Exercise equipment with built-in smart technology is becoming the norm, but which, if any, are really worth the investment?

By Kelsey Ogletree
Photo: Mirror

When Bailey and Mike Kirwan relocated from New York to Atlanta last year, they realized they'd taken for granted the immense range of boutique fitness studios in the Big Apple. "It was something we really missed," says Bailey.

With an 18-month-old baby and less time than they'd previously had for the gym, the couple started looking for at-home options that would give them the same type of workouts they'd loved at studios like Physique 57 in New York. When they came across Mirror, they decided to invest the $1,495 (plus $39 every month for the content subscription) to give it a try.

"It was overwhelming at first, but we haven't looked back," says Bailey. "You don't really need equipment for it; aesthetically, it looks nice; the classes are appealing to both of us; and I don't think you can get that much variety anywhere else."

The Best "Smart" At-Home Fitness Equipment

Debuted last fall, Mirror looks like a giant iPhone you hang on the wall. Though the device, you can participate in 50 new workouts each week—think cardio, strength, Pilates, barre, boxing—streamed from Mirror's production studio in New York, either live or on-demand. The experience is akin to that of an in-person class, without the hassle of commuting or being held to a strict time commitment.

Mirror is among the latest wave of "smart" at-home fitness equipment to hit the market in the ultra-competitive world of fitness technology. Peloton kicked off the movement in 2014 when it began selling indoor cycling bikes allowing riders to take live classes at home; now its most basic package retails for $2,245, and the company reportedly has more than 1 million users. The Peloton Tread, which debuted at CES a year ago, is a treadmill that features up to 10 daily live classes and thousands on demand—for a cool $4,295.

There's also Hydrow, a virtual reality rower that simulates the experience of rowing outdoors, which starts at $2,199 and will begin shipping this spring. A smart weight-lifting system called Tonal, launched last summer, offers a digital strength training system and accompanying video workouts for $2,995 plus the cost of a monthly subscription.

This trend in high-tech home fitness equipment makes perfect sense from a company point of view when you consider that the global home gym market is expected to reach nearly $4.3 billion by 2021. Experts attribute this to the rise in preventative health care and growing awareness about lifestyle-related diseases, leading more people to take action to get in shape now, rather than waiting until health problems occur.

"At the end of the day, any activity is good activity," says Courtney Aronson, fitness instructor at Studio 3, which offers yoga, HIIT and cycling classes under one roof in Chicago. "There's no downside to a technology that will make people less sedentary."

The Pros of "Smart" Fitness Equipment

But do you really need to drop a few grand to get in on the trend? Despite these smart machines hitting your wallet a lot harder up front than sporadically pieced together home gyms of the past, if you take a minute to do the math, the shock value wears off. Considering the average monthly cost of a gym membership is about $60, depending on where you live, that means you're forking over about $720 a year. So, if you replace that with a product like Mirror, you'd break even after about 32 months (taking monthly data plans into consideration).

Or, if you're religious about ClassPass and have the highest membership level at $79 per month, it would only take you two years of swapping in Mirror—through which you can take many, if not all, of the same types of classes— to justify the cost. Yet when you get into products like the Peloton Tread, the break-even point stretches out much longer, and the trade-off may come with an even higher cost than you realize.

What At-Home "Smart" Machines Can't Give You

"There is so much benefit to being in a facility with other people, with live, human interaction," says Aronson, who teaches eight classes per week.

Plenty of people enjoy the social aspect of the gym, both for the accountability factor and the fact that joining a gym can be a good way to make new friends after moving to a new city, says Aronson. If you're a beginner, having the guidance of an instructor or a personal trainer to ensure proper form is another critical reason to exercise outside your home. And on a performance level, social exercising can even give you a competitive edge.

In a study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, one group of participants performed a series of plank exercises solo, holding each position as long as they could. In a second group, participants could see a virtual partner who was performing the same exercises, but better—and as a result, persisted in holding the planks longer than the solo exercisers. Another study found that people who exercised with a teammate they perceived to be better increased both their workout time and intensity by as much as 200 (!) percent.

"Part of the reason working out is hard in general is a lack of motivation or knowing what to do," says Aronson. "When you're held accountable by a community, your peers, your instructor, and venture into a fitness studio and have an instructor call you out by name, you create that connection."

What's Right for Your Workout Personality

Yet despite all those reasons, some people just don't need—or want—the motivation, or social pressures, that come from group exercise. Bailey Kirwan uses Mirror five to seven days a week, and just knowing it's set up in their basement, where they've padded the cement floor with foam tiles, "makes it really hard not to find time to exercise every day," she says.

Still, Mirror, offering many different classes, may have an advantage over other "smart" equipment that offers only one kind of modality, such as a bike or a rower. Even if you have the money to spend on such a machine, it's won't do you any good if it ends up collecting dust once you get bored with it.

"In the same way that eating the same thing for dinner every night can get boring, working out on the same machine can get tedious as well," says Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and faculty member at Columbia University's Teacher's College.

For introverts especially, she's an advocate of getting out of the house for workouts to encourage socializing, to build a community of like-minded people and to give your day structure. There are lots of smaller fitness studios that offer a more intimate, less intimidating experience than a big, fancy gym, she says, and the best thing to do is to analyze your personality to assess what modality if going to work best for you.

If you want to avoid making a mistake that will set you back a chunk of change, do your homework, carefully weighing the cost of the equipment with the trade-offs you'll incur from forgoing your gym or ClassPass membership.

Remember: "Thousands of people have purchased at home gym equipment with the best intentions, and these machines sometimes end up as clothes hangers," says Hafeez,

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