Reebok’s ads for their upcoming FitHub Union Square (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)
Not long ago, wild-child ex-con and party boy of yore Michael Alig took a tumble off a Planet Fitness treadmill. Where East Village chic was once all about falling off the wagon, it’s now de rigeur to fall from exercise equipment.
The downtown scene Alig previously reigned over—druggy, hedonistic, resolutely counterculture—is being replaced by an increasingly anodyne simulacrum of Los Angeles: scattered with boutique fitness clubs, organic cold-pressed juiceries, “athleisure” wear, matcha bars, and apothecaries offering herbal enemas. In the words of the new Crunch Bowery’s cheery sidewalk signage, “There goes the neighborhood!”
Shortly after that gym opened, the East Village got a shiny new dance studio; a week and a half ago it got a location of LA transplant Barry’s Boot Camp; and just this week CrossFit opened in Union Square, where a Planet Fitness is also on the way (landlords have “quickly realized the value” of the chain, a press release carps). Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, CrossFit finally made it to Bushwick. And there’s more coming: Mile High Run Club a.k.a. treadmill heaven is destined for Noho this fall (replacing Plantworks to become the micro neighborhood’s sixth gym), Lithe Method is apparently making its way very slowly to the city, a new Sports Club is imminent on Avenue A (yes, Avenue A), and Williamsburg-Greenpoint can look forward to the arrival of the sizeable Brooklyn Athletic Club.
Earlier this month, in a glaring example of counterpunches replacing counterculture, a boxing studio that’s replacing the evicted Yippie Museum at 9 Bleecker Street announced that it will “take cues from CBGBs, the Bowery,” complete with “refurbished signage from the Yippies (created in the 1960s)” and “framed counterculture and underground posters celebrating the activist history of 9 Bleecker and the punk scene on the Bowery.” And if that’s not enough, “The steamed glass wall dividing the men’s locker room from the women’s locker room makes for one of the cities sexiest yet grittiest bathrooms.”
Frosted bathroom dividers are nothing new — but now instead of dance clubs under the Manhattan Bridge, they’re the stuff of gyms offering a “Sex + Violence” workout that promises “a euphoric high comparable to only one other ‘thing’.” (Nevermind that the Yippies were pacifists who definitely didn’t get their high from endorphins.)
Overthrow (named after a Yippie newspaper) is clear that it’s out to “create a brand,” and all of these places have their unique identities. The brutalist—almost militaristic—anti-aestheticism of CrossFit bears little relation to the saccharine enthusiasm of Soul Cycle. And the minimalist luxe of Equinox is worlds away from the pseudo-irreverence of Crunch. (The latter gym’s “There goes the neighborhood!” slogan was “a reference to Crunch being fun and edgy and a little bit cool,” according to Christina deGuardi, the gym’s senior vice president of Marketing, Branding and Communication). Despite these differences, each is effectively a luxury lifestyle brand, seeking to sell you a new, improved version of yourself.
Consider the Bowery Crossfit pledge “to change the way people move and eat, while acting socially responsible and holding ourselves to a higher standard.” Sounds like smug self-righteousness to me, a kind of corporate groupthink that somehow also manages to invest the individual ego with a particularly pious brand of social superiority and physical power. Or maybe I’m just jealous because I’m incapable of completing three consecutive burpees.
At CrossFit East River (CFER), fridges are stocked with white paper bags bearing the names of various CrossFitters. These bags contain paleo-style ready-meals from Kettlebell Kitchen. For some reason, I imagine blood seeping from the pristine white paper. This, of course, is illusory: Kettlebell doesn’t go in for raw hunks of meat — instead they’re invested in “delivering you the cleanest fuel possible” via Swedish meatballs with cranberry sauce (35g protein) and an egg-white, beef and spinach breakfast (46g protein).
You certainly won’t find the Chinese confectionary known as a banana rolls in the CFER fridge; instead you can engage in “banana rolling,” a form of particularly excruciating exercise (the banana refers to the shape one’s horizontal body makes as it arches and curls gracefully across the floor). When I gave it a try during a complimentary class, I flailed along the wood-and-AstroTurf floor while vainly trying to protect various jutting bones. It felt like I was giving myself a cruel and unusual kind of massage.
In CrossFit lore, the “gym” or workout space is referred to as a “box,” and CFER is indeed a cavernous garage on East Ninth Street packed to the gunnels with kettlebells, wooden blocks, bars, ropes, giant elastics, weighted balls and hanging rings. It looks like a cross between a childhood gymnastics studio and a medieval torture chamber.
The CrossFit doctrine has been espoused ad nauseum by enthusiastic acolytes since it was founded in 2000, but if you somehow you reside in a country where there are mercifully no boxes (Iceland, perhaps?— nope, just checked, Reykjavik boasts five boxes, while the nearby port town of Hafnarfjörður has two) suffice to say that the brand espouses a philosophy of “broad, general and inclusive fitness…that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable.”
In practice this means picking up heavy things and throwing them around, jumping on top of boxes, and executing CrossFit pull-ups. The latter are especially intriguing, I discovered during my trial. “At the apex of your swing, you introduce the hip-explosion!” barked our affable trainer and CFER co-owner Eric Leon. I don’t know what the “hip-explosion” is, but it sounded inadvisable and I failed to introduce it, although I did manage to get sore palms.
When CFER first opened last summer it was the only CrossFit affiliate in the area. Now, in addition to the newly opened Union Square location, there’s a box on Bowery at Grand Street. As boxes have metastasized across the city, so too have innumerable other gyms and fitness studios. So many, in fact, that anecdotal evidence suggests they are squeezing out yoga and pilates studios, by now passé relics of the ’90s.
Barry’s Boot Camp, which just opened on Lafayette Street, is a cardio-and-resistance-training workout with a reputation for being hardcore (1,000 calories an hour!) and a star-studded fan base. The LA transplant arrived on the East Coast in 2011, and now boasts three NYC locations. BBC doesn’t advocate the paleo diet, as far as I can tell, but it does have its very own FUEL BAR, “offering the best protein shakes in the City.”
“I think it’s been refreshing for people who don’t want to juice,” says Gonzalez. “Because there’s so much juicing going on right now.” Thank goodness other liquid comestibles are available. It would be tough if we had to chew after all that exercise.
As to whether BBC has become a lifestyle for its “consumers,” Gonzalez is unhesitating. “Yeah, oh for sure,” he says. “In all categories we’ve seen this trend towards specialization and consumers looking to the brands they trust for guidance.” To meet this demand, BBC has expanded its collection of action-wear retail, recently launching a line at Bloomingdale’s. It also has a blog, with articles like “How to Balance your Life and Workout,” “14 Signs you Might Have a Crush on Your Trainer,” and “Human Guinea-Pig: I tried Butter Coffee” (the latter is supposedly a Paleo trend, although it’s news to me that cavemen were into caffeine).
More FitHub fun (Photo: Kirsten O’Regan)
This product push is nothing compared to SoulCycle’s entrepreneurial efforts. The Equinox Fitness-owned cycling studio (with three of its nine NYC studios located in NoHo, Union Square and Williamsburg) quickly cottoned on to the spending potential of its obsessive fan base, and proceeded to give the SoulPeople what they wanted: SoulStuff (including signature nail polish and $42 candles). The gloriously horrifying New York Times article on the subject, “Turning Gyms Into Lifestyle Brands,” is almost macabre it its unrelenting cataloguing of the insanity. An excerpt:
Gillian Casten, the founder of Rate Your Burn, a Web site that reviews group fitness instructors in New York City, Boston and Los Angeles, called boutique fitness “the new fashion.” Of the almost-baffling array of products these gyms now sell, Ms. Casten said: “Once you find a studio that engages you and gets you to change your body, you trust their judgment about everything.”
People, we understand, want to be affiliated with a brand, and be part of a community. The primary way in which individuals now accrue a sense of identity, it would seem, is through what they consume; and a good way of creating a community, the logic goes, is to get together a lot of people who consume the same thing. In this case, the commodity is “fitness,” and endorphins appear to heighten the sense of connection.
One of SoulCycle’s shirts (from the “Then and Wow!” ’80s-inspired collection) reads: “pack, tribe, crew, posse, cult, gang, community, soul cycle,” implying that these words are interchangeable. Under the “Find Your Soul” section of their website, they explain, “At SoulCycle we believe that fitness can be joyful. We climb, we jog, we sprint, we dance, we set our intention, and we break through boundaries. The best part? We do it together, as a community.”
The sense of community is ostensibly crucial to CrossFit culture as well. “You go to other gyms, and you could go to months of classes and not talk to anyone else,” says Melissa Leon, wife of trainer Eric and co-owner of CFER, “but with CrossFit you come in, and you know the people you work out with.” This bonding extends beyond the box, with a number of inter-box CrossFit Clubs springing up across the boroughs—ostensibly, as the Times reports, “to combine fitness and social activities with charity,” but in actuality to give ripped CrossFitters a chance to make out with other ripped CrossFitters.
This overwhelming focus on community as magic bullet occasionally seems heavy-handed, if not misleading. Debora Warner of Mile High Run Club ambitiously hopes to “evoke the outdoorsy feeling of a Colorado Mountain running club,” by holding group classes on state-of-the-art Woodway treadmills, thus bringing “that exhilarating experience of a trail club to the indoors.” But surely, the exhilaration stems not so much from the fact that the exercise is done in a group, but that those Colorado runners are on a trail. Outside. Communing with nature. Courting transcendence. Reaching the top of a mountain and looking down, all ego lost in the overwhelming beauty of it all. Right?
The holistic claims that boutique fitness studios make strike me as odd, when it seems that most of the time—in SoulCycle, in CrossFit, in a personal training session with an Equinox god—these activities mirror the work environment: you have your nose to the grindstone and you’re getting told what to do. External motivation (completing an instruction, a yearning for the body society says is beautiful) is central.
The element of boutique fitness sociability is inevitably entangled with a spirit of competition. “There’s a lot of accountability,” says Leon, referring to the system whereby clients’ training”‘scores” (values ascribed to each activity, multiplied by how many of each exercise you managed to do in the allotted time) are kept track of on a large whiteboard. This means you’re able to compare your performance both to your own previous scores, and to those of every other box member. This fosters “that competitive drive to do your best but also to be the best, to a degree,” says Leon.
Performance is clearly key within these fitness-obsessed worlds, and the word “elite” is bandied around with a disarming nonchalance. CrossFit is dedicated to “forging an elite workout.” Mile High Run Club, “New York City’s First Dedicated Running Studio,” will boast classes led by “elite runners.”
Although “elite” here carefully refers to the workouts and trainers rather than the status of participants, the reality is that these boutique workouts are obviously reserved for a wealthy (and uber-healthy!) privileged few. Many studios (such as SoulCycle) function without a membership option, meaning regulars fork out $35 for one class, or $320 for ten. Debora Warner told me that Mile High Run Club will follow a similar policy. CFER is slightly more affordable, with an option to commit for three months at $250 a month for unlimited classes (all first-timers must first complete the “Foundations” beginners program, which costs $175 for three classes).
The more traditional chain gyms are hardly much better. Crunch, despite its self-described “reputation for being edgy and fun,” has serious prices. When specials aren’t being offered, signing up costs just under $400 (including start-up cost, monthly rates and annual fees). Of course, there are cheaper options: Blink (owned by Equinox Fitness—whose Equinox-brand gyms are prohibitively expensive) and New York Sports Club have slightly more reasonable deals. But, predictably, these bare-bones options are not the ones making waves in the no-longer-mean streets of downtown Manhattan.
Selling wealthy people fitness and wellness is a big business. As if that weren’t already evident from the sums they’re raking in from each “consumer,” the numbers speak for themselves, as does the current inexorable expansion of the most of-the-minute brands. Although Equinox’s earnings are not public, they’re likely astronomical—SoulCycle alone reportedly takes in $240,000 in revenue every day and $87.6 million each year in classes, without taking into account lucrative product sales. Crunch reported earnings of $96 million in 2011. Life Time, a luxury fitness brand and Equinox competitor, made $290.7 million in revenue in the first-quarter of 2013.
Of course, expensive fitness clubs are nothing new. What is new, perhaps, is the extent to which the “wellness” culture once associated with LA has infiltrated the public life of New York. New Yorkers arguably required a conscious fitness regime less than their counterparts in LA, according to a recent study in the Journal of Transport and Health. The study surveyed a number of urban areas and found that people in compact cities are less likely to suffer from obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. The city itself (pedestrian-friendly, always in a rush) was itself a jungle gym.
But whether or not that fact precluded the efficient marketing of wellness culture in the past, it is clearly no longer the case. Downtown Manhattan—once anathema to commercial concepts of health and fitness (the yogurt-making fringes of the bohemian scene would hardly have embraced Lululemon) is now stocked not only with gyms, but also with vegan organic lunch spots and a plethora of ever-expanding juice bars. And kale-crazy Williamsburg, where Selma Hayak’s cleansing guru recently set up shop on Bedford Avenue, is following suit, with a Whole Foods also on the way. Interestingly, healthy food hawkers seem less keen to delve into the elite sides of their personality, and instead seem convinced their ludicrously priced luxury items are accessible to all and sundry. “Liquiteria is about inclusion,” stresses the store that sells cold-pressed juices for up to $9 each. “We welcome everyone.” (As if, by selling pulverized produce, it might be their prerogative not to.)
I’m not one to begrudge people a sense of community founded on a mutual feeling of well-being, but to claim that this community is open to all is misguided—even pernicious. This is a highly exclusive club, totally unavailable to the majority of New Yorkers. So when a contributor on Brooklyn-based lifestyle website MindBodyGreen writes “I’m thrilled to see anything that makes it easier for more folks to get some greens” (regarding the “HPP” or High Pressure Processing juicing trend), it’s a little like hearing Obama say, “We tortured some folks.” The sad little homey plural in no way makes up for the un-democratic implications and out-of-touch-ness of the rest of the statement.
“Wellness” has become an all-consuming preoccupation of a small echelon of the city’s residents—a fact that is reflected in the social prestige, industry influence, and fervent tone of Tribeca-based Well+Good. The “premier lifestyle and news publication devoted to the wellness scene—and its chic lifestyle components,” has been around since 2010. Well+Good promises to be “Your healthiest relationship,” in the header, before seemingly undermining that sane sentiment: “Well+Good is obsessed with your health and wellness,” they gush. “Get it daily.” On the glossy website, you can learn how to “make pasta out of carrots,” investigate “how two new smoothie delivery services measure up,” and discover the “seven beauty mistakes you should avoid at all costs.” The magazine speaks to concentrations of wealth in the city, a bubble of prosperity that now values “clean eating” over caviar.
And yet, while Gwyneth Paltrow lookalikes are using something called a “spiralizer” to magik carrots into something resembling spaghetti (zucchini pasta has apparently gotten old), research suggests that 50 percent of Hispanics and non-Hispanic black women will suffer from Type 2 diabetes at some point in their lives, while the rate within the population at large is hovering at 40 percent. There is an enduring and unavoidable link between poverty and obesity (and a whole host of diseases that come with it), yet while fitness and fresh food are increasingly marketed as luxury goods, little provision is made in healthcare funding for exercise—and in the scheme of things, little is done to render whole foods affordable.
This creates both racial and class-based inequities in access to a “healthy” lifestyle. A CUNY Graduate Center study released early this year, using data collected from 1990-2010, revealed an “extraordinary and unmistakable” increase in the economic income gap in New York City. The hierarchy of earning-power coalesced predictably along class lines.
The near obsessive preoccupation with healthy eating and boutique exercise among the upper echelons has become our era’s version of the gluttony of former elites—whose very ability to consume, and consume lavishly, set them apart from their starving serfs. Both phenomena appear in highly stratified societies, both are expressions of control and power (even if the individual does not mean them as such). They are boons of privilege, and as such both indicate and exacerbate the gap between the rich and the poor.
In the light of this, the self-congratulatory blather of New York’s booming “wellness” industry seems tone-deaf. A latent assumption in much of the marketing materials and hype surrounding the industry’s commodities is that exercising at a certain intensity and in a certain way, that eating the right food in the right amounts, that attempting to meditate occasionally, might invest the individual with a curious kind of moral or spiritual superiority; that it is possible, for a price, to buy your way towards becoming a better person. To wit: SoulCycle’s claim that one of its high-intensity classes will involve “a little more sweat, a lot more SOUL.”
Ironically, as Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson argue in The Spirit Level, unequal societies engender distrust and endemic status anxiety, while the healthiest and happiest societies are those that achieve a greater level of equality. So rather than congratulating ourselves on our hundredth burpee, or our abstinence from gluten, dairy, sugar and animal products—rather than applaud the growth of a lucrative industry that sells health and happiness to the people—perhaps we should consider that increasing the longevity (and litheness) of a tiny segment of the population while the majority of children could face shorter life-expectancies than their parents, is a symptom not of greater well-being, but of a pernicious social sickness.
Is New York becoming just another LA? Well, no, not really. What it is becoming is simply a shellacked version of any insipid super-rich cosmopolis, buffered by poverty, clogged with gyms and juice bars and banks and little firms that make new gadgets you don’t need and health spas that charge $60 to rip the hair from your groin, and populated by good looking people who stay that way by working out in insulated boxes. I’m not saying heroin addicts are more desirable than gym junkies, or that juice bars are a trade-down from crack dens. I’m simply suggesting that the current “wellness” thing might not be as healthy as it seems.
Just ask Michael Alig. Treadmills—much like CrossFit boxes—are vicious, and honestly I don’t want my soul to cycle. JUST GO OUTSIDE. It’s free, people, and so will you be.