Alternate working title: Expensive Boutique Fitness Studios are the Dystopian Workouts of the Future That Our Capitalist Society Demands.
Picture this: you're in an underground basement vaguely resembling a concrete bunker. A harsh light glows neon orange, and is the only illumination throughout the oppressive space. In the hallway, a group of tired, miserable-looking people wait for the folks ahead of them to finish with their time in the bunker. When they swap out with this group, barely saying hello or looking anybody in the eye, they will spend the next hour lifting heavy things, sweating, and following instructions relayed to them over a screen while pounding, bass-heavy music reverberates throughout.
No, this isn't a scene out of a young adult dystopian novel taking place 100 years in the future. This is my life. I mean, this is my life when I (willingly) go to Orange Theory Fitness, a boutique fitness studio with a location on 14th Street in Washington, DC.
Let me tell you how it works:
Orange Theory offer new customers a "free" workout class. If you're like me, lured in by any promise of physical pain that will help you get rid of the 10 pounds you've put on in your late 30s, you'll eagerly sign up. What you don't realize is that you're being led into a massive franchising effort, where physical fitness doesn't necessarily seem to be the primary goal for anybody working there. Making money and sales is.
My first class, I had a woman -- a young student from nearby Howard University -- walk me through the process, very perkily considering it was 8am on a Sunday. She gave me a proprietary heart monitor that would hook into a screen in the workout bunker. The goal, she explained, was to try to get your heart rate in the "orange zone" as much as possible throughout the hour-long workout. Each person's heart rate displays on a massive screen viewable by all, ostensibly to encourage each other to fight to the heart zone death.
How do you get in that orange zone? You spend the next 60 minutes alternating between sprints on a rower; sprints on a treadmill; and heavy lifting and core workouts on the floor. A coach floats around with a stopwatch, telling you to hit your "all out" pace on the treadmill for the next 90 seconds, or to instruct you to row 100 more meters, and a screen with videos of people modeling the weight workouts faces the people working out on the floor.
Afterwards, the perky college student turned all business. "So what kind of program are you going to be wanting to sign up for?" she demanded. Blearily resigned to the fact that I am addicted to intense workouts and after an hour of treadmill sprinting I didn't have the energy to face down a college student half my age working on commission, I signed up a two-times-a-week model, costing me a pretty penny at $150 for the month.
So is the workout effective? Yeah, I mean in a grimly efficient way, it's effective. But from the very first class, I've found Orange Theory - and a lot of its boutique fitness studio counterpoints, like SolidCore or SoulCycle - incredibly disturbing.
It's hard to explain exactly why. Fitness is good. More people should be fit! We have an obesity and diabetes problem in this country. Anytime anybody is doing more working out, isn't that something to be celebrated?
Sure. But to me, there is something so brutally detached about these particular methods of working out that I worry they'll eventually have a negative effect on our overall health and fitness. Let me count the ways:
#1: They take out all of the fun of working out and moving your body
Look, I get it: we have not done a good job of selling ourselves on the joy of workouts and physical fitness in America. But these sort of workouts are basically telling you that to be effective, pain is necessary. Misery is a constant. If you're not hurting for hours afterwards, you're doing it wrong. If you haven't collapsed in a puddle by the end of it, you won't see any results.
Being sold on exhaustion and physical collapse is, believe it or not, not necessarily a positive when it comes to working out. It equates pain with success, despair with muscle tone.
Can you remember a time as a child when sprinting through your neighborhood for hide and seek was the highlight of your summer? What about that hike through the Rockies, or learning to surf for the first time? The feeling of that run by the river trail, or the settled bliss at the end of a really good yoga class?
Moving your body should, can, and does bring you joy and exhilaration. But these type of fitness classes, to me, sell you the idea that anytime you're moving your body, it should be a brutal punishment.
#2: They set the expectation that if you're not paying insane amounts of money, you're not getting a good workout
These boutique fitness classes are, on average probably about $25-$35 a piece for drop-ins of 60-minute classes. It's a ludicrous expense, but they sell you on it by promising an elite experience that will push your body further than you can on your own. In this case money spent = a worthy workout.
#3: They set the expectation that if you're like, not blacking out by the end of your workout, you're not working hard enough and you should just give up on life
All I need to present to you is this quote from this article:
“You almost black out it’s so intense,” says Meg Bradshaw, 31, Solidcore’s vice president of client and studio experience — yes, a job title — who runs marathons, loveloveloves the gym (“My favorite place, I could spend six hours there”) but, once she tried Solidcore, realized that she wasn’t working hard enough and plans to cancel her gym membership.
What. The. Fuck. Is blacking out from a workout the new hotness? I will do a hard pass. And what kind of message are we sending to anybody that if you're not working out so hard that you're basically crippled, you're doing it wrong?
#4: They create a disconnect between your mind and your body because you just don't have to think
To me, this aspect of disconnect from your workout is potentially the most dangerous one. Did you read that recent New York Times article about "the tyranny of convenience"? This quote in particular resonated with me:
"We err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear. Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us. It would be perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule. But when we let convenience decide everything, we surrender too much."
Attending boutique fitness classes on the reg reveals an interesting liberation of a sort - you show up and are told what to do for the next hour. An instructor will plan out the entire workout and feed you the cues for when you need to change it up. Your body does what the instructor says. There's no mental energy involved in making the choices.
This is obviously wildly convenient -- a professional instructor can design and motivate you through a better workout than a regular schmoe could, of course -- but to me, it feels like removing a certain amount of personal investment in the workout. You're merely going through the motions of what somebody else tells you. You've essentially surrendered the machinations of your body to a corporation.
I suppose that sounds a little dire, but both the joy and the pain of working out is the fact that the mental involvement in it is what drives it. You make the choices of how to move your body, you drive yourself through that last mile, you are invested in what your mind is telling your body to do. When you just show up, mentally check out for an hour but are physically present, to me that eventually will become a very dangerous disconnect. We can't rely too much on an external driver for workout convenience because it removes our own agency in the process. Sure, we're showing up for these workouts, we're choosing to drag ourselves there, but something about it feels so emotionally and mentally removed to me that I worry it's just another commodification for convenience in our life.
I know I'm a weird person to send this message. I looooove working out. I love it. I'm the weird workout person in my friend group. I love feeling strong, I love the mental and emotional benefits it gives to me. I like trying all sorts of weird new workouts. I go to lots of the boutique fitness studios. But every time I leave a session, I'm left with a growing sense of discontent. There's no true connection to the workout. I've merely checked a box.
And I worry about the overall message that the rise of boutique fitness sends to people who are interested in being healthier and moving their body more, but despair at the price, or are taught to understand if they're not blacking out by the end of a workout it's not worth it. People who are being told that money and pain are the only way to gain fitness.
What's the remedy? I don't have the answer to that. I suspect much like Uber or Amazon Prime or Netflix or StitchFix or anything that makes our lives and our entertainment and our choices and our movements incredibly easy, these types of fitness classes will only continue to grow and succeed.
But for me, I'm taking small steps. I'm in Austin on vacation, and I've gone running twice down by the river, without music or a watch to track my pace. Also, I used to be an avid tennis player in middle school and high school. There was nothing so satisfying as a smooth stroke across the net or the placement of a well-aimed volley. My mind and my body would be fully engaged in the court, in the next step, in the way my hand was gripping my racket.
I haven't played tennis in nearly a decade. But yesterday, I found a coach and set up a lesson for next week. I'm hoping my body will remember how to find that joy again.