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Virtual exercise trends: a guide to the growing popularity of online exercise

An introduction to online exercise

Exercise and getting moving have long been an essential part of staying fit and healthy. But the rise in social media influencers and friends posting about their workouts online has also meant that many people feel that going to the gym should be part of their regular routine. For many people, exercising gives them increased confidence and strength. As long as the content remains inspirational rather than becoming a direct comparison, then social media can be a positive tool. 

Online exercise classes were a key part of keeping gym-goers fit and healthy in lockdown, but they also offer an option for those who don’t want to commit to a monthly gym membership. With plenty of us tight on time in the busy modern world, there’s also a desire to get our endorphin hit in a way that works better for our schedules, rather than going for a long run or heading to the studio for an exercise class. 

In this guide, we take a look at the different types of virtual exercise on offer, what might be coming up in the future, and why this method of getting your pulse racing might just be the solution you’ve been looking for.

The different methods of virtual exercise

Within the category of virtual exercise, there are several options to choose from. Ultimately, the one that you choose will simply depend on the time that you have, the type of exercise you’re looking for, and whether you push yourself further with a live instructor, or whether you can motivate yourself to reach your goals.

Recorded or streamed classes at home

For most people, virtual exercise means working out alongside a live or pre-recorded class. An instructor will lead the session, demonstrating the moves and giving encouragement and motivation.

A live-streamed class is the closest option to actually attending a class at a studio, giving you the opportunity to request adjustments to the level of difficulty or to accommodate for any injuries. Some people find it helpful to have this set commitment, as needing to log on at a specific time can be useful for getting them to actually turn up to class.

But for those who are after classes on demand, or want to choose the type of exercise on a day-to-day basis, having a menu of pre-recorded classes can be a good option. Lots of gyms started to offer this to their members during lockdown, with courses for participants nationwide, as well as classes taught by the local instructors members would recognise from their own gym.

For those who don’t want to commit to an expensive gym membership, there are multiple apps and websites that offer a selection of classes that are updated on a regular basis. The major benefit of opting for an on-demand service is that you can choose how long you attend class for, without having to awkwardly duck out early if you have to be somewhere else. 

It’s likely that there will also be a range of class lengths available, from quick 10 minute wake up sessions to a challenging hour session. For those looking to fit in their exercise routine around other commitments, this can be an attractive option.

Virtual reality

The amount of time that we spend online has rocketed in recent years, with people getting increasingly used to conducting a lot of their lives on the internet. 

The metaverse has slowly been gaining traction in the last few years as a way of socialising and gaming with friends from the comfort of your own home. Whilst it might sound like a traditional video game with a chat function, it’s now expanding far beyond this. Instead, users create an avatar of themselves, and wear virtual reality (VR) headsets to fully immerse themselves into the metaverse world.

VR headsets are a pricy investment, but they offer a new type of exercise experience, designed to take users out of the everyday world. These games and training sessions focus on offering users something that they can’t get if they were just looking at a screen – whether that’s something vaguely realistic like cycling a Tour de France route, or something extra-terrestrial like fighting aliens using lunges, squats and punches.

The idea is for the person exercising to be distracted by their surroundings, and therefore almost exercise without noticing that they're doing it, rather than focusing on how sore their muscles are and how long they’ve got left on the clock.

Virtual classes at a gym

In an attempt to get people back in the door, but not need to have as many instructors on the rota, some gyms are now offering virtual classes in-studio. This means that there's no instructor in the room, but there’s still a room full of gym-goers. Instead, a screen runs a pre-recorded instructed class in the same way that users can access at home. 

The aim of this hybrid option is to give people the buzz of sharing a live class with others, where they get more motivation from the people around them. However, the gym doesn’t need to have a staff member to run the class. Instead, one central instructor runs the class and is recorded, which can then be purchased and played at the convenience of a nationwide collection of clubs.

The future of virtual exercise

Keeping fit is set to remain an important part of many individuals' lives, with the gym industry predicted to be valued at around $59 billion by 2027, a growth of at least 30% each year. The same report shows that when it comes to virtual fitness, 72% of surveyed adults are using online fitness resources just as much, or even more than during the pandemic, showing how this trend has positively impacted the fitness industry.

Mini-workouts, in 15 minute bursts, are likely to remain popular as exercisers juggle work, caring responsibilities and social commitments. People want a short burst of exercise that doesn’t overly affect their day, rather than a sweaty 45 minute class that requires a change of clothes and a dedicated workout area. It’s important to recognise the importance of blending exercise into your daily routine, such as lunging when you’re carrying bags, or sprinting up the stairs. Whilst it might not feel like much, it’s much better than simply remaining sat at your desk.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), 85% of adults who were working at home during the pandemic said that they’d like to have a hybrid pattern of working moving forward. Whilst it’s not possible to predict just how many of these people will want to take part in virtual classes as opposed to going to the gym, it does show that the pre-pandemic days of working in an office and going to the gym on the way home are perhaps gone.

Instead, people may choose to do a short class in their lunch break – made possible by being at home with their gym gear, rather than having to factor in the drive to the studio and back before lunch hour is over.

Social media is also encouraging a burst of exercise in 2022 too, with #weightedhulahoop getting 200 million views on TikTok, and searches for weighted hula hoops up 234.35% since last year. Far from the standard gym weights, these heavy hoops are efficient at strengthening your core, looking aesthetically pleasing for social media, and being a fun way to tone up. Trends like these that are spread through social media sharing give people new inspiration and may encourage exercise participation.

The benefits of online exercise

A wider range of options

If you can get into the habit of doing virtual exercise classes, they can offer much more variety than a traditional gym schedule. Whilst a studio usually runs the same classes at the same time each week, attending online means that you can pick a class based on your mood with an on-demand service. Or, if you love a particular regular class, then stick with this, and change things up on the other days.

Attending online also gives you more flexibility around trying something new. Whilst you might baulk at paying entrance to a new class that you’re not sure that you’re going to like in person, if this is included in your overall virtual package, you can try things out with no pressure attached. It also means that if you don’t like it, you can just leave mid-class, without the social stigma of ducking out of the studio.

Some people prefer doing virtual personal training, as it allows them to get access to top programmes that they otherwise couldn’t geographically get to. Especially for athletes focusing on a specific sport, they might want to work with a respected coach who can help them improve on their specific weaknesses.

Accessibility benefits

A lot of gym equipment can be difficult for people with accessibility needs to use. This can be because:

  • The equipment doesn’t support adaptations for their physical needs
  • It can be intimidating to attend the gym 
  • Gyms may have steps rather than slopes, and a lack of disabled showering and changing facilities 
  • Their health conditions may mean that they need to take regular rest when exercising, or they may need someone around them who knows what to do if they have a medical episode
  • Deaf or blind people in particular may find it difficult to attend classes that do not support their needs

Virtual exercise classes mean that people with additional accessibility needs can still get the benefits of exercise, but in a more comfortable environment. This could also work well in combination with going to the gym, allowing people to pick and choose what feels right for them on any given day. 

Scope, a disability equality charity, has a list of classes that are specifically designed for disabled people, including workout programmes from a deaf coach, and low-impact seated exercises.

Exercise-life balance

Between work, caring responsibilities, socialising and hobbies, it can be hard to find time to exercise. Going to the gym takes time, both to actually get a full workout done, but also travelling there and getting showered and changed after. This time commitment can mean that some people skip their workouts, or that it ends up taking over their whole evening. 

Virtual exercise can shorten the process, allowing you to do other tasks at the same time. For example, if you have children who can entertain themselves but are too young to be left at home alone, you wouldn’t be able to go out to the gym if you’re in sole care of them. Working out at home could allow you to exercise but still be in the house with them, meaning that you don’t have to sacrifice your workout. This can also be helpful for other tasks – the 40 minutes it might take for your dinner to cook in the oven could be a good chance for a quick home workout.

Studio class times don’t always suit everyone, either. For those who don’t work geographically close to their gym, it can be difficult to go to a class and get to work in time for the start of the day, or get back in time to make a session. Exercise is meant to help with stress relief, so you shouldn’t be getting wound up sitting in traffic, trying to race between the gym and work. Virtual exercise offers a solution to this problem, meaning that you can enjoy a stress-free workout on your own schedule.


Skipping the gym and getting your exercise in at home can also be beneficial for those who feel intimidated by working out in front of other people in the gym. Virtual exercise is a lot more private, with no obligation to turn your camera on for live classes.

If you’re keen to get the interaction element of a class in a safe space, why not take part in a virtual class with friends? Either set up a video call and all use the same on-demand video at the same time, or ask them to attend a live online class with you, so that you can see them on the screen.

Positive impact on your life insurance

It might not be the first thing that you think of, but keeping fit and healthy can have a positive impact on your life insurance. Insurers will ask you about your level of physical activity, and virtual or in-person exercise classes can help you keep moving, rather than skipping the gym for the sofa. In turn, your premiums may decrease.

The best way to reap the benefits of your virtual exercise on your life insurance is to wear a personal fitness tracker. This can help you motivate yourself to keep on top of your fitness goals, which in turn can keep you healthy. The tracking also provides supporting evidence of your activity.

How to get started

Home equipment

The range of equipment that someone has at home usually depends on two factors: space and budget. For those who have the space, there are lots of different options available, from full weight racks, to rowing machines and treadmills. This option generally aims to replicate a traditional gym, but focuses on just choosing the equipment that suits you best. Unfortunately, not only is this costly, but it takes up a huge amount of room, so you really need to be committed to using it to get the most out of your investment.

A more manageable option is to have a few pieces of equipment that you can then put away after you’re done with your workout. Depending on what classes you do, a few good entry level options are:

  • Yoga mat
  • Resistance training bands
  • Dumbbells
  • Kettlebell
  • Skipping rope (If you’re into smart tech, you can even get one that syncs to your phone)

Exercise bikes are also a popular home option for those who can afford them, as they don’t take up too much space. Depending on the model you choose, some come with a screen that allows you to ‘cycle’ famous routes, with the screen showing the virtual scenery flying past as you pedal. Your bike may also come with the option to attend virtual spin classes, with an instructor. If your friends have the same tech, then they can also attend the same class as you. 

If you’d choose to cycle at the gym, cycling from the comfort of your room can be an attractive option. Even if you opt for one without a screen, watching your own TV programmes whilst you pedal feels a lot more appealing than watching whatever generic option is on the gym screen.

Get into a routine

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of getting going with exercise is actually getting started at all. When you go to the gym, it’s easier to combine it with travelling home from the office, or running errands. In contrast, virtual exercise classes need you to hold yourself accountable for your exercise journey. If you’re rolling out your yoga mat next to the sofa, it can be tempting to quit, even if you know that you’ll feel good once your reps are done.

Some people find it easier to exercise at home if they get into a routine. Repetition is the only way to form a lasting habit, so try and think about what you want to achieve, and how often a week you want to train. Whilst you don’t want to take away the flexibility that virtual exercise gives, even committing to a specific day rather than a set time might help you pick up those weights and get moving.

It can also help to hire a virtual personal trainer, or team up with a friend. Sharing your results with someone else who will motivate you to keep going might just be the boost you need to get started, even when you’re tired. With the rise of online exercise during the pandemic, there are plenty of trainers out there who can offer you programmes that you can do at home, or a blend of home and gym. 

Wearable technology

Wearable technology, like smart watches, are becoming increasingly common as people seek to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In a world where there is constant change, micro tracking data can be a tangible way to feel like we’re in control of our own lives and health, or at least are taking steps to manage it. 

This smart tech expands far past just watches too – for those who want something a bit more subtle, or do a sport where it would be dangerous to wear a watch, then there are even smart rings and clothing, which have the same purpose. 

Fitness trackers like pedometers have been around for years, but the new accessories have the key benefit of offering a more personalised experience. They sync automatically to your smartphone, making it easy to track your progress, and keep a running record of your activity. They are far superior to a classic pedometer, tracking metrics like heart rate, sleep, calories burned and well as steps. 

Some watches even have a built in motivational tool, which tells you when you’re close to your daily goal, or buzzes to get you moving when you’ve been sitting still for too long. The serotonin hit of achieving your daily target motivates you to succeed the next day too, eventually creating a habit of exercise.

Getting these trackable metrics can help you hit your own personal goals, rather than a generic subscribed amount. For example, the NHS recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, but depending on what you want to achieve, you may need to do more than that. Or, if you have accessibility needs, you may need to tailor this to do less aerobic exercise, and more strengthening exercises. The paired apps that accompany this smart tech allow you to set a goal that is right for you, and get motivation towards and praise for achieving it.

VR headsets

As we mentioned earlier, VR headsets can be an appealing option for people who like to exercise, without feeling like they’re doing a workout. Just like going out dancing with your friends doesn't feel like a chore, VR aims to gamify the exercise experience, making people more likely to workout for longer periods of time. 

This idea of ‘exercising by accident’ can be particularly attractive for people who aren’t natural gym goers, and have to actively incorporate movement into their daily routines. You can choose multiplayer games too, so if your friends also have a headset, you can play together like you would on a video game.

Interestingly, a study by the University of Kent found that using VR headsets actually meant that participants could complete a longer period of exercise in comparison to the group not using VR. They also reported a lower heart rate on average, suggesting that VR reduces the amount of effort required for an exercise. These results could be useful for encouraging people who are nervous about pain that working out might cause them to take up exercise. It could also help push people who have the physical ability to exercise for longer, but get bored or give up once it gets uncomfortable. 

If you’re thinking about investing in a VR kit, it’s important to first investigate the sort of games or exercises you’d like to do. They’re not cheap, and having a headset that you want to use rather than having to force yourself to pick it up is vital for success, as you’ll need to use it a lot to make the purchase price worth it.