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How to Get a Peloton-Style Workout Without Splurging

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Lisa Whitney, a dietitian in Reno, Nev., came across the deal of a lifetime about two years ago. A fitness studio was going out of business and selling its equipment. She scored an indoor exercise bike for $100.

Ms. Whitney soon made some additions to the bike. She propped her iPad on the handlebars. Then she experimented with online cycling classes streamed on YouTube and on the app for Peloton, a maker of internet-connected exercise devices that offers interactive fitness classes.

Ms. Whitney had no desire to upgrade to one of Peloton’s $1,900-plus luxury exercise bikes, which include a tablet to stream classes and sensors that track your speed and heart rate. So she further modified her bike to become a do-it-yourself Peloton, buying sensors and indoor cycling shoes.

The grand total: about $300, plus a $13 monthly subscription to Peloton’s app. Not cheap, but a significant discount to what she might have paid.

“I’m happy with my setup,” Ms. Whitney, 42, said. “I really don’t think upgrading would do much.”

The pandemic, which has forced many gyms to shut down, has driven hordes of people to splurge on luxury items like Peloton’s bikes and treadmills so they can work out at home. Capitalizing on this trend, Apple last year released Apple Fitness Plus. This instructional fitness app is exclusively offered to people who own an Apple Watch, which requires an iPhone to work.

But all of that can be expensive. The minimum prices of an Apple Watch and iPhone add up to $600, and Apple Fitness Plus costs $10 a month. Then to stream classes on a big-screen TV instead of a phone while you exercise, you need a streaming device such as an Apple TV, which costs about $150. The whole Peloton experience is even pricier.

With the economy in a funk, many of us are tightening our spending while maintaining good health. So I experimented with minimizing the costs of doing video-instructed workouts at home, talked to tinkerers, and assessed the pros and cons. Here’s what I learned.

To start my experiment for working out at home on the cheap, the first question I tackled was whether to subscribe to a fitness app or stream classes from YouTube for free. Both essentially provide videos of instructors guiding you through workouts.

So I bought an $8 yoga mat and a $70 pair of adjustable dumbbells and turned on my TV, including the YouTube app. I then subscribed to three of the most popular YouTube channels with free content for exercising at home: Yoga With Adriene, Fitness Blender, and Holly Dolce.

One immediate downside was almost too much content — often hundreds of videos per YouTuber — making it difficult to pick a workout. Even when I finally chose a video, I learned to brace myself for some quality issues.

For instance, in the Yoga With Adriene channel, I selected the video “Yoga for When You Feel Dead Inside,” which felt appropriate for the time we are living in. The video looked good, but at times the instructor’s voice sounded muffled.

Production problems were more visible in the Holly Dolce channel, which has a collection of intense workouts that you can do without any equipment. When I tried the video “Muffin Top Melter,” an instructor in the background demonstrated how to do a more challenging version of each exercise, but the other instructor, in the foreground, constantly blocked her.

Then there were the ads. As I lifted weights while following a 10-minute fat-burning workout from Fitness Blender, YouTube interrupted the video to play an advertisement for Dawn soap. That left me holding a dumbbell above the back of my neck while I waited for the ad to end.

Those issues aside, I was able to do all of the exercises demonstrated by these YouTubers, and they left me winded and sweaty. For the cost of free, I can’t complain much. Most important, Yoga With Adriene succeeded in making me feel less dead inside.

To compare the free YouTube exercise videos with the paid experience, I subscribed to Peloton and Apple Fitness Plus on my Apple TV set-top box. I did workouts using both products for the last two months.

Peloton and Apple Fitness Plus addressed many of the problems plaguing the free exercise content.

For one, workouts were organized into categories by the type of workout, including yoga, strength training, and core, and then by the difficulty or duration of the movement. It took little time to choose an activity.

In both Peloton and Apple Fitness Plus, video and audio quality were very clear, and the workouts were shot at various angles to get a good look at what the instructors were doing. The bonus of Fitness Plus was that my heart rate and calories burned were displayed on both my Apple Watch and the TV screen.

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