make sense for the company to put all of its cards into physical facilities because the landscape has changed,” says Mark Hendricks, Toronto-area Equinox group fitness manager. Instead, Variis has been given a makeover and debuted to Canadian members this month as Equinox Plus. The swanky online platform will be included with an Equinox membership and available as a monthly subscription to non-members.

Independent instructors have made the shift to online, too, and plan to keep it that way. Amica Hilton, one of Toronto’s most popular yoga teachers, once found herself travelling to three different studios daily because of their scheduling and pay scales. Now she rolls out of bed to teach multiple classes a day from her downtown apartment, making her own schedule and earning more money.

Of course, there are struggles. Hilton, 35, has to fight much harder for new business now that the internet has become the mother of all gyms. Still, she is very clear about where she will land when things reopen post-COVID. “I tried to go back to the studio to teach last summer, in the brief period of reopening, and it seemed like I was going to another world,” she says. “The students were very young and didn’t seem to really be worried by the pandemic at all. I started thinking, ‘If I get sick, I won’t be able to teach and I can’t take that risk ...’ There is now a stigma attached to getting COVID. Even if COVID is gone, there will be paranoia around any type of sickness for a long time. I can’t afford to be the pariah of the yoga community simply for getting a cold.”

Though the pandemic may have made germaphobes of us all, hopeful Canadians in the fitness industry believe this, too, shall pass. Equinox’s Hendricks says, “There is a small percentage of people who enjoy not having to leave their home to get quality fitness, but there will still be a massive industry for facility gyms when this is all said and done. You simply can’t recreate the energy exchange you get in a group class at home.”

Many support the viewpoint of Hendricks, including award-winning chef and restaurateur Susur Lee, who has been practising yoga religiously for nearly a decade. Lee draws a hard line on online yoga classes: “I can’t feel anything when I look at a screen. I crave the energy of others during my practice.” Lee was one of the first Canadians to fall victim to COVID-19 back in March of 2020. But he does not let fear get in the way of him returning to a yoga studio. The 62-year-old was one of the few who returned to a studio last summer to practise. The discipline, he says, “has taught me patience, flexibility and deep breathing techniques.”

Lee will be back on the mat when the studios eventually reopen and now that Canada has accelerated its inoculation pace, the hope for many is that the new normal will fast become a thing of the past. On the flipside, however, the pandemic has taught busy Canadians that the time they share at home in the comfort of loved ones is invaluable. So, even if the question of whether it’s safe to share the air in a gym setting does dematerialize, it may well already have been replaced by another: Is this worth my time?

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For Kate Strasburg, a psychiatrist and mother who has worked in an emergency room setting throughout the pandemic, the answer is a hard no. The Toronto physician says, “I have very happily adapted to my gym routine at home. And though I miss the social piece I used to get at a gym workout, I’m willing to trade it for the minutes, even hours, I get back to focus on other parts of my life.”

Ultimately, countless Canadians will opt for Air Pods and a closed bedroom door over a commute and a padlock because even when the fight against COVID is eventually over, the battle against time continues.

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