Innovation

Work (Out) From Home: How Pandemic-Era Fitness is Shaping Our Future

Pro trainers and everyday athletes get real about the hacks, workarounds, breakdowns and breakthroughs that are making us stronger.

Last updated: May 10, 2021
Tips for Working Out at Home

“We’re All Innovators” is a series about the challenges athletes are facing – and overcoming through innovative thinking.

“Other plans were meant to happen,” Joelle D’Fontaine says. “But then ’rona came and said, ‘not today, b*tch.’”

Up until 2020, D’Fontaine, a Nike trainer and choreographer, spent years traveling between his dance fitness studios in London and Brooklyn. But when COVID-19 hit, he was suddenly stuck at home, away from his business, his clients — and his workout space. So, like billions around the world, he took a break. (“I watched every anime under the sun. The sh*t ones as well.”) Then he got creative.

“I was not going to be doing this half-assed — I’ve got lightbars, a mirrored wall, even a smoke machine,” says D’Fontaine of the living room turned dance floor in his London flat, where he’s started streaming virtual classes for a global student body. “Everyone else’s classes look cute…but they don’t look this cute.”

Pandemic fitness tip: CREATE A VIBE. Choreographer and fitness instructor Joelle D’Fontaine customized his London flat with a smoke machine and disco lights to make Zoom classes more fun for his dance students. (Videos: @joelledfontaine)

D’Fontaine’s quarantine upgrade exemplifies what we’ve all been going through: The pandemic has upended life in countless ways, including our workout routines. But the lack of gym equipment, workout spaces, and — let’s admit it — motivation hasn’t stopped us in our tracks. Instead, it’s allowed us to pause, reflect and rethink how, where and why we move.

From self-proclaimed couch potatoes taking their first run to athletes with disabilities discovering what a truly inclusive gym could look like, this is a shift in the status quo that’s been long overdue.

But it hasn’t always been pretty.

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Bronx, NY, Sept 2020. Trainer Anwar Carroll connects with one of his students, Miranda Martell, for a virtual training session. To counteract equipment shortages, Carroll has hacked innovative solutions using household items, like glued-together soup cans, weighted duffel bags and PVC pipe filled with concrete.

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Bronx, NY, Sept 2020. Trainer Anwar Carroll connects with one of his students, Miranda Martell, for a virtual training session. To counteract equipment shortages, Carroll has hacked innovative solutions using household items, like glued-together soup cans, weighted duffel bags and PVC pipe filled with concrete.

Getting Scrappy: When Equipment Sells Out, Athletes Lean In

As the Great Toilet Paper Hysteria of 2020 raged on in supermarkets around the globe, another kind of shortage was hitting the fitness world.

“Dumbbells were going for hundreds of dollars. You couldn’t get your hands on any piece of equipment,” recalls Jennifer Lau, a Nike Master Trainer based in Toronto. “I would get caught carrying dumbbells to my car, and three different people would stop me and be like, ‘Where did you get those?!’”

When gyms closed their doors, demand for equipment suddenly skyrocketed as people scrambled to get their home workouts sorted. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention — and people got really, really inventive. Whether bench pressing vacuum cleaners or fashioning makeshift weights out of concrete and PVC pipe, innovative thinkers everywhere proved just how far they would go for a good workout.

“We had clients filling luggage with a ton of stuff to use it for deadlifts or bear-hugging it for squats,” Lau remembers. Some even grabbed household cleaners in place of kettlebells, pushing the boundaries of Lau’s remote coaching skills. “I don’t know how to coach a clean with a bottle of bleach,” she laughs.

Experimenting with Equipment

As the Great Toilet Paper Hysteria of 2020 raged on in supermarkets around the globe, another kind of shortage was hitting the fitness world.

“Dumbbells were going for hundreds of dollars. You couldn’t get your hands on any piece of equipment,” recalls Jennifer Lau, a Nike Master Trainer based in Toronto. “I would get caught carrying dumbbells to my car, and three different people would stop me and be like, ‘Where did you get those?!’”

When gyms closed their doors, demand for equipment suddenly skyrocketed as people scrambled to get their home workouts sorted. But as they say, necessity is the mother of invention — and people got really, really inventive. Whether bench pressing vacuum cleaners or fashioning makeshift weights out of concrete and PVC pipe, innovative thinkers everywhere proved just how far they would go for a good workout.

“We had clients filling luggage with a ton of stuff to use it for deadlifts or bear-hugging it for squats,” Lau remembers. Some even grabbed household cleaners in place of kettlebells, pushing the boundaries of Lau’s remote coaching skills. “I don’t know how to coach a clean with a bottle of bleach,” she laughs.

Pandemic fitness tips: RESPECT THE ROAD. Nike’s Chris “Coach” Bennett advises everyone to act like the least important person on the run. That includes masking up and stepping aside for others. HOLD THAT POSE. Jennifer Lau has been exploring time-under-tension techniques to maximize bodyweight workouts, leaving her pleasantly surprised at how sore she is the next day. (Videos: @coachbennett and @itsjenniferlau)

While some were bootstrapping their own workout gear, others turned to the ultimate low-equipment sport: running.

“The cool thing about running is it’s a pair of shoes, and you can get out there,” says Kiran Kripakaran, digital product director for the Nike Run Club app. He’s noticed a running boom since the pandemic hit, with NRC’s weekly active users nearly doubling year over year. “It’s just a natural instinct to run when you’re presented with these crazy crises,” he speculates. “You want to flee. You want to move.”

According to Chris “Coach” Bennett, Nike’s senior director of running guidance, there’s one more piece of equipment you should never run without these days: a face mask. “Act like you’re the least important person on the trail, track or road, and you’re going to have a good run,” he says.

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Brooklyn, NY, Sept 2020. Shannon Green and her kids, ages 9 and 12, live-stream a remote training session with Carroll. They’ve been joining her workouts (sometimes) since the onset of COVID-19. A wall in their living room is papered with handwritten workout routines accumulated over the months.

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Brooklyn, NY, Sept 2020. Shannon Green and her kids, ages 9 and 12, live-stream a remote training session with Carroll. They’ve been joining her workouts (sometimes) since the onset of COVID-19. A wall in their living room is papered with handwritten workout routines accumulated over the months.

Beyond the Gym: Finding New Spaces to Move

Though running is having a major moment, not everyone has the option to hit the streets. For some, our worlds have shrunk to a few hundred square feet.

“The biggest challenge has been making space for fitness in the apartment,” says Shannon Green, an attorney and mom based in New York City. Prior to lockdown, she hit the gym up to six times a week for group classes with her “6 a.m. crew.” But self-isolating at home with her kids and husband, sticking with regular workouts has been tough. “Our living area is open plan, so the floor is usually covered with books, toys or children,” she says. “Home fitness can get in the way of other family members trying to get something done.”

But even being sardined into the same space for work, working out and everything else has not been enough to stop athletes everywhere from moving.

“No matter how much space you have, people figure out a way to run, jog, walk, climb stairs,” Kripakaran says. Trainers say clients have propped up couches and cleared out storage spaces to fit in their fitness routine. There were even reports of a man in Hangzhou, China, who completed an entire marathon by running circles around his furniture.

For those who weren’t finding what they needed in traditional workout spaces even before the pandemic, this time at home has provided a new, positive opportunity to exercise on their own terms.

“I’ve found myself becoming a lot stronger than [I was at] every other gym I’ve ever been in,” says adaptive athlete Wesley Hamilton, who recently converted the garage of his Kansas City home into his ultimate custom gym. At public gyms, he was often stared at while lifting weights in his wheelchair and felt inhibited by equipment that wasn’t ADA accessible.

New Spaces to Move

Though running is having a major moment, not everyone has the option to hit the streets. For some, our worlds have shrunk to a few hundred square feet.

“The biggest challenge has been making space for fitness in the apartment,” says Shannon Green, an attorney and mom based in New York City. Prior to lockdown, she hit the gym up to six times a week for group classes with her “6 a.m. crew.” But self-isolating at home with her kids and husband, sticking with regular workouts has been tough. “Our living area is open plan, so the floor is usually covered with books, toys or children,” she says. “Home fitness can get in the way of other family members trying to get something done.”

But even being sardined into the same space for work, working out and everything else has not been enough to stop athletes everywhere from moving.

“No matter how much space you have, people figure out a way to run, jog, walk, climb stairs,” Kripakaran says. Trainers say clients have propped up couches and cleared out storage spaces to fit in their fitness routine. There were even reports of a man in Hangzhou, China, who completed an entire marathon by running circles around his furniture.

For those who weren’t finding what they needed in traditional workout spaces even before the pandemic, this time at home has provided a new, positive opportunity to exercise on their own terms.

“I’ve found myself becoming a lot stronger than [I was at] every other gym I’ve ever been in,” says adaptive athlete Wesley Hamilton, who recently converted the garage of his Kansas City home into his ultimate custom gym. At public gyms, he was often stared at while lifting weights in his wheelchair and felt inhibited by equipment that wasn’t ADA accessible.

Pandemic fitness tips: BRING THE MOUNTAIN TO YOU. Disconnected from their sport of choice because of park closures, members of Jackelyn Ho’s climbing community built rock walls at home. MAKE IT YOUR OWN. More at ease in his kitted-out garage than he was at public gyms, Wesley Hamilton is lifting more weight than ever. (Videos: @jackelynho and @iamweshamilton)

In his own space, those limitations are gone, and Hamilton’s now benching 275 pounds when he used to stop at 200. “I didn’t get stronger for nothing,” he says. “I got stronger because I became comfortable.”

Besides kitting out their physical spaces, athletes are exploring new territory in digital spaces as well.

“What’s happening now is what we should’ve been doing anyway — offering our services to the entire world,” says D’Fontaine, whose dance fitness classes are now reaching well beyond his Brooklyn and London studios. Noting the challenge of teaching dance to a virtual classroom full of muted video screens, he says there is room to improve digital platforms. “We need tools that can amplify the experience to make it more fun and extra. But I’m just drama like that.”

As some gyms start reopening, another wave of creative and inclusive uses of space is emerging — with proper precautions. Lau’s gym in Toronto, for example, started offering classes that welcome both in-person and virtual attendees to keep IRL groups small. Personal sessions are held in taped-off “pods” to ensure physical distancing.

Hamilton has opened up his garage gym to other adaptive athletes — while also building out a mobile gym in a trailer that he can bring to local parks (with plenty of sanitizing gear in tow). “I’m training five people with disabilities right now,” he says. “It’s the most empowering thing in my life to hear how this space has opened up their eyes…Now they have somewhere they’re comfortable too.”

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Brooklyn, NY, Sept 2020. Carroll leads a physically distanced training session at the handball courts at Stroud Playground. Face coverings, makeshift weights and an electrostatic sprayer for disinfecting equipment are all signs of the times. Students who prefer to join from home can dial in digitally.

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Brooklyn, NY, Sept 2020. Carroll leads a physically distanced training session at the handball courts at Stroud Playground. Face coverings, makeshift weights and an electrostatic sprayer for disinfecting equipment are all signs of the times. Students who prefer to join from home can dial in digitally.

Moving Through It: How We’re Staying Motivated

For every athlete who’s finding a way to thrive, there’s another who’s struggling to stay on their game. Whether you’re a working parent, an overwhelmed student or one of the millions who were laid off because of shuttered businesses, prioritizing your workout can be a challenge. But it may be more important now than ever.

“You hear it a lot: Put your own oxygen mask on first,” says Katie Ruoff, digital product director for the Nike Training Club app. Before you can be there for anyone else, you have to take care of yourself.

That self-care can take many forms. When the pandemic first hit, Ruoff and her team thought NTC users would flock to yoga as a way to find calm in the chaos — instead, the data shows a spike in high-intensity workouts. “People are stressed,” Ruoff says. “They want to sweat.”

It’s also OK to start small. Dance instructor D’Fontaine, for one, says he sometimes does a few glute bridges while playing video games and considers that a win. “You have to be OK with the level of what you’re doing being enough, and not feeling like we all have to be Serena Williams,” he says.

Green, the NYC mom of two, has similar advice for fellow parents: Do what you can, when you can. “Sometimes 7 minutes is what your schedule or your stamina allows, and sometimes you have to call it a day halfway through a workout,” she says. “Those are fitness successes too!”

How We’re Staying Motivated

For every athlete who’s finding a way to thrive, there’s another who’s struggling to stay on their game. Whether you’re a working parent, an overwhelmed student or one of the millions who were laid off because of shuttered businesses, prioritizing your workout can be a challenge. But it may be more important now than ever.

“You hear it a lot: Put your own oxygen mask on first,” says Katie Ruoff, digital product director for the Nike Training Club app. Before you can be there for anyone else, you have to take care of yourself.

That self-care can take many forms. When the pandemic first hit, Ruoff and her team thought NTC users would flock to yoga as a way to find calm in the chaos — instead, the data shows a spike in high-intensity workouts. “People are stressed,” Ruoff says. “They want to sweat.”

It’s also OK to start small. Dance instructor D’Fontaine, for one, says he sometimes does a few glute bridges while playing video games and considers that a win. “You have to be OK with the level of what you’re doing being enough, and not feeling like we all have to be Serena Williams,” he says.

Green, the NYC mom of two, has similar advice for fellow parents: Do what you can, when you can. “Sometimes 7 minutes is what your schedule or your stamina allows, and sometimes you have to call it a day halfway through a workout,” she says. “Those are fitness successes too!”

Pandemic fitness tip: KNOW WHEN TO RELAX — AND WHEN TO BLOW OFF STEAM. Ale Llosa’s signature training program combines equal parts yoga and martial arts. (Videos: @alellosako)

Staying motivated is also about staying connected to your people — even if it’s not in person.

“People enjoy suffering together,” jokes Ruoff, who works out with her coworkers three times a week via Zoom. “That’s a huge part of community."

If you don’t already have workout buddies, never underestimate the power of social media. “I start every single morning celebrating with 100 different people about what they accomplished,” Coach Bennett says of his daily shoutout sessions, where he amplifies post-run stories from fellow runners around the world. “I leave so inspired and motivated for the rest of my day.”

Bennett believes working out has a ripple effect. So next time you’re waffling on whether to get in a workout, remember it has the power to uplift not just you — but those around you too.

“People going for runs is a net positive — always,” Bennett says. “When somebody finishes a run, they’re less likely to give you the finger on the highway. They’re more likely to give up their seat on the subway. You multiply that by a couple million people, and the world is a better place to wake up in the next day.”

The Future of Fitness

In the face of a global pandemic, it’s no surprise that we’re all taking a step back to reflect, reset and reprioritize our health. This shift will ultimately leave us stronger and smarter — and will transform sport for the better, as long as we carry it forward for ourselves and future generations.

“My kids are learning that fitness can take many forms,” says Green. “Sometimes it’s a dance party or jumping on furniture or giving a piggyback ride.”

Athletes are also taking this moment to make sure every body has a place in sport. As Nike trainer D’Fontaine says, the situation is calling on us to step up and make real change.

“Real means doing real things for real people, in real time,” he says. “It’s diversifying fitness across the board — money, class, sexuality, color, religion — everything.”

Despite daunting challenges, we’re seeing that mindset start to take hold — thanks to the ingenuity, grit and resilience of athletes at all levels. Because in the end, it’s not about the obstacles. It’s about rising above them together. Hamilton in Kansas City says it best: “If you’re about it — you create it.”

Words: Emily Jensen and Zito Madu
Photography: Courtney Sofiah Yates

Reported: October 2020

Tips for Working Out at Home

Access hundreds of free, trainer-led workouts you can do anywhere with Nike Training Club.

Tips for Working Out at Home

Go for an audio-guided run outside or on the treadmill with Nike Run Club.

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