Maggie Perkins was mulling whether to give up her gym membership when she tried out Wello, whose fitness trainers offer workouts through live two-way video feeds. Four months later, she has no regrets about her decision to forego the gym.
"I find that I am saving money and most importantly time with Wello," Perkins said. "I did my first workout from a hotel room and it was awesome. It really feels like the trainer is in the same room as you and it is easy to set up."
[Watch an IDG News Service video of a Wello.co trainer teaching a class in San Francisco, here.
Wello's service offers one-on-one or group workouts. Users need only a PC with a Web browser and Internet access. Later this year, Wello will work on Apple's iPad, and possibly, tablets running the Android OS.
To bring its service to the smaller tablet screens, Wello is developing a mobile application. Wello's ultimate goal is to go on gaming consoles, but smartphones are not on its radar as the screens are too small for a live workout, Silverglide said.
"It's way better than watching a static DVD or an avatar," said Leslie Silverglide, co-founder of the online training service based in San Francisco. "We can absolutely be a core workout experience."
But challenges loom as Wello brings its brand of training to the fitness industry in which in-person training or the camaraderie of working out with others at a gym remains a preference. There are also technological challenges as Wello tries to connect trainers to clients in countries where bandwidth may be limited.
Silverglide acknowledged Wello's concept may seem alien to some, but one of the company's goals is to change the perception of online workouts among users and trainers.
"Right now it seems out there to people," Silverglide said. "Our biggest thing is to get as many people to try it."
Unlike competitors that provide a variety of classes, including dance, art and music lessons, Wello decided to focus on fitness. It has a stringent selection process for trainers, who go through an intense vetting process that includes interviews, certifications and reference checks.
"We are able to attract the best trainers from around the country," Silverglide said.
Wello started off in 2011 with one-on-one instruction, but last month diversified into group workouts in which the trainer and multiple participants can be viewed on screen. Video is transmitted through webcams, and though participant video boxes are small, hearing others grunt and commiserate together can be motivating, Silverglide said.
"What we saw as really important ... was the ability to work out with friends and family members but still be there in their individual locations," Silverglide said.
Wello users can select trainers depending on specific needs and budgets, and workout options include fitness, strength training, Pilates, yoga and meditation, and martial arts.
Prices range from US$10 to $199 for up to an hour of training, with celebrity trainers being the most expensive. By comparison, gym membership could range from under $100 to over $200 a month.
The company, which has five employees, late last year closed a round of $1 million in funding from a group of investors including Kleiner Perkins. The company has been working on its tablet app for close to two years now. The application will use video technology so multiple workout participants can be viewed on a tablet screen during a group session.
Technology was an initial hurdle for Aisha Baro, who had to upgrade an old computer to use Wello. She now works out twice a week, which provides her flexibility on where and when to train.
"At a regular gym I would be assigned to a trainer based on my availability. Here I got to choose," said Baro, who lives in Half Moon Bay, California.
Baro has retained her gym membership, but supplements it with training on Wello from Judy Kuan, a New York City resident and a part-time fitness trainer. Wello has helped Kuan balance fitness training with her other professional commitments.
"Wello finds the clients and provides the business infrastructure, and all I have to do is show up, get to know the clients, and focus on providing really spectacular workouts," Kuan said.
Wello's concept is interesting and fitness can be taken far with online video resources and training aids, but there are benefits and drawbacks, said Kristen Mann, a community coach for Australian Sports Commission's active after-schools program.
"I can see its appeal to people who cannot gain access to particular classes or trainers, particularly in remote areas," said Mann, who also owns the White Tiger Korean Martial Arts school in Glebe, Australia, near Sydney.
Online fitness training doesn't trump having an in-person real trainer, but is viable if the client and coach are in constant contact, said Grace De La Rua, who runs Fatfighter Fitness in San Jose, California.
"It takes someone who is highly motivated to follow through on their fitness plans when there's no one actually watching," De La Rua said.
Sometimes instruction could be "lost in translation," De La Rua said. For example, a virtual trainer wouldn't have a full view of a user's movements, making it difficult to correct improper technique and form.
But she remains a proponent of online training, which she also offers independently.
"I have been able to reach and help many other people that I otherwise would not have without having an online option," De La Rua said.
Fitness professionals who were asked about the concept found Wello a supplement to rather than a replacement for some specialized workouts like martial arts. Mann noted that the safety of clients could be an issue without a physical presence, but Wello's Silverglide said trainers monitor clients closely to ensure they are exercising safely and aren't pushing themselves too hard.
In-person training is perhaps the best way to achieve fitness goals via a martial art like Tae Kwon Do, which focuses on precision, said Davor Pleskina, a martial arts instructor in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
It helps to have online resources, but there's no substitute for in-person training.
"To really feel, understand and properly perform technique, there is a need to have a master leading in person," Pleskina said. "We will see what the future brings."
Even with a two-way video link, an instructor often needs to change the angle from which they are looking at the client to check the correct alignment and motion of technique, said Katie Billingham, a martial arts instructor in the U.K.
"With activities such as martial arts, yoga and Pilates, this is essential to both receiving the benefits and preventing injury," Billingham said.
But Wello trainer Kuan, who offers training based on martial arts, has seen a majority of her clients request a cardio workout instead of by-the-book martial arts training. Kuan offers a class on Wello called Kick-Hiit, which mixes kickboxing with high-intensity training.
Moreover, in-person training isn't always possible, especially for people who can't afford gyms or seniors who can't leave their homes, Kuan said.
Wello also has a future in corporate wellness, Kuan said. She hopes to offer a class in Mandarin, but that is subject to more users in China adopting the service.
"I've always wanted to reach out to areas of the world and to certain populations where access to this level of talent or service is scarce but the need is great."