Immersive fitness takes the humble workout to a new level

Studio hopes 270-degree wraparound screen will engage the "Millennial" generation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 11:53am

The road just ahead seemed impossibly steep, rising straight up over a monstrous glacier set against a dark sky. Loud thumping music drowned out the panting of our peloton of about 40 sweaty riders, whose gazes were fixed on the challenge in front of us.

Our legs were already screaming to stop, having taken us on an interstellar traverse, down the streets of a futuristic city and racing loops round a digital velodrome.

Up, up, up we climbed, standing on our bikes and stomping down on the pedals in a slow steady rhythm. Cresting the hill, we sat back down, legs now spinning quickly as we tucked low and sped down the road.

Watch: How to get completely immersed in your gym routine 

Suddenly the sky changed to a brilliant orange hue, lit by the setting sun ahead. We ride just above the sea alongside geese. Pedal strokes are now relaxed and breathing is easy with the finish of our 35-minute journey in sight.

“It’s fantastic,” says Colin Grant, CEO of The Pure Group, after The Trip, as Pure Fitness’ new spinning class is called. “I’m not into spinning – or at least I wasn’t – but I’ve done seven classes in my life, six of them in the past week.”

Grant’s revived interest in riding a stationary bicycle has come from the new Immersive Fitness studio that houses these bikes. On the 14th floor of California Tower in the heart of Lan Kwai Fong is the purpose-built studio with five projectors that deliver three-dimensional visuals on a 270-degree screen. It’s a bit like Omnimax, but with bicycles instead of theatre seats.

Pure’s is the world’s first 270-degree Immersive Fitness studio. One gym each in Los Angeles, London and Paris also have an Immersive studio, but a scaled down, 180-degree version with only three projectors.

Immersive Fitness is the “future of fitness”, according to its creators Les Mills, a global fitness giant from New Zealand that’s been designing group exercise programmes since the 1980s. “Basically [with Immersive Fitness] what you do is play with the body’s senses and take people to different worlds and spaces, and you really get people totally engrossed and involved in the experience,” says Vaughan Schwass, CEO of Les Mills Enterprises.

Immersive Fitness is a way of attracting younger people to try and get fit in a new and exciting way. They’re used to screens and technology, so all we’re doing is taking screens and technology into the fitness space
Vaughan Schwass, CEO Les Mills Enterprises

The roots of Immersive Fitness were sown in 2009, when Les Mills commissioned Nielsen Research to study the past, present and future of group fitness. One thing they discovered was that young people, also known as the Millennial generation, find the gym quite boring. “Immersive Fitness is a way of attracting younger people to try and get fit in a new and exciting way. They’re used to screens and technology, so all we’re doing is taking screens and technology into the fitness space,” says Schwass.

Les Mills Jnr (grandson of the company’s namesake) and fellow programme director Adam Lazarus researched and developed the project over a 12-month period, inspired by immersive tents at music festivals and the video innovation at music concerts. One particular concert was Beyoncé’s guest performance at the United Nations’ General Assembly hall for World Humanitarian Day in 2012. The walls of the hall were turned into a canvas that transported the audience to far-off lands where humanitarian efforts take place, like sprawling desert landscapes, earthquake ravaged cities, and flood-lands.

“It was the most amazing experience, and that let us to think: why can’t we do that in a fitness club? Why couldn’t every bland, boring fitness studio suddenly become this amazing environment?” says Schwass.

Not limited to spinning, Les Mills also has Immersive Fitness versions of their other group exercises classes like BodyCombat (a martial-arts inspired class where you become a video game character fighting space invaders), Grit (high-intensity interval training where the goal is to avoid flying objects on the screen), BodyJam (a dance class with choreography synchronised to music and graphics) and BodyBalance (yoga poses against real natural scenery).