I recently fired up a new video workout app for the first time and, before the warm-up even finished, the perky American trainer looked straight into my eyes and promised: “We’re gonna be best friends by the end of this workout.”
Cheesy? Yes. Motivating? Oddly… yes. Maybe it was just lockdown isolation getting to me, but it really felt like I’d made a workout buddy.
Humans are social creatures who place tremendous value on other humans. “The number one driver of a person’s wellbeing is social connection and relationships,” says Melbourne-based psychologist Aaron Jarden. He explains that whenever we encounter someone, our brains are busily “prospecting” — weighing up factors like their behaviour and looks — to determine whether we’ll benefit from a connection with them. Prospecting is so deeply hardwired we do it even with humans who aren’t really there.
These one-sided connections were dubbed “parasocial” relationships when they were first described in the 1950s, by social scientists who observed that Americans were forming “intimacy at a distance” with performers from TV, radio and movies (then relatively new forms of mass media). Nowadays we’re also likely to feel like we’re besties with our favourite podcast hosts and social media influencers.
But virtual trainers haven’t always felt like friends. To track the evolution of fitness at a distance, I trawled Youtube for vintage workout videos — think ’80s Jane Fonda and ’90s Aerobics Oz Style — and was struck by how un-intimate and utilitarian they can seem by modern standards. (Sidenote: Google these clips. The retro workout fashions are a treat.)
It’s rapid advances in fitness technology that now make it possible for virtual workouts to lean in hard to parasocial relationships. The instructors streamed onto your screen don’t merely instruct. If you own fancy enough hardware, your trainers can also highlight real-time metrics being recorded by your device, motivate you with commentary about where you rank in a global community of people doing the same workout, and maybe even give you a personalised shoutout. Happily exhausted by your online coach, you can later tag them on social media as a sort of virtual high-five — all without ever leaving your house.
Readers who’ve spent decades sweating in real-life Les Mills classes might not think this sounds like anything new. Which is exactly the point: virtual fitness workouts are leveraging technology to spark the same zealotry that people develop for their in-the-flesh trainers.
“People flock to a class of an instructor that may not be the fittest person in the world, but the one that actually makes you feel that sense of connection and support and tailored motivation,” says Kate Kraschnefski, head of compliance and training at the Australian Institute of Fitness.
Fostering one-sided relationships with virtual trainers doesn’t just benefit users. It’s also savvy business. Take Peloton, the highly lucrative cycling workout that’s just launched in Australia: adherents are willing to fork out thousands for a bike for access to Peloton’s renowned coaches, who’ve become celebrities in their own right. Ask any Peloton devotee what they love about it and they’ll immediately name a favourite instructor, adoration that keeps users paying their subscription fees.
“If you are working out with a favourite instructor a few times a week you really get to know them,” says Peloton’s Australian manager Karen Lawson, explaining that coaches share all kinds of personal details during a ride — from their mum’s mac’n’cheese recipe to their experiences giving birth to twins. “So it’s understandable bonds are created,” Lawson adds.
Apple has similarly justified the cost of its Watch by carefully nurturing parasocial relationships within its workout-on-demand platform, Fitness+. Coaches are encouraged to speak to users in a way that distracts from the fact they’re never in the same room — “join us” in “our team”, for example, or “move your legs” rather than “move those legs”, which is a fine cue for a studio full of people but sounds odd delivered to someone exercising alone in their living room. These details are subtle but powerful, elevating the Watch over rival wearables.
“People flock to a class of an instructor that may not be the fittest person in the world, but the one that actually makes you feel that sense of connection and support and tailored motivation.”
Kate Kraschnefski, Australian Institute of Fitness
“It’s no surprise to me… how [these platforms] use language like ‘us’ to feel like you’re one of them. That’s all really intentional,” says Jarden, an associate professor at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Wellbeing Science. “All of this is what marketers know when they’re creating these virtual personas. It doesn’t just happen.”
Some of my (real-life) friends looked at me a little strangely when I revealed that my brain has started categorising my online coaches as pals. Thankfully, Jarden reassures me there’s nothing inherently weird about one-sided relationships.
“If people only had these types of relationships, so no real-world human connections, then I’d predict that would probably be fundamentally bad,” says Jarden (who adds that he’s forging a connection with the “soothing voice” on his mediation app.) “But having a few of them, I don’t see anything wrong with that, and I think the [scientific] literature suggests that they’re good for us.”
As fitness tech accelerates into fields like virtual and augmented reality, I’d expect these parasocial coach relationships to become even deeper. Perhaps our coaches of the future will be entirely simulated — scanning our metrics and body language to deliver motivation perfectly tailored to our moods and workout goals. Who wouldn’t want to be besties with someone like that?
[ILLUSTRATION BY DIONNE GAIN]