Bruce Erickson is a self-described “outdoorsy” guy. At 76, the retiree and interpreter for California’s Mt. Diablo State Park’s visitor center, is a seasoned walker, having taken up the activity about 24 years ago following a heart attack. He gets outside four to five times a week for a few miles at a time, taking in the beauty of Mt. Diablo and other areas.
This routine has not only returned Erickson to health, but allowed him to forge new friendships. He’s become a regular on Strava, an app designed to connect athletes and fitness buffs with others who enjoy the same activity. Through the app, he’s met many outdoors enthusiasts by posting his walks and commenting on the activities of others. Now in the midst of the pandemic, he’s more thankful than ever to be a part of Strava’s virtual community.
Megan Roche, M.D., is both a coach for Strava users and a clinical researcher. She says that right now, it’s critical that people find a way to stay connected with each other. “Humans are designed to connect,” she says. “While we have to distance ourselves, figuring out a way to do that is essential to our mental health and energy levels.”
She cautions that when we miss physical activity and connection, it can have negative effects on our immune systems, something no one can afford right now.
Another app that’s helping people stay connected through activity is Zwift, designed for indoor users of treadmills and bike trainers. First rolled out for cyclists, the app now includes running and walking and has grown from small and localized groups to big, worldwide connectivity. “Now you can find so many different types of communities in the app,” says Eric Min, Zwift’s CEO and co-founder. “There are groups by activity, by intensity level and by location. Then there are subgroups within the groups.”
As the country — and world — brace for extended time indoors to socially distance, these groups take on greater importance in members’ lives. “We’ve seen a huge influx of users in the past few weeks,” says Min. “This is a service people need right now.”
How connected exercise apps work
Both Strava and Zwift apps work seamlessly with fitness tracking devices, such as Apple Watch, Fitbit or Garmin. After creating an account and connecting to the device, the workouts that the user selects will automatically upload. They can be set to public or private. From there, the level of interaction with others is up to the user.
Erickson, for instance, follows over 150 different people on Strava, virtually cheering them on as they climb his beloved Mt. Diablo. “I joined Strava to watch my friends’ activities,” he says. “They encouraged me to start posting my walks, and so I did.”
Today Erickson has over 100 followers of his own walking routes, and he says it has motivated him to go longer and more often. “I got kudos from so many people that I wanted to improve my level of activity,” he explains. “Now I’ll walk four to six miles sometimes, instead of the two or three I used to do. A couple of times I’ve even gone over 10 miles.”
This social interaction on the app — something like Facebook for the active set — reveals the power of small interactions in people’s lives, says Roche. “The affirmations and the challenges that people set up on the platform can be really helpful,” she says.
Roche also sees Strava as a way to broaden communities. “Find new groups based on mutual interest,” she encourages. “Reach out to people in different parts of the country that you might not otherwise, for instance.”
Building your community
For cyclists, Zwift recently launched its “Tour of Watopia,” a virtual, multi-day stage race. Cyclists race each other indoors on set courses, aiming for the leader board and virtual approval from fellow cyclists. If a fantasy world isn’t your thing, the platform also offers routes based on real roads and terrain in New York City, Richmond, Virginia, and Innsbruck, Austria, among others. For the truly competitive, there’s also a replica course of famous races, like Italy’s Giro d’Italia.
Already belong to a club or group in your favorite activity? Both Strava and Zwift offer ways to recreate that real-life group on their platforms, some of which can include dozens of people. “It’s a very organic discovery process,” says Min. “Once you’re on, you can search around for communities that match your interests.”
Soon, Zwift will unveil its new club functionality, whereby virtual clubs of various activities can challenge one another in training and competitions. Strava is also rolling out new features during the pandemic, including “routes,” which can deliver personalized route suggestions if you’re craving something new.
No matter how you might use apps like Zwift or Strava, Roche says that they can be great incentives to keep up with your fitness efforts. “Right now, it’s important to remember that movement is key to mental health,” she points out. “If you’re connected to others via an app, that can help you get out the door.”
Erickson has no plans to hang up his walking shoes, even in these socially distant times. “I’m very serious about the shelter-in-place orders, as are my friends,” he says. “But it’s really nice to log on and see photos of people doing their workouts, even if it’s alone. We’re giving each other support and it’s an amazing sense of community.”