iFit’s new closed-captioning feature is an important step toward making home-based fitness more accessible.

If you’ve heard of NordicTrack, you’re probably also familiar with iFIT — a fitness app that’s available on most NordicTrack and ProForm cardio machines, though you can also download it on your smartphone or tablet.

The Peloton-esque platform features a wide variety of workout classes, including options for cycling, running, hiking, strength training, and yoga. All of the videos are helmed by motivational coaches, with some sessions broadcast live.

The subscription-based service also allows users to track their progress and regularly offers fun challenges for members.

The fitness giant recently announced a new closed-captioning feature for its video content — though, the captions still aren’t available on live workouts.

Currently, users can choose between English or Spanish captioning, but iFIT says it intend to add other languages soon.

People have been bugging iFIT to introduce captioning for years now, so it’s no surprise that the response to the launch has been overwhelmingly positive.

While many users applauded the addition of closed-captioning, the move is significant for people, such as those who are deaf or hard of hearing, who often rely on captioning to provide them with a complete workout experience.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2050, about 1 in 10 people worldwide will have disabling hearing loss. Currently, it’s estimated that almost 15% of adults in the United States have some trouble hearing (1, 2).

A lack of captioning in video fitness content can make it challenging for deaf or hard of hearing people to follow instructions and maintain personal safety.

When the pandemic hit and gyms closed, loads of people turned to at-home workout options. Fitness gear purchases skyrocketed, and in turn, many people realized working out at home was a more accessible (and often cheaper) option than going to the gym.

However, many live-streamed workout videos, fitness apps, and interactive equipment like exercise bikes don’t always offer an accessible fitness outlet for deaf and hard of hearing people.

As a global fitness platform with more than 3.3 million users worldwide, iFIT’s closed-captioning announcement represents a significant move toward accessibility.

For Jennifer Speiran, a hard of hearing iFIT user, the feature release shows that the company is listening to its customers. “It’s helping to normalize accommodations for a wide variety of people,” says Speiran.

Closed-captioning doesn’t just help deaf and hard of hearing people, adds Speiran. It’s also helpful for non-native speakers and neurodiverse people.

“[Captions] are also an exceptionally useful tool for the neurodivergent community as a whole. Many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, learning disabilities, and audio processing issues use captions,” says Cate Osborn, an ADHD educator and cohost of the mental health podcast Infinite Quest.

She adds that captions help provide clarity and allow neurodiverse people to focus and better absorb information.

With the help of captions, Speiran looks forward to catching tips and words of encouragement from trainers that she’s missed out on in the past.

She adds that people don’t quite understand how much effort is involved in processing information for hard of hearing people. This is especially true in noisy environments.

Following exercise bike videos recorded on blustery days, for example, means that she often loses what’s being communicated to wind noises.

Trainers also often face away from the camera during cycling workouts, making it impossible to read lips or decipher facial cues. And because there’s no option to pause or rewind, she can’t go back and catch what she’s missed.

“I’d really love for people to understand what accessibility means,” Deaf fitness trainer Anne Reuss tells Healthline. She explains that in a fitness context, while accessibility absolutely involves the ability for people to understand what the instructor is saying, it’s also much more than that.

Accessibility provides access to information, which can help increase commitment and motivation.

It can be incredibly discouraging to finish a session, whether in-person or online, and have to do extra work to research feedback on form and other information you didn’t absorb from the trainer.

“I’ve marched out of doors myself,” says Reuss who recalls being frustrated with group fitness classes. “There was never a second date with [them].”

Lack of accessibility can also lead to injury, she adds. If you can’t follow the workout, you might not do the exercises correctly, which can slow your progress or even stop your fitness journey in its tracks.

Captioning isn’t just about seeing words and descriptions on the screen. People producing this type of content need to think about how they convey information, says Reuss.

While iFIT’s captioning launch is a great start, there’s still room for improvement. Content and visuals matter, too.

Speiran suggests the addition of American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

An ASL interpreter is a trained person who translates between spoken English and ASL. “It’s its own unique language that has grammar and syntax that don’t align with the written word the way you might think,” says Speiran.

She adds that another way to improve accessibility would be to have trainers spend more time facing the camera, allowing users to see not just what they’re doing but read their lips and catch nonverbal cues.

Timing is another important consideration, says Reuss. Captions that race across the screen make it difficult to absorb information.

But adding carefully timed captioning doesn’t necessarily address issues with the video content itself.

Reuss points out that an exceptional trainer will demonstrate movements without talking, use easy-to-remember terms, and clearly show what improper form looks like.

What does this look like visually?

“I love the green and red marked exercises that show the stark contrast between a well and poorly done movement,” she says. Other ways to show this difference include clearly shaking the head or using an “X” when performing a movement with poor form.

Reuss remarks that there’s still a shocking number of fitness apps, videos, and trainers that haven’t caught up in terms of accessibility.

While she’s excited to see iFIT evolving, she hopes that the company remains committed to accessibility, and that other brands and companies also start to take notice.

If an app has built-in accessibility features, says Reuss, companies should boast about it. Most of the time, when there’s no express mention of captioning, for instance, she assumes the app or program isn’t accessible.

Reuss also wants to see prominent fitness publications and influencers, like Shape or Jen Widerstrom, caption their Instagram content.

Ultimately, Reuss says, accessibility is complex. It requires a lot more consideration than simply slapping captions on a video.

She wants to see companies like iFIT do more to incorporate feedback from deaf and hard of hearing people and bring in users with firsthand experience to point out and fix accessibility-related paint points.