Married couple India and Eric Morgan opened a smart fitness studio in Henrico County in March, and appointments have been filling up. The Exercise Coach is part of an international franchise, and is touted as the first AI-enabled studio in the state.
The Exercise Coach uses bioadaptive robotic exercise equipment that’s calibrated specifically to someone’s fitness levels. The computerized machines modify their difficulty as the person progresses in strength and stamina.
“We are the right intensity for you because the machines are adapting to your strength level and physical abilities,” India Morgan said. “Even though, yes, it’s going to be a challenging workout, the goal is to progressively overload your muscles so you’re constantly building strength. It’s going to be something that you’re capable of doing because it’s curated to you.”
The franchise’s smart equipment comes from Illinois-based manufacturer Exerbotics. Its fitness instructors conduct one-on-one sessions or small group exercises with a maximum of four participants. The biggest benefit the company markets is that it can give people the results they need in two 20-minute workouts per week. A 48-hour break is recommended to recover from sessions.
There are seven total exercises across the 20-minute workout, each designed so that you couldn’t possibly do one more repetition by the end. The bulk of the session is spent on strength training, but it finishes off on high-intensity cardio for one to three minutes.
The Morgans bring their backgrounds in finance and health care to The Exercise Coach. India Morgan was a registered nurse at VCU Health before opening the studio. She is currently pursuing a degree to become a nurse practitioner. She manages many of the day-to-day needs at the studio. Eric Morgan is a financial consultant in the health care field, working with several hospitals on their fixed assets. He works on the operational side of the franchise.
Having been involved in sports their entire lives and prioritizing their physical health, the Morgans came upon the studio idea while working with a franchise broker to open a new business. They tried out some of the workouts and liked the data they saw.
“The fact that (India) has a clinical background gave us an advantage because we agreed with the science and all of the metabolic pieces that were the actual foundation of this franchise,” Eric Morgan said.
With The Exercise Coach open for around seven weeks so far, the Morgans say they’re excited by seeing results start to solidify for some of the clients who have been there since the beginning.
“We can look back at their progress six, seven weeks and say, ‘OK, this is actually working for them,’” India Morgan said. “That is cool. We knew it worked for us; we’ve been doing it ourselves, but it’s cool to see it work for other people.”
A majority of the time slots have filled up with an average of around 50 sessions per day. The sessions themselves range in price from $25 to $50, depending on which package a person gets, though pricing is done monthly.
The goal isn’t to compare the studio with big-box gyms and bring in the highest number of users. The franchise generally targets people who are either too busy for full gyms, don’t have the time or need guidance. A majority of the marketing budget is spent on reaching clients who are ages 40 and older. The robotic equipment provides lower stress on joints and ligaments while still delivering an intense workout.
“(Forty-plus) is our clientele. Their focus is overall health,” Eric Morgan said. “They have generally failed at a lot of different exercises or have been discouraged by a bunch of different exercises. Plus, it’s just simple. It’s to their abilities and it’s private, so you don’t have to go to a gym setting with a bunch of people.”
Tamara Parker started working out at The Exercise Studio within the first few weeks after its opening. Although she’s always tried to be active throughout her adult life, she said she had trouble with other workout routines. She’s been to gyms and done at-home workouts streamed from the TV.
“I don’t like the act of going to a gym and looking for equipment; someone might be on my equipment,” Parker said. “And, I don’t want to be around a bunch of other people when I’m working out. It’s just not comfortable for me.”
Streaming at-home workouts posed other problems. Parker, 55, said it was lonely and she wasn’t always sure she was doing the exercises correctly. She stopped working out for a period about a year ago when her father died. The grief made it hard to have the energy to work out. At the same time, she developed unhealthful eating habits amid the stress.
“I just seemed to be really stuck in a rut. And I tried going back to the gym, but I just wouldn’t. I didn’t stick with it,” Parker said. “I even hired a trainer, and I did all the trainings I purchased in that package, but then I never went back.”
Working out has also been a tough time commitment for Parker. She home-schools her 13-year-old daughter, runs a business with her husband and cares for her 92-year-old father-in-law, who lives at the family home. She saw The Exercise Studio online and liked the idea that it offers shorter 20-minute workouts.
“In the beginning, I was like, ‘How does this work?’ It’s only 20 minutes; I don’t understand,” Parker said. “But after I got into it, I realized 20 minutes was no joke. And I feel with each individual exercise, right as I’m getting ready to die, it’s done.”
Her goal was to get back to the fitness levels she had before she stopped working out. To date, she’s lost nearly all of the excess weight she put on and says she’s also seen positive mental health benefits from working out again more regularly.
The Morgans said they were a little surprised by the amount of demand the studio experienced right after opening. They’re already working on opening two more studios in the Richmond area and have plans to expand with two to three more stores over the next three to four years. The next location is planned for near Richmond’s West End, and another will be in the city’s South Side.
“We really liked that the goal with this specific fitness franchise is not just like lose weight or gain muscle, even though those are things we can do,” India Morgan said. “It’s really like overall health. We want you to lower your blood sugar, increase your bone strength and decrease your issues with things like osteoporosis.”