7 min read.Updated: 06 Apr 2021, 12:27 AM ISTNicole Nguyen, The Wall Street Journal
At-home workouts are the future of fitness, but are expensive internet-connected gadgets worth it? Consider the pluses and minuses
The pandemic convinced me: At-home fitness is the future. After the Great Reopening, I will continue to work out in my living room, because I love it.
Why? The convenience, the affordability and the quality of training. Whether I’m at home or traveling, working out for 15 minutes or 45, this certainly beats what I was doing before: fighting for a spot in a boot camp class, and paying too much for the privilege.
I’ve already written about my favorite fitness apps and DIY stationary bike setup. Recently I’ve wondered, since hybrid work will still have us working—and working out—from home: Should I take my living-room workouts to the next level with higher-end connected equipment?
In a quest to learn something about why people spend thousands of dollars on equipment, and hundreds more per year for streamed workouts, I set up a smart gym: a SoulCycle At-Home bike ($2,500), a Mirror workout screen ($1,495) and an Echelon Stride treadmill ($1,300). Meanwhile, my colleague Joanna Stern has been testing Peloton Interactive’s upcoming Tread ($2,495, on sale May 27).
Internet-connected hardware adds to the experience in a few ways. Products typically have a big display designed to stream classes. Personal workout metrics, captured by sensors, are displayed on-screen. Many have a social component, such as the ability to compete on a live leaderboard. All of the models I tested require customers to sign up for a $40-a-month membership.
Millions of people have already made the leap since the world shut down, creating a demand surge that caused monthslong delays for some companies. In February, Peloton announced it would spend $100 million to fix the shipping logjams.
Are these large, expensive fitness gadgets worth it? In some respects, absolutely. A machine that delivers highly produced, energetic workouts in a few taps, right at home, reduces barriers to working out. And it can reduce your fitness costs, too. But I also worry that this smart equipment—like other internet-connected gadgets—might suddenly stop working.
They’re nicer than run-of-the-mill machines. I was immediately impressed with the build quality of SoulCycle’s at-home bike. It has a sturdy wide base to support SoulCycle’s out-of-saddle dance moves. The magnetic resistance produces a smooth road-like feel and a whirring no louder than a washing machine on a gentle cycle. The big bonus for cyclists like me is the included Stages power meter to measure output, which is the same variety the pros use and compatible with training apps like Zwift.
Joanna Stern felt similarly about the Peloton Tread. “Maybe because I’ve only used old equipment in hotel gyms, but it’s such a nice treadmill," she said. A few highlights are a big 23.8-inch screen, and easy-to-adjust speed and incline knobs on the handrails. The model she’s testing isn’t even Peloton’s nicest. The Tread+ has a bouncier and more step-absorbing slat belt, with a $4,295 price tag—and a five-to-eight-week wait.
The Echelon Stride doesn’t have a built-in display, hence its more affordable price. It has a tablet holder in the middle of its console that would cover up some metrics—except when the treadmill senses the Echelon app is open, the console’s metrics disappear and show up on the tablet screen instead.
There were a few initial hiccups with the Stride (more on that later), but I liked how sleek and lightweight it is. The treadmill folds in half on its own for storage.
The more you use it, the more affordable it is. In addition to the high upfront equipment cost, the $40-a-month membership is yet another subscription you’ll need to add to your budget.
However, it may be less than your gym dues, and is likely far less than a studio. (SoulCycle costs over $30 a class in San Francisco.) And you get more value out of it by using it more, and roping in other members of your household to do the same. You can add multiple profiles under one subscription: up to five users for SoulCycle’s bike, six for Mirror, four for Echelon and unlimited users for Peloton. (A spokeswoman says the company does monitor for account-sharing outside of the primary household.)
You get better workouts on a dedicated device. One downside of using mobile apps? Your smartphone and tablet come with distractions. A display without access to your inbox or texts, like the Mirror’s, will help preserve the time you’ve carved out.
Mirror, from Lululemon Athletica, is a reflective display, mounted or leaning on the wall, that streams classes such as yoga and strength training. It’s the kind of content that could easily be displayed on a TV or tablet, without the pricey smart-mirror hardware. Yet I was surprised to discover how much I liked the notification-free experience (though a phone is required to start the workout and control the display’s audio).
I also enjoyed the Mirror workouts themselves. A big drawback to working out at home is that you don’t benefit from an instructor’s in-class corrections. The reflective display—and Chris, my remote instructor—forced me to confront my sloppy lunge once and for all.
The content appeals to fitness-class regulars. Connected fitness is best suited to people who prefer high-energy, instructor-based exercise. And the occasional motivational quote.
“Soul invented the cardio party," said Simon Belsham, chief operating officer of Equinox Media, which owns SoulCycle. The half-spinning/half-dancing workout relies on musical intuition, rather than the cadence and resistance metrics of a Peloton class.
SoulCycle’s instructors are core to the whole experience. Just as the class is hitting its hardest interval, an instructor tells you: You’re stronger than you think. Heck, add more resistance because you CAN handle it. Let’s... Climb... This... Hill!!!
And you do. You climb the hill.
Echelon CEO Lou Lentine describes his company’s smart bikes, treadmills and rowers this way: “Dumb equipment becomes a hanger for your clothing. It’s just a piece of steel. And now that piece of steel has a personality."
Home equipment means repairs and other service. Machines are, like us, prone to repetitive-stress injuries. Just comb any smart-fitness hardware maker’s Facebook page, and you’ll see that repairs aren’t a matter of if, but when. Sometimes, it happens right away.
My Echelon Stride treadmill arrived after a one-month wait, and on my second run, the speed and incline buttons on the handrails stopped working entirely, mid-workout. It was a main console chip malfunction, according to the company. A week later, Echelon showed up with a Stride replacement, and the new model has been working fine ever since.
Greg Dahlstrom, Echelon’s vice president of supply chain, said the treadmill has had “very few problems" since its launch last fall.
They can be dangerous, especially around children. If the safety key is left in a treadmill console, the equipment can easily be turned on.
In March, Peloton CEO John Foley reported that a child was killed in an accident involving one of the company’s treadmills, and said he was aware of a “small handful" of cases where children have been hurt.
Joanna, who has a toddler, told me she’s leery about keeping a treadmill in her home and would have to take precautions. “Kids just gravitate toward it." The stationary bike, she said, isn’t as exciting to kids, but she keeps the cover on it.
What if your smart gear stops being smart? I’m generally wary of internet-connected products, especially from smaller companies. They can unexpectedly cease to function. That’s what happened to owners of Flywheel Fly Anywhere bikes in February 2020, after their maker lost a patent-infringement lawsuit against Peloton and was forced to shut down its bike operations. The company’s studio business closed altogether during the pandemic.
You also might get bored of the content, and want to try something new. Unfortunately, these devices are closed systems, because the monthly fee is a significant part of the business model. You can’t cast another workout class to Mirror’s clever display. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to extract Peloton data to use the bike with a third-party app. While SoulCycle’s Stages power meter can be connected to other devices and apps over Bluetooth, the At-Home bike’s display is locked down unless there’s an active account.
You have to pay the makers, in perpetuity, to keep the gear running as intended. At least when the Mirror stops working, it’s still a mirror.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.