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Workouts with friends: Owings Mills start-up brings social interaction to home fitness

The BurnAlong concept: Work out with an instructor and friends, but from home -- or wherever.

Three times a week, Paulette Goodwin traveled 45 minutes from her Edgewood home to Garrison Forest School's athletic center for a fitness class with instructor Monte Sanders. In just four weeks, she had lost 41/2 inches from her waist, and she wished she could work out with Sanders even more often.

In October, Goodwin, 49, found a way to do that within her own home. She worked out to online fitness videos produced by Sanders, all while livestreaming her workout with friends and family in other states. She was one of the first to try BurnAlong, an online fitness platform from an Owings Mills-based startup.

"I can see them. They can see me, and you get to challenge yourself," said Goodwin, who has lost about 30 pounds since she started training with Sanders in May. "You also get to see your form. ... You get to see everything."

Since BurnAlong opened to the public in November, it has offered around 200 on-demand, videotaped fitness classes from celebrity trainers, instructors and close to 40 gyms across the country. Regional gyms and studios, including M-Power Yoga in Canton and Prana Studio in Annapolis, have signed on to contribute videos to the platform, and major companies, including the Baltimore Ravens, have subscribed their employees.

BurnAlong is not the first to stream fitness videos; major players online like Daily Burn and Beachbody have been doing it for years. Virtual cycling platform Peloton even livestreams classes and displays a performance-based ranking of users. But, according to BurnAlong's founders, those competitors lack an important element that keeps people coming back and working out harder: social interaction.

"Workout videos are inspiring for the first two to three weeks, but then it gets repetitive," said BurnAlong co-founder and co-CEO Daniel Freedman, 34.

"No one's watching whether you're doing doing all 10 lunges, so you're just doing eight lunges. It's just not motivating."

Social accountability became key as Freedman and BurnAlong co-founder and co-CEO Michael Kott created the fitness platform. They were inspired by the challenges of fitting workouts into their schedules, challenges they found were faced by other Americans, according to a survey they conducted of 500 people.

According to the 2015 National Health Interview Survey — run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics — only 20.9 percent of adults met federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. And while nearly one in five Americans belonged to a health club or gym in 2015, a report by the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association showed some members quit because of a lack of convenience, infrequent use or the discovery of an appealing alternative. Almost half thought it was too expensive to keep training in health clubs.

But group exercise was shown to be a vital experience for gym-goers, with more than 43 percent of health club members participating, according to the association.

BurnAlong taps into that audience, adding a layer of convenience.

"Life just kind of gets in the way of working out as regularly as you would like to in person, and so naturally, with technology advancing the way it is, people look for opportunities to still work out from home," said Kott, 39. "But people don't have a way of maintaining that connection with that instructor who they're motivated by and who they trust when they go home. ... We bridge that gap."

BurnAlong videos can be streamed through an internet browser, or through its iPhone or iPad app. (An Android app is coming soon, Freedman said.) After choosing from a catalog of dozens of classes, including yoga, barre and boot camps, users can invite up to three people to join them, each displayed on the screen along with the instructor, or they can opt to work out alone, using the thumbnail video available in the corner of the screen to monitor their form.

Starting later this spring, instructors will have the ability to go live, adding scheduled classes to the mix, Freedman said. Users can also compete in challenges with friends or work as a team to complete a goal.

Tim Herzog, a licensed counselor and mental performance coach in Annapolis, said that having others around during a workout may be motivating.

"One of the oldest classic experiments in sports is the social facilitation effect, and the idea is that if you're on a bike or running, you tend to go faster if there's other people around," Herzog said.

The concept of allowing users to invite others to workouts in real time is a novel idea, according to Julie Sylvester, a producer of the annual Sports and FitnessTech Summit, but she's not convinced that peer pressure and competition is the future of home fitness technology. She's noticed a trend toward giving users the ability to log and share.

"It's a matter of being able to have somebody bear witness. And I think that's true across all platforms, not just in fitness. That's why people take pictures of their food" and share them on social media, she said.

Chrissa Carlson of Hampden said BurnAlong has helped her get back on track with working out after having a baby last year.

"When it's 7:30 in the evening or after the baby goes to bed, it's a hard time for me to get out of the door," Carlson, 38, said.

But after receiving a friend's invitation to join BurnAlong last fall, Carlson found workouts that fit into her and her friends' schedules, which helped with accountability.

"It's kind of funny. When I take a break, I look to see if my friends are taking a break or not," she said.

Freedman and Kott, both of the Pikesville area, declined to release BurnAlong membership numbers, but their industry is growing, according to purchase intelligence platform Cardlytics. The company, which tracks credit, debit and electronic transactions, saw payments to on-demand fitness services increase from 4.8 percent of total spending on workouts in 2014 to 7.7 percent in 2016, while spending on traditional gyms decreased from around 78 percent to roughly 73 percent.

BurnAlong and other streaming services typically cost less than the average gym membership, which ran $54 a month in 2015. BurnAlong users, by comparison, pay $120 for a year, $14.99 per month or $4.99 per class, after a one-month free trial.

Even so, the BurnAlong founders don't see their platform as a replacement for going to the gym.

"One of the important things that distinguishes us is we believe the online [aspect] complements the in-person experience," Kott said.

Gyms that partner with BurnAlong can contribute videos at no cost, receiving exposure and a revenue share, Freedman said.

"If they are a member of a gym, it's a powerful way of strengthening that relationship, bringing in friends and introducing them to your favorite instructor, too," Freedman said.

Kathleen Schuman, owner of Prana, a yoga studio, joined BurnAlong last summer and filmed videos for the platform in August.

"Schedules at a yoga studio are limited and they don't always agree with everyone. … That is where BurnAlong and any other online service comes in," said Schuman, adding that the variety of classes offered is also key. She hasn't seen any additional customers yet, but she's confident that interest will grow as potential customers realize that they can practice with friends and as livestreaming with instructors begins, she said.

Goodwin's favorite instructor, Sanders, 49, who has trained Ravens players, said the platform has benefited him.

"I have a lot of clients where life just got in the way, and they can't make it to 5:30 a.m. classes, so they do BurnAlong five times a week," he said.

The fitness instructor has had BurnAlong subscribers from throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania come to his classes during the week. But more than anything, the platform has brought on a level of accountability with his clients.

"You need that accountability. It's hard to do anything great by yourself," Sanders said.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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BurnAlong

New users can sign up for a free one-month trial. To pay as you go, it's $4.99 per class and $14.99 month-to-month. A one-year membership is $120. The program is accessible online and through the BurnAlong app, available on iTunes. Visit burnalong.com.

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