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10 tips to get the most out of virtual workout classes

Jump-start your commitment to regular exercise with online workouts and fitness communities that give you the motivation you need to keep working out at home.
Fitness coach teaching yoga online to group of people
“I know that space might be at a premium, especially when your family is pretty much doing everything from home these days, but try to create a space that is designated for the workout,” said Teralyn Sell.jacoblund / Getty Images

As the pandemic rages on, gyms have largely transitioned to include online programs, many with live workout classes you can join on Zoom. I recently sampled a few, and while I preferred them to the YouTube workouts I’d been doing before, I’m struggling to stay motivated. More often than not I tell myself I’m going to tune into a class and then don’t sign up, opting for a nap or a snack instead. Meanwhile, my belly has turned to mush and my depression and anxiety are on fire.

How can I get the most out of these Zoom fitness classes again and feel more committed to home exercise? I turned to former gym rats and home fitness champions to find out. I also talked to therapists to learn why working out in a group — albeit virtually — can benefit our mental health.

Here's what they recommended:

1. Designate a set space for workouts

“I know that space might be at a premium, especially when your family is pretty much doing everything from home these days, but try to create a space that is designated for the workout,” said Teralyn Sell, Ph.D., a licensed clinical counselor in Wisconsin. “That way you are setting more of an intention to actually do the workout.”

Fabiana Meléndez, a PR strategist in Austin, Texas, found that all you really need is a corner of your apartment — just fold up your mat when done and leave it in the same place. “[This] helped my brain compartmentalize and understand that there was an entire section for working out,” Meléndez told TODAY.

2. Create workout mood lighting

Meléndez’s suggestion to change the lighting to align with your workout struck me as nothing short of genius. Why hadn’t I thought of this? Of course I can’t relax in a savasana pose with fluorescent lights beaming down on my eyes. If working out in the evening, a light up Bluetooth speaker could help make the mood more tranquil, or even just turning off the overhead and flicking on a floor or desk lamp.

3. Don’t just join any old Zoom class

“When selecting your online workouts do some research before,” said Alexandra Weissner, co-founder at Brunch Running in Colorado. Weissner encourages people to get a feel for the gym and the classes it offers by seeing how the community engages on social media. “Are their private Facebook groups where everyone chats? Are they hosting Instagram Lives where you can ask questions? Do they send you personalized texts to ask how you’re feeling — and checking in?” Paying attention to these things will help give you a sense of what the class experience might be like.

4. Invite a friend

Gym memberships often come with a pass or two to bring a friend. You can embody this spirit of sharing on Zoom by inviting friends to join, too. Having someone you know in the Zoom room with you can help build “accountability and motivation,” noted Weissner.

5. Use the Zoom chat feature

“I try to use the chat feature at the beginning and end of the workout to shout out to the instructor to let them know I got something out of the class,” said Nate Atkins, an investment banker in Maryland. “I also have a group chat with friends that I’ve made from [my] fitness club and we’ll text the day before about what classes to attend to try and coordinate our workouts despite being online.”

6. Use a TV instead of a laptop

“Instead of using your computer screen, opt for a television (or monitor) that might have a larger screen,” suggested Sell. “This will give you more of an illusion that you are actually with the other people. Don't strain your eyes and body by trying to do the class on your phone.”

7. Make your own playlist

“Chances are the instructor is going to mute you so having the right playlist while you are in downward dog or doing Zumba can also be a great motivator,” said Meléndez. “This is your one hour to play what you want as loud as you want while letting go of any stress. I usually have the laptop audio synced to a Bluetooth speaker so I can hear the instructor over the music, and then play music off my phone or Alexa.”’

8. Stick to a schedule

“Find a time in the day that is conducive to working out. It might be the time that you’re typically mindlessly scrolling through social media,” said Sell, who pointed out that you might be scrolling online in an effort to wind down after a hectic day, but a gentle yoga class will do the trick in a more healthful way. “Alternatively if you get the [aftermoon] slumps, hop in to a cardio workout to gain some much needed energy through adrenaline and dopamine bursts.” Whatever time slots you pick, make it a habit. “The more consistently rewarding we are, the more likely we are going to remember to do that again and again,” said Sell.

9. Treat yourself afterward

“One way I stay motivated for an online exercise session is by attaching the workout to an external reward that I treat myself to post-workout,” said Glen Wilde, CEO of Diet to Success, a diet coaching business based in California. “For me, that reward is an hour of free time for me to spend as I wish. My leisure time begins immediately after the workout, which makes it all the more gratifying.” Wilde has also found a bright side: because he no longer has to commute from the gym to home, he can ride out his “runner’s high” in complete relaxation, whereas before “the runner's high has mostly dissipated by the time I got home.”

10. Remember that this is a great way to stay social

No matter how you spin it, a group class on Zoom doesn’t have the same magic of a group class in “real life” — but the social aspect is still there, and that’s crucial for getting through this stressful, scary time.

“Online group fitness fosters connection to other people,” said Naomi Torres-Mackie, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. “This sense of belonging is the most important ingredient for battling the quarantine and social distancing blues. Although nothing can fully take the place of live in-person group fitness where you share a space with others who are doing something difficult right alongside you, the online fitness movement offers so many of the benefits without the current risks.”