“Hot Bod” is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.
“I can’t do 50-minute workouts anymore,” Helaine Knapp says over Zoom, lightly slapping a hand down on her table. I always like to hear Knapp’s perspective, because even though she founded a whole fitness studio, CityRow, she was never an instructor or trainer: She describes herself as fitness’s ideal consumer. “I own the company and when we go back, I hope I can do 50 minutes. At home, I’m a 30-minute girl.”
Knapp’s new habit echoes my new habit exactly. Over the past year, I’ve discovered that my natural endurance ends about halfway through the conventional hour that studios once offered for their classes. This often meant I ditched online classes partway through (big fan of ditching). And Knapp and I aren’t alone: When CityRow opened its digital platform in 2018, they “saw an even split between 30-minute and 50-minute classes.” But since the pandemic, the 30-minute class soared in popularity — and every other studio I spoke to saw this slide toward shorter workouts.
The pre-pandemic hegemony of the hour workout classes seems mainly a result of standardization. Almost every studio offered hourish classes, and hours tend to be how most people divide their days. But in the past year, as all sense of time got jangled up, studios like CityRow, The Class, SLT, and others — all new to being entirely online — noticed a shift in their loyal students’ preferences. Before, their clients had to take whatever time duration the studio provided. Online, studios offered different class lengths and students could leave whenever. When the pandemic forced attendees of cardio-dance studio 305 Fitness out of the physical studio and onto a new online platform, founder Sadie Kurzban saw a plummet in class-time preference. Fifty-minute classes used to book up well in advance; now, Kurzban saw dancers tuning into their new digital platform for ten or even five minutes. “I have to imagine it’s more about the emotional release,” she says.
But it’s not just the shift from physical studios to digital ones that’s cut down workout times. Even online-only platforms — where shorter workouts were always more popular — have noticed a decreasing time commitment. The co-CEO and co-founder of Alo tells me longtime members prefer 30-minute yoga classes, while newer subscribers have been flocking to the 20-minute classes. “Specifically through the pandemic, we’ve seen short-form or express just explode,” says Mark Mullett, the co-founder of digital fitness platform Obé. Since January last year, Obé has seen the popularity of its ten-minute express workout increase by 25 percent.
Last year, the influential, emotions-forward exercise studio The Class developed a series specifically designed to fit into a digital workday. Immediately “our students asked for more,” says chief operating officer Chris Sanborn. He thinks part of the reason for this preference is time constraints, but also wonders if dwindled emotional availability might be playing a role as well. Sometimes “you want to go deep and notice your thoughts and work some things out,” Sanborn says. “But sometimes you just want to move your body and not go as deep. Providing those tours into yourself that have varying altitudes is something we’ve certainly experimented with more on our digital platform than we did when we were purely an in-person offering.” Certainly, some of this is specific to this studio’s particular flavor, but it does seem to apply, more generally, to the cosmic exhaustion of doing anything in a terrible, stressful time.
For people working at home and working out at home, the duration of an online workout class also prolonged dreaded Zoom time. “At home, I’m always so distracted. I just can’t pay attention for more than 30 minutes,” CityRow’s Knapp says, “and screen fatigue is really real.” Even if the screen promised physical respite and escape, it was still a screen, and therefore a trap. If you’re going to get in it, best to get out quickly.
The shorter classes might also just reveal a desire for … less work. Amanda Freeman, the founder of pilates studio SLT, says that people now “don’t want [classes] to be too hard. It just takes so much more motivation to get yourself going at home so a harder workout is even more a deterrent.” Freeman’s also seen her client base drawn to classes and instructors who are “more encouraging versus ones that push you to the point of failure. People gravitate to ones that make you feel successful.” Hearing this was like hearing something I knew was true about myself, but didn’t know anyone else knew was true.
People might also be looking to fitness classes for something other than inducing sweat. Kurzban wonders if working out has become less about the physical benefits than the mental ones. Rather than turning to her dance classes for a hearty workout, members seem to be after “a ten-minute mental-health break. You can dance for ten minutes, relieve stress without punishing yourself or doing more than you’re able to mentally or physically,” Kurzban reasons. “The pandemic has people asking themselves, ‘What’s going to make me happy?’”
Kurzban and others guess that people will find pleasure in longer workouts when the rest of life doesn’t feel like an unfathomable torturous duration. I’m not sure what has prevented me from making it to the full hour anymore. Maybe it’s a restless little rebellion that keeps me from finishing things. Maybe, like Knapp, it’s screen fatigue. Certainly, as Freeman suggests, I just don’t want to work that hard. But if the world pops open, maybe sticking around for the full hour of a Zoom class with a flamboyant, beloved HIIT instructor in another state would seem less impossible. Maybe doing a really challenging online class, after which I can lie on my own floor, will be more desirable.
I’m now, shockingly, learning the value of extraneous effort that came with doing things in person (commuting, scheduling, rushing to get a good spot early, rushing because I was hopelessly late). My previous assumptions were backwards: I’d been sure that energy saved by not schlepping would’ve been added to the energy I had for exercising. I’d been certain that the time saved by not commuting would be funneled into an even longer strength training. Instead, I’ve spent the last year grokking that the harder I work to get to a workout class, the harder I work when I’m there.