Wednesday 17 July 2019

The home exercise video gets a reboot - John Meagher puts it to the test

Can a fitness app replace your gym membership? Offering on-demand workouts, Fiit aims to do just that. John Meagher puts it to the test

John Meagher trains with his fitness app in the Phoenix Park
John Meagher trains with his fitness app in the Phoenix Park
John Meagher

John Meagher

It may be a secluded part of the Phoenix Park but there's still the odd runner and mountain bike enthusiast who takes this verdant route and all of them look at me with a mixture of amusement, bemusement and - maybe I'm kidding myself here - admiration.

My iPad is open on the perfectly flat surface of the tree stump in front of me and I'm following the directions of the London-based fitness instructor on the screen. There are planks to do and burpees - even the deer look aghast at my attempts at those - and high knees heart-pounders. It's one of the most intense 25 minutes I've spent. I'm testing out a new app called Fiit. The press release suggests it's the "Netflix of fitness apps", which is a neat little line to market oneself with. But there's truth to it because the idea is you'll be able to select from a large range of workouts to suit all abilities - and the makers add several workouts every week to keep things fresh.

The difference between this and the countless other apps out there is you wear a chest strap with a heart-rate monitor so you can see on the screen how you're doing and real-time information is fed back into the system about your workout. It's not essential to wear the device, which is handy because on my visits to the park I remember to bring my iPad, but rarely the strap.

The idea is it's supposed to bring the gym to you, the time-poor, work-stressed soul, and I can see why it could have sizeable appeal. Only one in five people with gym membership are thought to go regularly, so there's a huge proportion that stump up hard-earned money for a pricey subscription who simply don't go, and often it's because life gets in the way. Jumping into a car, grabbing the gear, showering in the gym afterwards - it all eats into their days, and there's got to be something appealing about being able to replicate the gym experience at home.

I say replicate, but of course nothing can compare to the experience of being in a gym class where an instructor is barking out instructions in your direction and where you don't want to be the person in the group who falls behind everyone else.

But lots of people who spend upwards of €70 a month to be a gym member never do the classes and when they do show up it's the cardio machines they slog at or the weights they try to lift (and often without correct technique - as my left shoulder knows only too well).

Fiit app
Fiit app

I've also been a member of several gyms and have never got my money's worth - not even close. Like other saps, I've joined with such good intentions and even felt it was necessary to sign up to the more expensive places on the warped logic that if I'm spending X amount per month, I'll definitely go. Sadly, a month in and I'm not going nearly as much as I should and realising there's €60 leaving my bank account every four weeks that I could have put to much better use.

Fiit, which launched in the UK and Irish markets earlier this year, encourages people to take 25 minutes out of their day to work out, or 40 minutes for more advanced trainers. You can do it on your phone, tablet or TV - and you don't have to leave your living room.

But for me, there's something soul-destroying about exercising indoors, which is why I'm among the trees and following the soothing but insistent tones of Richie Norton, an ex-rugby player and one of multiple high-end trainers the app employs. The Irish fitness fanatic Maeve Madden, a London-based model and personal trainer with 157,000 followers on Instagram, is also on the Fiit roll call.

Unlike most other apps, Fiit isn't free. Far from it. It can work out at £20 per month, although a year's membership averages 33p per day according to the company. They don't have euro prices on their website yet.

Home fitness guru Jane Fonda
Home fitness guru Jane Fonda

One of the co-founders, Ian McCaig, believes Fiit can be a game-changer in the industry. "The elephant in the room is the vast majority don't like going to the gym," he says. "Only 15pc are members of a gym and most of them don't actually go.

"There have been 150,000 fitness apps that have been launched over the past decade - the vast majority of them haven't worked and they have failed because it's like putting a PDF on an app and you're expecting someone to be inspired to use it. I mean, many of them are no better than putting a celebrity DVD on and watching it on your TV."

We've come a long way from the retro workout videos by the likes of Jane Fonda and Olivia Newton-John. McCaig says Fiit is different because it harnesses the latest in wearable technology and is inspired by new trends in the fitness world.

"We've been looking at the industry and looking at what's happening in the boutique studios like Barry's Bootcamp and 1Rebel [both in London]. They've created an amazing experience for people. But it comes at a price: it's £20 or £30 a session, so that expense is not for everyone. But we thought: 'How can we bring this amazing experience into people's homes, levering the technology that exists?' We wanted to look at how we could combine the very best of wearable technology with a really immersive boutique studio experience. That's where Fiit comes in."

And much like successful fitness apps such as running and cycling tracker Strava, McCaig hopes Fiit can build a large international community "to help people feel more motivated to stick to their fitness goals".

I think Fiit has the potential to be a big deal in the fitness industry, and its high production values and large range of trainers and workouts makes it stand out from the pack. And I think I'll continue using it (outdoors) as long as the summer lasts.

But impressive as the instructions are, I don't derive joy from bodyweight exercises or running-on-the-spot cardio. Years ago, I discovered that the type of fitness I loved best was free and could be done anywhere: running. And I went from barely able to cover a kilometre to tackling the Dublin Marathon on four occasions, and reducing the time on each occasion. I'm taking a break from that distance this year, but will be back next year to hopefully break my 3.41 personal best.

Running isn't for everyone - and neither are gyms, whether you're in a warehouse environment sweating profusely to deafening music or standing in front of your TV trying to keep up with the Fiit instructor. Some, like my girlfriend Emma, adore the punishing demands of CrossFit. Others swear by the restorative power of yoga or swimming.

But once you find what works for you, and you stick to it, you're on to a winner. And if working out at home to an immersive app makes you tone up and get fit, great. It'll be money well spent.

Irish Independent

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