Zoe Bertali

How Technology Can Make Fitness More Inclusive

A year ago, many people might have been hesitant to try new forms of digital fitness over their favourite in-person classes. But with gyms shut, more people flocked to fitness apps and online options than ever before and many were pleasantly surprised with the experience. One area that’s seen particular growth amidst the pandemic is the world of augmented reality (AR). We spoke to Zoe Bertali, the co-founder of the London based, uber-contemporary fitness boutique, The Refinery E9. Zoe and her partner recently launched the Refine with ALFI app which features an AR fitness instructor offering yoga and HIIT training. According to Zoe, this type of fitness makes for the most inclusive and visually appealing experience in the virtual and on demand fitness space. We sat down with Zoe to get more details on:

  • How AR can make fitness more inclusive
  • How to keep things personal in a digital world and,
  • How to ensure your digital option doesn’t cannabalise your in-person experience

What is it about AR fitness tech that makes it more accessible? How does it break down barriers?

We realised that boutique fitness was very London-centric. Even if we opened other studios, they still weren’t all that accessible to people who lived outside major cities. That’s why we wanted to create an app. In 2020, everyone rushed to do digital because of COVID, but we started our app back in 2018 in order to make our offering more accessible.

As a yoga teacher, I know how intimidating it can be to go to a class for the first time. Accessibility has always been part of our ethos and we’ve always tried to make it as easy as possible to try something new. When we were building our app, we continually thought about how we apply our ethos in a digital world.

In our app, we can make ALFI look like anybody. ALFI is not a he or a she. ALFI can teach yoga or HIIT as any shape, on any background and eventually in any language. It’s whatever you want to make it. One user told us that when she was doing a class, she wasn’t thinking about what the instructor was wearing or what she looked like. She just focused on the exercise and the energy the instructor was giving off. This is exactly what we want. It helps people experience exercise who perhaps wouldn’t have tried a class. Movement is magic and ALFI helps everyone experience it.

People enjoy gyms and group exercise for the sense of community it creates. How do you make AR personal?

ALFI was never meant to be a replacement to in-person fitness. As a yoga teacher, I would never want to take away that in-person connection. ALFI exists alongside your in-person experience. It’s fitness in your pocket. While you can use the app from the comfort of your home and hone your skills, you can also take it to the park and do classes with friends. We’ve also added a gaming element where users earn ALFI tokens for each class taken which can be used to buy more classes or be donated to our chosen charity, MIND. We find this healthy competition creates a sense of community with our users.

Why would someone choose AR fitness vs. an online class or even a YouTube video workout?

Everything has it’s place. We’re learning that more than ever now in this third lockdown. And when it comes to change, there’s really no industry that’s been impacted more in terms of transitioning to digital.

During the first lockdown, all our instructors at The Refinery quickly transitioned to online teaching. That worked for some people, but not everyone.

The Refine with ALFI app allows people to workout on their own schedule and it offers something different. In 2021, the ALFI app will also work alongside Google, Microsoft and Apple’s AR compatible glasses, so users simply have to put on a pair of the special glasses in order to have their instructor right next to them. It won’t be for everyone, but with so much noise in this space right now, we hope ALFI will stand out.

What techniques have you found effective for getting people on board, especially those that might be new to fitness?

It’s really difficult to get people to try something new in the first instance. We are blessed to have such a great community at The Refinery in Hackney so we offered our client base a free 30-day trial as a way to get started.

Beyond that, social media and PR has been our biggest driver. We’ve had some great press in national titles like The Sunday Times.

In the future, we’re hoping we’ll be able to host a launch event when we launch the glasses, but this is on hold due to the pandemic.

The one benefit of the pandemic is that it has forced us to slow down. The app is still in beta and when we identify issues, we can fix them straight away.

You decided to lead with yoga, which is usually a very traditional exercise. Why is that?

We knew that yoga would be the hardest one to bring to life so we started there. If we can get yoga right, we knew we could offer any other discipline like HIIT, Barre or Pilates. We had to build something that made sure everything flowed seamlessly. The transitions needed to feel fluid. Even though ALFI is an avatar, the movement is human. It’s all motion-capture. It’s not computer generated. The wonderful thing about yoga is that there are so many different styles. Once we get more investment, we can go back into the studio to create more content.

If people get hooked on AR, how do you stop that from cannabalising your in-person gym experience?

We genuinely believe there is a place for both. AR will never be a replacement for in-person fitness. It’s a tool for when you’re traveling or if you don’t live near a studio. In rural areas, it can still be quite difficult to access great in-person fitness and that’s where ALFI can help. It was never meant to be a replacement for people. ALFI is a long-term project and there’s so much we can do with it. That’s why we’re so excited by it.  The possibilities are endless.

The app is free to download with a current one-month free trial. Full access to the app content is delivered through a subscription model priced at £7.99 per month. Users can also opt for a Pay as You Go model at 99p per workout. For more information go to: https://refinewithalfi.com/

Posted in Fit-tech, Interviews, Most Popular Interviews, The Fitness Network.