Interview with Daniel Freedman about Virtual Fitness
Daniel Freedman graduated from the London School of Economics (LSE). He started his career as a journalist and worked for several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He contributed to the bestseller “The Black Banners,” a book about Sept. 11 and the United States’ war with al-Qaeda that was published in 2012. Freedman later shifted his interest to the technology sector, working at tech startup Apploi and co-founding CyecureBox, a cyber security tool. After transitioning from Manhattan to Baltimore, he has been focusing on the development of BurnAlong, a startup that aims to help people find the time to exercise. During his eclectic career, Freedman has also held posts at the United Nations and the U.S. Senate.
1) What currently excites you about virtual fitness? How have things evolved from the days of Jane Fonda VHS tapes to the virtual fitness experience a user can consume today?
I think what’s really changed today is virtual fitness is allowing people to bridge the online and the offline fitness experience. New ways of delivering virtual fitness can finally bring people the “real” experience that they want, as opposed to having disconnected, lonely experiences with static content.
If you look at video games, the virtual world bridges that divide. If I go back to when I was a kid, if I wanted to play video games with a friend, I had to travel to their home. Today, my nieces can play with one another and/or their friends online, from their respective homes in different cities. They can see and speak to each other no matter where they are in the world. It’s the same in the business world where work tools like Skype and Google Hangouts have connected us.
What’s exciting to me in the fitness space is being able to bridge the divide and give everyone access to the experiences they want, when they want them. Fitness is about relationships, purpose and motivation. New advances in virtual fitness now allow us to do that at scale, with your workout buddies wherever they might be.
2) What are the limitations of delivering virtual fitness, and how have you seen this effectively mitigated?
If you go into any gym or studio, anywhere in the world, and ask, “Who is the most popular instructor here?” And then you ask them, “When was the last time someone said they can’t make a class, or was away for the summer, or traveling for work, and so could you film the class?” Odds are the instructor will say it was within the last two to three days. This reflects a massive lost opportunity for gyms and studios, because their members would prefer to choose a virtual experience with their favorite instructor, rather than strangers, if given that option.
BurnAlong does that, bridging that divide, giving people the connection to their favorite instructors/their friends, at a time and/or place convenient for them. And instructors can gain an insight into what people are doing outside of the gym, and help keep them on track.
3) Throughout the process of your product development, what has surprised you about virtual fitness delivery and consumption while building BurnAlong?
One big surprise is the willingness of people to try something different from home, or get started on their fitness journey. We see with companies, that often people have heard about top local instructors, they’re very curious to try them out, they’ve just never had the time, or confidence, or motivation, to actually take the class. But being able to experience it at home, from the comfort of their own home, makes a big difference.
We see this especially with companies and their employees. Right now, for many, five percent of employees participate in wellness programming. What we’ve found is that it’s not that the other 95 percent of the company isn’t interested. On the contrary, there are just a lot of barriers to attend (e.g. schedule, family commitments, aversion to working out with co-workers in an open setting, etc.). We found that virtual fitness is great for those who do not like exercising in front of others (especially colleagues and/or strangers).
For instance, yoga can be intimidating if you do not understand it. Virtual fitness allows someone who wants to be a little more confident before they subject themselves to other peers seeing them engage in activity [to get some practice]. They can get accustomed to movements, gain familiarity before engaging in the activity in a group setting.
For an instructor, this can be quite eye opening. Big personalities can be intimidating. Virtual fitness allows participants to understand the instructor, the class, they get to know the routines — a relationship is built before having to step in an unfamiliar setting. Through this process, a user can take steps to understand group dynamics before leaning in.
Virtual fitness is a great way to onboard new entrants into fitness who would have been too intimidated to ever get started otherwise.
4) Exergaming is a facet of virtual fitness that has had a lot of press but seemingly always falls flat after the initial hype (i.e. Wii Fit, Pokemon Go, etc.). Why do you think gamification has ultimately not lived up to the hype, and do you see this changing in the future?
Anything can get boring, unless it’s changed up. It’s the same limitation of the old way of delivering virtual fitness — where you’ve only got the same 10 options and the expectation is you are meant to keep going through that same 10 classes over and over again. Most people who buy fitness DVDs don’t buy only one; these folks have got piles of them. They want choice and variety. If there were only 10 books that everyone wanted to read, there wouldn’t be a need for Amazon, right? So too for fitness, there’s not just 10 ways of working out; the rise of boutiques reflects the desire for so many different people to work out in so many different ways.
The appeal of attending fitness classes in person with friends is that while the workout may be similar, the instructor will change things up, and your friends will chat about different things. The conversation is going to be different every week. What virtual fitness can now do is bring that variety to you in your home, with your friends, with fresh content from instructors, when you can’t make it in-person.
5) How do you see fitness evolving over the next five to ten years? How will virtual fitness change the way people currently consume fitness?
What we believe in at BurnAlong, and what our product is based on, is that people increasingly want unique experiences. I think virtual fitness has got the power of bringing fitness to people wherever they are — that specific type of experience that they want whenever and wherever they want it. We believe the virtual compliments the in-person experience, rather than replacing it (which most online companies believe).
The virtual can also bring special classes to places where previously people didn’t have that experience. People talk to friends across the country and all over the world about their favorite instructors; now those friends can experience those classes with that friend. Geography no longer needs to be a limitation.
In five years, I might wake up planning to attend my favorite cardio class at eight o’clock in the morning, but I wake up and Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home or another connected device will say to me, “Daniel, your noon meeting has just been moved, and you do not have time to physically attend your eight o’clock class. However, I’ve notified your instructor that you’re going to be joining online rather than in person.”
My co-worker Harry who takes the class with me is in London for work, and will be taking the same class virtually since it is his favorite, too. We choose to take the class live together. I log in at eight o’clock, wave to Harry and the instructor, who sees me and says, “Thanks for joining Daniel. Sorry you couldn’t come in person. You know I see your heart rate is already at 140, good run earlier … Daniel, you are already ready to go!”
It’s an experience where, just because you cannot do something in person, you are no longer limited. The virtual world bridges that divide, makes people more efficient, and allows them to use their time more effectively without sacrificing quality. This will only continue to improve in the years ahead
You should never be in a situation where just because you are traveling this week, or just because you can’t get a babysitter, or just because you had to work late … you can’t get the type of fitness experience and expert guidance you value and deserve.