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A Little Bit Fit

Is this the future of fitness?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

A s I stood in a laundry room behind a curtain, a woman I had met only a few minutes prior handed me a pair of black, stretchy undergarments. They looked clean, but worn thin. “Wear these,” she said. “Nothing else.” I tried to push hygiene issues out of my mind, though I asked if I could still wear my sports bra. I could not wear my sports bra.

When I had finished changing clothes, the woman instructed me to stand on a mat in the center of the windowless room. She spread my arms and legs, Vitruvian Man–style, spraying my clothing down as a washing machine rumbled, full of the communal undies soiled by the people who had come before me.

I wasn’t about to be inculcated into a fringe religion — not really. The woman was a trainer, not a cult leader, and I was pulling on the rental longjohns to learn about another world with ardent, ritual-loving adherents: the realm of high-tech workout classes.

Athletes have used training gadgets like portable GPS and heart rate monitors for years, and wearable fitness trackers are David Sedaris–writing-about-Fitbits-in-The New Yorker-level mainstream. More recently, though, boutique fitness studios and high-end gyms figured out that mixing technology into trainer-led workouts attracts customers bored with SoulCycle or obsessed with efficiency. Working out is rote and hard, but disrupting workouts — that’s fun. That’s the moneymaker.

But is it anything more than a gimmick?

Lesson 1: Canadians are insane.

I had joined the Sisterhood of the Traveling Wet Undies so I could get into a specialized workout vest that would zap my muscles into swoleness at Body InVest™, a boutique training center in Toronto. (Yes, the name is a pun.) It was the first stop on my cobbled-together tour of any new-ish fitness class I could find that promised to use technology to make people less flabby.

You wear a special vest during your workout session, although it looks more like a jumpsuit, maybe something you’d wear skydiving. The vest is the high-tech part: It’s an Electronic Muscular Stimulation (EMS) training vest, designed to “mimic impulses from the nervous system” to contract muscles.

The workout was brief — just 20 minutes — but my legs burned while I was waiting in line at Customs. I had to go to Canada to try what Body InVest sells, because it is not legal in the U.S. (Oh, you thought Canada was not into avant-garde, risky fitness tech? Rude and untrue.) While physiotherapists use EMS machines for rehabilitation and recovery, the FDA hasn’t approved the machines for recreational fitness purposes.

The Body InVest suit is like an updated version of a Relax-A-Cizor, or those ab belts peddled in infomercials; the idea is that the gear does some of the working out for you. “Minimal time, maximum results” is one of its mottos. The whole water-spraying encounter was necessary to conduct the electricity between the vest and my bod. (You cannot use this technology if you have a pacemaker.) The vest hooks up to a standalone base machine that sends electronic pulses to its electrodes; the trainer can control how intense the pulses are by adjusting the settings on the machine. There are two brands of base machine/vest combo, the Loncego and the Xbody, both manufactured in Europe.

The bodysuit is so heavy I felt like I was swaddled in a wearable Temple Grandin hug machine. I lumbered around in it like a drunk bear, especially after my trainer hooked the suit up to my new outfit. She fiddled with the settings to adjust how much stimulation would hit each area of my body, asking me if I could feel the vibrations on my legs, arms, abs, back, glutes. I could. Very much so.

Of course, just because I could feel the vibrations didn’t necessarily mean I was truly getting the most efficient workout of all time. I asked John Porcari, the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse’s Clinical Exercise Physiology program director, what he thought of Body InVest. He hadn’t studied the particular machines it offered, but he has conducted many studies about the efficacy of EMS fitness training, with a focus on ab belts. “The problem with the ab belts, when you put it on and feel a buzzing or stimulation, you feel like something’s working, but you’re not getting a strong muscle contraction,” he said. “It’s a tactile sensation, so you feel like something’s happening, but in order to get stronger, your muscles have to contract, and contract vigorously.” This isn’t necessarily damning, but there’s room for skepticism.

The trainer led me through a series of simple movements — lunges, squats — made substantially harder because of the heaviness of the jumpsuit and because it felt like I was getting tickled by wee robots. I thought about how Bruce Lee supposedly used EMS training and then he died and maybe the two were connected and maybe I was going to die. I started nervous-laughing. The trainer gave me a pitying look. “It’s normal for the pelvic walls to be stimulated,” she said. I spent the rest of the class trying to arrange my face to express that I wasn’t horny for electric pulses.

Lesson 2: Shame is a powerful motivator.

I didn’t have to go to Canada to try Orangetheory, a workout class that uses wearable heart rate monitors to encourage you — or shame you, depending on your temperament — into working hard. It’s a global franchised chain, and I went to the one directly across from The Ringer’s Brooklyn Heights office space.

Orangetheory is the sort of sleek-sterile, EDM-blaring boutique fitness chain I normally feel deeply uncomfortable in, like I’ve tricked someone into thinking it’s OK for me to be there. It also doubles as an extremely niche purveyor of orange athletic gear.

Before the class started, the instructor gave me a crash course in Orangetheory 101: The heart rate monitor (strapped tight across the rib cage) tracks how frequently bodies go into the “Orange” zone, which is 84 percent or more of your maximum heart rate (heart rate is calculated by age and gender). The “theory” is that, if you work out in the “Orange” zone, you will zap hella calories by putting your body into something called EPOC, which stands for “Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption.”

Every Orangetheory class is slightly different, to ensure the muscles never get used to the workout, but I think the theme of mine was “Terror Cardio.”

It was an interval-style, hour-long session, hopping between treadmills, rowing machines, and floor weights. Our heart rates were displayed on several large screens to ensure that everybody knew when anybody else was slacking. The wall in front of the treadmills was mirrored, which meant I had to choose between staring at my own red, huffing figure or keeping my eyes on the heart rate screen. I chose the latter, and tried to ignore the Lindsey Vonn–looking woman next to me who may have been born without sweat glands.

Did it work? There’s reason to believe the heart rate monitoring from Orangetheory’s proprietary wearables may not be a great guidepost. I asked Porcari what he thought about the program, and he cautioned that heart rate maximum averages are rarely accurate. “If they’re predicting maximal heart rate, there’s absolutely no way that can be accurate,” he said. “If I were to measure a thousand 30-year-olds walking down the street and take the average heart rate, it’s 190. If I pick one person off the street and try to say what their maximum heart rate is, it can be anywhere between 170 and 210.”

And that deviation is the problem. “When you use that as a basis for exercise prescription and say ‘I want you to get a certain percentage of your predicted max heart rate’ some people are going to be very under-exercised,” Porcari said. “And some people, if they have a very low maximal heart rate just because that’s who they are, they’re going to be working their tail off and never get that 84 percent or whatever range you’re going for.”

“So unless you’re going to actually measure someone’s maximum heart rate with a maximal exercise test, the heart rate things fall apart,” Porcari said.

What’s more, the idea that you can continue torching calories after the workout is complete is wobbly. “If you want to burn more calories, you’re better off doing an extra two to five minutes more of exercise and going back to your desk at work, than thinking you were going to burn all these extra calories because you were in the ‘orange zone’ for 12 minutes,” Porcari said.

Even though Orangetheory’s fitness theory has major holes, it definitely tricked me into putting extra effort in: I hauled ass when I would’ve otherwise half-assed things. The instructor never pressured me to run; in fact, there is an option for fast-walking on the treadmill, so the class feels more inclusive. But let’s be real: The giant stats display is obviously meant to stoke competitiveness. I had to defeat my classmates. I attempted to channel G.I. Jane–era Demi Moore, although the reality was more like when D.J. Tanner “overdoes it” at the gym in the one Full House episode where she crash-diets.

I will probably go back — what it might have lacked in scientific backing, Orangetheory made up for in making me very sore the next day.

Lesson 3: Spinning still sucks with a screen.

I also tried IMAXShift, a new spinning studio in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood that opened this spring. It’s in a converted IMAX movie theater, a cavernous space with a single classroom full of spanking-new spin bikes arranged around the enormous screen. I cannot recommend IMAXShift enough for people whose dream it is to do a standard boutique spinning class in front of an enormous Microsoft screensaver. If that is not your dream, it has no advantage over a regular spin class.

I had high hopes for this fitness/technology combo: I thought that there’d be a narrative, and that the IMAX screen would make me forget that I was pumping my legs in circles really fast. Alas, there was no narrative, just a mixture of abstract screensaver shapes, cityscapes, and nature shots, and I never once forgot that I was being yelled at to tap my butt back by an impressively veiny instructor. I went on the “press day,” which meant I was cycling alongside a bunch of other bloggers and writers, plus a few fitness instructor plants who were very obviously not in the media because they kept earnestly yelling “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

Lesson 4: LED lights aren’t motivating.

M y last foray into fitness tech was at a place called Asphalt Green, which runs the first “AG6™” LED-light assisted circuit training class in the U.S. using what it calls PRAMA technology. AG6™ is named as such because it is supposed to “uncover your athletic sixth sense.”

I assumed Asphalt Green was another trendy fitness boutique — it is located on the Upper East Side, and just like Orangetheory, IMAXShift, and Body InVest, it’s expensive, at $34 for a drop-in class. But it’s a grubby nonprofit facility. When I went to the bathroom before class, the toilet seat had fallen off; to get to the workout room, you have to walk down a series of janky beige hallways. Entering the AG6™ room is jarring, because it looks like a cross between a prefab playground — the foamy kind, not the wood-chip kind — and a dank after-hours club. It appeared that children’s game stations were etched into the floor — a numbered box that looked like a miniature foursquare court, a few ladders, a row of hopscotch circles.

For 45 minutes, we rotated in small groups from station to station, repeating a circuit of exercises with the help of medicine balls. A few of the stations had circles with LED lights, and we incorporated those lights into the workouts — you had to tap your foot against them for mountain climbers (kill me) or jump between them for reverse lunges (murder me). Two journalists and a cameraman from an English-language Chinese television show were filming a segment, so my workout had an additional fitness challenge added in — desperately trying to avoid the camera, and, when that failed, desperately attempting to look elegant while hopscotching.

The LED lights were the only real “tech” element of the workout — and it seemed to me like they barely changed the exercises; they were incorporated into only two of the six “stations.” That said, I was very impressed by how quickly the time passed — maybe it was the playground-esque setting, or how rapidly we changed exercises, but I was too entertained to be horrified by how much I was sweating.

AG6™ comes highly recommended if you would like to do suicides while frantically tapping LED lights and listening to “Panda.”

F or all the hype their high-tech hooks provided, the fitness classes I tried would’ve all been basically the same without the technology they used as a hook. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People regularly abandon their wearable fitness trackers when they get over the novelty. I would’ve been just as happy at Asphalt Green with no LEDs, and just as miserable at IMAXShift with no gigantic screensaver rave — and that’s fine. The classes that make people feel happy and healthier based on how rewarding or enjoyable the movements are will have more longevity than classes that rely heavily on gadgets or flashing lights for their appeal.

All that being said, if there’s a class that somehow uses technology to make burpees feel like rolling around in a bag of Molly-laced down pillows, I’m in.

Stats

MVP: The woman who kept giving me high-fives during AG6™
Times I went to Canada: 1
Times I heard “Backseat Freestyle”: 4
Times I cursed my previous fitness choices: ∞