I planned on being one of those people who becomes a habitual exerciser in captivity. Pre-pandemic, I aspired to the endorphin heights of my wellness-junkie friends but struggled to actually integrate movement into my weekly routine. If you asked me, I’d tell you that I wanted to work out—really, I did—but I could never quite seem to squeeze it into my schedule. So when California issued a shelter-in-place order, I figured I finally had all the time in the world to establish an exercise habit. I’m the sort of person who likes control, and with self-isolation freeing up most of my time, I thought: now, at last, I can exercise complete control over my workout routine.
Instead, I mostly spent my first week of self-isolation lying in bed.
I’ve had a rocky relationship with fitness for most of my life. When it comes to staying active, I’ve pretty much tried it all: running, hiking, pole dancing, weightlifting, you name it. Whatever it is, I’ll usually stick with it for a little while, but sooner or later, my enthusiasm will peter out and I’ll start looking for something else to do. Finally, my habitual impatience led me to Classpass, and it stuck—the variety of offerings, most of them in group settings, kept me engaged, and when I started to tire of being bad at something, I could switch to a different studio or program. Now, staring down the barrel of my own solitude, I wondered how I’d be able to stay motivated when left to my own uncoordinated devices.
After a week of moping, I knew I had to do something. I was trapped under the weight of my own inertia, and the lack of exercise was driving me batty: I felt simultaneously sluggish and restless, I couldn’t focus on my work, and I was constantly getting on my own nerves. So, with my sanity as well as my #fitnessgoals at stake, I dove into the brave new world of at-home workout apps.
Since I didn’t have any equipment at home, I knew I needed an app that either worked without equipment or made it easy and convenient to stock up on any necessary accessories. I also wanted something flexible—easy enough for this perpetual beginner to find her footing, yet with enough options and modifications to keep me from getting bored. And if my app could replicate the rush I get from taking a dimly-lit, trendy fitness class with a roomful of hyped-up overachievers? So much the better.
My search led me first to The Sculpt Society, the app version of NYC-based fitness instructor Megan Roup’s much-lauded IRL boutique class. Combining dance-based cardio with bodyweight and light-weight strength exercises, The Sculpt Society is beloved by influencers and Victoria’s Secret angels galore. After all, I reasoned: if Roup’s moves can keep Elsa Hosk looking like that, they’re probably worth trying.
Spoiler alert: being nowhere near as coordinated as a professional model, when I tried my first TSS workout, I completely ate it. Though Roup breaks down the routines into easy-to-digest segments, her “slow” pace is still my “medium-fast,” and by the time I started to wrap my brain around one move we were onto the next one. Because I had to pause the video so many times, my 50-minute workout took well over an hour to complete. But over the course of that hour-plus, something funny happened. Despite a rocky, frustrating start, by the time I got to the end I was exhilarated and—shock of all shocks—actually having fun. Who knew that being bad at something could actually be enjoyable? Not me!
After I got a few more TSS sessions under my belt, it became easier to pick up the choreography at Roup’s pace, but I never quite got to a point where I felt able to actually keep up with her. Over time, though, that fact began to bother me less, in no small part thanks to Roup’s own encouragement. Throughout every video, Roup takes care to remind viewers that the workouts are supposed to feel good—and if one of her steps isn’t doing that for you, she encourages you to find a modification that will. For me, staying active is an important aspect of both mental and physical self-care, and since “being the best” at a physical activity isn’t usually an option for me, I have to find other ways to motivate myself. That’s where TSS’s fun-first approach shines.
After a couple weeks, though, I was starting to get bored. (Short attention span, remember?) As approachable and encouraging as Roup is, she’s really only teaching a single method of fitness, and as someone who craves constant variety, I knew I needed more options.
Next on my list was P.volve, another IRL-meets-URL brand whose app exists alongside several studio spaces—though at this point I guess all P.volve devotees are officially app-only whether they like it or not. The idea behind the P.volve method is that strength training doesn’t have to hurt. In other words: contrary to the old adage, pain actually isn’t a prerequisite for gains.
While you can do the workouts without equipment, stocking up is strongly encouraged. Of particular note are the program’s two proprietary fitness accessories: the p.ball and the p.band. The p.ball is a roughly grapefruit-sized inflatable rubber ball that’s meant to nestle in your crotch, held in place by a sort of elastic leg harness. No matter how many times I use it, I feel newly baffled every time as to how to get the contraption on my body—but once it’s in place, I find myself holding my glute bridges a little longer, which I guess is the point, right? The p.band, a pair of fingerless gloves connected by a length of stretchy rubber tubing, is a little more intuitive—like if you were to take a standard resistance band and anchor each end to one of your wrists.
After the difficulty I’d had getting acclimated to the technique and choreo of The Sculpt Society, I was looking forward to trying out a more intuitive workout system. While P.volve’s “pre-hab” approach to strength training definitely felt more accessible (read: clumsiness-proof), intuitive isn’t exactly the word that springs to mind. With its emphasis on using small movements to activate the hips, the program had my body moving in ways that felt totally new. True to P.volve’s promise, though, I wasn’t killing myself trying to learn the moves—the low-impact technique was gentle on my joints, and while I definitely felt a burn, the overall experience felt more like an active meditation than a heart-pounding sweat session. In some ways, this was a disappointment: I like to feel like I’ve accomplished something by the end of a workout, but without the typical markers of physical exertion to rely on, it felt more like I was being coddled.
Over time, I began to crave my P.volve sessions, though less because of the physical movement than because of the meditative aspect. I realized with some surprise that the program was scratching a psychological itch for me—just not the one I was used to getting out of a workout. And the gentle nature of the program just made it easier for me to push back my workouts to later and later in the day—until suddenly it was 8 p.m. and I was too exhausted from doing nothing all day to attempt physical activity. I wondered: was there another program out there that could help me bridge my persistent motivation gap?
Enter obé, a pastel-hued app with a nearly-endless catalog of videos spread across categories like yoga, sculpt, and cardio boxing. (Fun fact: the video bank includes over 100 workouts led by The Sculpt Society founder Megan Roup!) Not that I tried any of them: within my first few days of using obé, I found myself almost exclusively tuning into their live-streamed morning workout sessions, which I scheduled directly into my calendar through the app. The knowledge that I couldn’t reschedule a workout to accommodate a snoozed alarm actually got me out of bed at something resembling a normal hour for the first time since the start of my lockdown. The app’s droning, vaguely trance-y background music and unchanging Instagram-bait aesthetic had a weird way of making the yoga videos feel nearly indistinguishable from the dance cardio routines, but I didn’t mind as much as I thought I would. The mere fact of waking up and moving my body first thing in the morning seemed to be enough to bring me back to myself, even just a little bit, in the middle of quarantine season.
I was embarrassed to realize that an early-morning wakeup call and first-thing sweat session were all it took for me to feel like a human person again, and that I hadn’t been able to take these relatively simple steps on my own. I’m trying to take a cue from experts by setting reasonable expectations, but I can’t help feeling a pang of guilt over my inability to wring every last drop of potential out of myself in the middle of a global pandemic. I struggle to stick to a routine even under normal circumstances, and with the sameness of self-isolation settling over me like a thick fog, the motivation to self-discipline has only drifted further out of my reach.
So far, the only solution I’ve found is to take things one day at a time, and I’m ready to try and let go of the shame I’ve been feeling for needing an extra little push. If a wake-up call from a pastel-hued workout app or a half-hour of grounding low-impact movement can help me stay present in my body during an uncertain time, that’s not something to be ashamed of—it’s a reason to feel grateful.