Katherine Boehret

Exercising With Friends in a Webcam Fitness Class

Saturday morning, I joined three friends for a Circuit Training workout class. The odd part was that none of them left their homes and we live thousands of miles away from one another—in Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, North Carolina and Louisiana. Our trainer was in California.

For the past week, I’ve been working out using Wello, a website that lets people turn on their computer webcams to take one-on-one, trainer-led exercise classes. Tuesday, Wello launched Group Workouts, which involve up to five participants plus a trainer. They cost as little as $10 an hour versus solo sessions that start at $35 for an hour. This week, all users get their first group class free. I tested three hour-long group classes ($15 each), as well as a 30-minute solo class ($29) to get a handle on how the site works.

The thought of seeing friends during workouts and not having to leave home motivated me to use Wello. I could imagine using it as a way to stay in touch with people who live far away, sort of like an activity-based Skype. And unlike using a stale workout DVD, Wello’s live trainers watched each move I made and offered feedback. A pregnant friend in my class even got specific modifications for her condition. (Before using Wello, users are encouraged to fill out a health form. This lets people notify trainers of injuries or specific conditions like pregnancy.)

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The default view for a Wello class puts the trainer in the largest screen and class participants in smaller ones.
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A page for a class combining kickboxing and high-intensity interval training.

But the Wello class is only as good as the technology it uses, and two of my classes experienced technical difficulties. In one class, the trainer froze half a dozen times, wasting about 10 minutes refreshing his set-up. (A Wello co-founder, Leslie Silverglide, explained that this trainer’s computer met only the minimum level processor accepted by Wello.) During the same workout, a friend could hear us but couldn’t see us for about 15 minutes. (It turned out she had two browser windows opened, with one showing us while the other hid us.) Another friend who was using the Internet Explorer browser could only be seen. (Wello asks users to read instructions beforehand, including a recommendation to use the Google Chrome browser.)

Despite some glitches, Wello is a solid product that I’ll certainly use again. I liked taking classes without signing up for an expensive yearlong gym membership. And it was easy to sort through the trainers on the site to find one who fit my needs.

Of the over 1,000 trainers who have applied to work for Wello, about 200 have been vetted and trained to work in the system as video trainers. Wello looks at experience, specialties, certifications, education, references and other qualifications, and then sorts trainers into three tiers by overall experience, certifications and experience on Wello.

All of the trainers I used fell into the “Tier 2″ category. Three were categorized as “fun and friendly” trainers, two fell into the “focused on form” category and one was labeled as an “all business” trainer. A “Celebrity Trainer” category is also available; this means trainers are well-known fitness experts and have experience training celebrities.

You can sort classes by skill level (beginner, intermediate or advanced) and by trainer specialty (like brides-to-be, postnatal, exercise novices or elite athletes). You can also enter a goal to search for a class, such as “get stronger, lose weight or get Zen.”

Wello’s Ms. Silverglide says the company doesn’t mind if two or more people share a webcam for a class as long as they notify the trainer ahead of time. But this isn’t encouraged as it’s harder for the trainer to see two people at once and to give feedback. I tested this by dragging my husband into a Core Conditioning class. It worked, though we were a little squeezed in some exercises and our trainer couldn’t always see us clearly when she tried to check our form.

Like an aerobics class at the gym, Wello’s Group Workouts could be filled with strangers, as was the case for two of my classes, though I didn’t mind. If only two people sign up for a group class, the class will be canceled 12 hours beforehand. Twenty-four hours before the class, Wello will send an email, encouraging you to invite friends; it will put the class on its home page and will send out targeted emails to Wello users to get others to sign up. Wello offers discounted one-on-one workouts to make up for cancellations. Users can always buy pre-paid bundles that cost less than pay-as-you-go workouts.

To check if your system will work with Wello, the site offers a quick diagnostic test to check your computer’s processor and Internet connection; on some of my computers I had to download a small plugin file before getting started.

After users sign into the Wello website, a handy dashboard displays their upcoming and past workouts. If users opt to “follow” favorite trainers, they’ll see a stream of activity from those trainers on the right-hand side of this dashboard screen.

Wello’s screen layout was a bit squeezed on my 13-inch laptop, but looked better on two larger iMac screens. The default layout puts the trainer in the largest viewing screen, making you and other class participants smaller. I wished I could see the trainer in full-screen view; Wello’s Ms. Silverglide said this option is something that may be incorporated in the next month. The company also is working on an iPad app.

In one of my group classes, called Morning Meditation Flow, the trainer played music, which set the tone and gave the class an added ambiance. Wello has been experimenting with music and hopes to integrate it into the video platform; for now, trainers can play music on their phones.

When classes went smoothly, the setup worked well. When they didn’t, my classmates and I wanted a way to use text chatting to talk to the trainer—or the ability to raise a virtual hand.

For people who hesitate to exercise, Wello wipes out their excuses by helping them work out with friends and trainers who they like. Just be sure you have ibuprofen on hand for aching muscles; these classes are addicting.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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