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Exercise, Yoga Studios Adapt In The Age of COVID-19

Screenshot taken by Jake Harper / Side Effects Public Media
Elizabeth Heidari teaches an exercise class through Zoom, a videoconferencing platform.

Millions of Americans are stuck in one place right now. Many states have issued stay at home orders, urging people to isolate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Exercise studios have shut down for the time being, but people still need exercise, especially when anxiety is high. So studios are changing their business models and getting people to exercise over the internet. 

I take an interval training class at Invoke Studio, which operates two yoga and pilates facilities in Indianapolis. It’s a circuit of intense exercises that leaves you sweaty and hungry. A couple weeks ago, Invoke closed because of coronavirus. The next day, it began offering classes through Zoom, a videoconferencing service. 

Other exercise facilities in Indianapolis and across the U.S. did the same thing.

“It’s certainly something we’ve always wanted to at least dip our toes into,” says Jared Byczko, co-owner of NapTown Fitness, which offers yoga and fitness classes at four locations in the Indianapolis area. “Right now, that’s all we have to work on, so we’re trying to perfect it as best we can.”

Taking my class online is not quite the same. Instead of weights, I’m using the Jumbo Easy Piano Songbook. Instead of a pad for my knees, it’s a piece of foam packing material. 

Watching my instructor on a laptop, I’m skeptical that I’ll get as much out of the class. The loud music is gone, along with the pressure to keep up with people around me. I bump into furniture, and jumping around makes my whole second-floor apartment shake, which means I have to tone it down for my downstairs neighbor. 

My teacher, Elizabeth Heidari, is learning to adjust, too. “When I leave the house and go to work, I’m at work,” she says. “It’s a boundary that I need that I don’t have anymore because I’m in my house.”

Zoom was designed for meetings, not exercise classes. Heidari has to demo an exercise, then run back to the computer to talk. It’s also harder for her to see what students are doing, and tell them how to adjust

“We’re definitely missing the connection side of it when we’re teaching like this,” she says. “I think that’s part of the learning curve. We’re just trying to make sure we’re giving you guys as much of the in-house experience as you can possibly get.” 

Instructors start Zoom sessions early to help create a sense of community that people may get at a studio. Invoke created a Facebook group to communicate with its members. Staff has hosted a happy hour through Zoom — even started a book club. 

When I logged in to my class, people were joking around about the weights they were using. One person had grabbed a wine bottle.

“That’s a big part of my class. I’m not just walking in and instructing you and leaving,” Heidari says. “It’s becoming a fun thing and not a chore.”

With the transition, Invoke now competes with other established online exercise services such as obé and Pilatesology, which both said via email that they’ve seen an increase in new memberships with the pandemic. (Pilatesology also mentioned an increase in cancellations.) 

Credit Photo by Jake Harper/ Side Effects Public Media.
Equipment used by the author for an exercise class.

Amy Peddycord, Invoke’s owner, says she hasn’t seen a significant drop in membership yet. People want to support the studio, she says, even if it means taking classes online.

“People want to see the teacher that they love,” she says. “They want to chat with fellow students that they’ve seen in classes for years.”

Invoke offers fewer classes right now, but Peddycord says some have had dozens of people — more than could normally fit in their studios. Plus, they’ve seen people join in from Texas, Ohio and New York. So she says Invoke will likely offer online content even after the studios reopen. 

“Now I own a video fitness production company, which I never wanted or thought I would open, “ she says. “I do have two 5,000 square-foot studios that I’m paying for that we’re not using right now, so that will have to have an end date. But I think we’re gonna be okay.”

At the end of the class, I’m still going. I’m slacking off a little, but I realize there are some perks to exercising in isolation: No one can smell me, or see me — I could go pantless if I wanted. 

And when my sweaty back rubbing against the mat makes a sound that people might confuse for a bodily function, no one is around to hear it.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Jake Harper is an investigative reporter for Side Effects Public Media, and he is a co-host of the Sick podcast. He can be reached at