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AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Paying for company.
COMMODITY COMMUNITY

The boutique fitness industry’s mission to monetize community

Katherine Ellen Foley
By Katherine Ellen Foley

Health and science reporter

On the last Saturday in April 2019, I was supposed to be waking up early, grabbing my CamelBak filled with water and snacks, and heading out to Algonkian Regional Park just outside of DC. After months of training, I was ready to run the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k (31.1 miles) race with dozens of friends from my running group of two and a half years—my second race of this distance.

While I had never run this particular course, I had high expectations. My first long-distance race had filled me with indescribable joy, peace, and pride. But I had trained for it alone. I had been looking forward to doing it again—getting muddy and reveling in my blood pumping through my body—this time, sharing it with my friends.

But I didn’t get to feel that rush. Instead, I spent the morning of Apr. 27 sitting on the sidelines of a sand court with my right foot in a walking boot, watching my partner and his friends play volleyball.

That day, I was proud of myself just for getting out of the apartment. After developing debilitating peroneal tendonitis just two weeks before the race, I had sunk into a depression that resulted in days of tears, insomnia, and self-inflicted isolation. I’ve been running in some capacity since the age of 9, and even though I knew I’d heal with rest and physical therapy, I was crushed to have it taken away from me with no clear timeline of when it’d be back.

After about a month, I got tired of wallowing in self-pity. I decided I’d compromise with myself. Because fitness has always played a major role in my physical and mental well-being, I knew that finding non-running options would be an important part of recovery. If I couldn’t run, I could bike, swim, and try out other exercises. I was open to anything.

So began my spree of boutique-fitness tourism.

In the US’ second-fittest city, many gyms offer introductory classes, and I tested them all: the muscle-failure philosophy of Solidcore, the competitive nature of Flywheel, the loud, candlelit atmosphere at Illumin8 yoga studios (by far the least appealing to me, I decided).

Each workout tried to distinguish itself through a sort of hyperspecialization. But I came to see they all had one thing in common: Every one of them tried to convince me that it could provide a new group of friends and support. I was just desperate enough to try.

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Last year, my colleague Jenny Anderson noted that at its core, community is about “a series of small choices and everyday actions.” It’s the people and places that are built into your daily routine—which means combining it with exercise can be a powerful way to build health.

The physical and mental benefits of exercise only manifest when you work out consistently. “If you create an environment that people want to keep going back to—whatever that is—it’s going to be a great thing,” says Evan Johnson, a personal trainer-turned-kinesiologist now with the University of Wyoming.

Traditional gyms, though, don’t do much in the way of building community or routine. “You pay a fee and the gym is kind of hoping that you don’t show up,” says Jason Kelly, the New York bureau chief of Bloomberg News, and author of the book 2016 book Sweat Equity: Inside the New Economy of Mind and Body. “They already have your money.”

Over the past decade, that solo-gym experience has been supplanted by pay-by-class group fitness. “A lot of people do better if they feel like someone’s telling them what to do,” says Kelly.

These boutique fitness companies have grown like ivy, snaking their way through strip malls and blossoming in cities. They offer highly-specialized group workouts, like spinning in a dark studio with blaring music, or pilates in a dark studio with blaring music, or yoga in a dark studio with blaring music—you get the idea. Between 2013 and 2017, boutique memberships in the US grew by 121%, boosting  the fitness industry’s worth to $25.8 billion. Traditional gym memberships only increased by 15%.

But it can still be hard for studios to keep customers’ attention. “They have to create something to keep you coming back,” says Kelly. “And it’s that sense of community.”

It is possible to create community within a studio. Instructors can go out of their way to say hello to you at the beginning of class, ask you about your fitness goals or any injuries you may have, and give individual shout-outs. They can stay after class to chat and create a public leader-board. I experienced all of these tactics as I bounced across studios, and witnessed genuine rapport between instructors and participants who had been coming regularly.

But it’s hard to maintain, especially when building those relationships requires you to shell out multiple times a week. The numbers show it: FlyWheel has had to close some of its cycle studios this year, as has PureBarre. SoulCycle had to give up on its IPO last year. Fitness trends, like all trends, don’t last. “Are you going to be a SoulCycler for 20 years?” Kelly asks rhetorically. “It doesn’t seem likely to me.”

As my foot slowly recovered, I felt fine—even happy!—with the endorphin bump classes gave me. But after my free or subsidized trials ended, I couldn’t justify purchasing a block of classes or monthly membership anywhere. Sure, they were good workouts, but not $25-to-$40-per-class good. A lot of these workouts I could recreate in the tiny gym in my apartment building.

The only unique “product” I wouldn’t have at home was the regular company of others working out with me—the community, in other words. But why, I asked myself, would I pay for that, when it already exists for free?

 

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Brogan Graham and Bojan Mandaric were in a rut in late October 2011. The two friends had rowed crew together at Northeastern University in Boston. Now that they weren’t in school—and no longer compelled to wake up for early morning practices—they found themselves skipping workouts, filling evening hours with cold beers during the brutal winter months.

So, at a bar one evening, they made a pact: Every weekday for the month of November, they were going to meet at 6:30 am, somewhere outside, and exercise for an hour. They created a shared Google Doc called the November Project to log their workouts.

After November was over, they kept on going—and not just for the accountability. “That hour actually brought us closer as friends,” says Mandaric. “When you see someone five days a week, the chit chat and small talk disappear, and you get into deep shit pretty quickly.”

Soon, through word of mouth and social media, a sizable group started showing up. “Next thing you know, we had 300 people,” says Mandaric. Without meaning to, they had created a community: the November Project.

Today, Graham and Mandaric work full-time running 52 November Project groups around the world (the vast majority are US-based, but there are groups in Canada, Iceland, Serbia, the UK, Japan, and Malaysia). They’re an official non-profit that makes money through donations and corporate partnerships with running-adjacent companies like Brooks or Knock-Around. Every single workout is free, and the group pledges they always will be.

When the knife-like pain in my right foot first popped up, I struggled emotionally with staying immobile. But the longer I stayed on the sidelines, the more I felt another ache grow: I missed November Project DC, my running group, dearly.

My first experience with November Project was in May 2017, after the group had popped up in my social media. I laced up my sneakers before dawn and made the nearly three-mile run down to the Lincoln Memorial for the 6:20 am workout.

There were lots of high fives—which I had expected—but what surprised me was the phrase “I’m glad you’re here.” That was how people greeted each other with the warm up, and said goodbye when we completed the running-based workout. I hadn’t just been allowed to participate—I had been enthusiastically welcomed.

That affirmation brought me back a second, and then a third time. Eventually, I was venturing out multiple times a week. I joined the unofficial long-run group that met on Saturdays across DC. I went to local race cheer stations, and the annual holiday lights run. I met up with newly-formed friends for drinks, movies, or concerts. I started visiting other November Project groups when I traveled to new cities for work.

Matt Anzur/November Project DC
An exceptionally big crowd when US Women’s soccer team member Kelley O’Hara joined.

Not every member’s story is like mine. “Everyone gets something different from it,” says Mandaric. Some people come because they want to work hard, and run stairs and do burpees and get faster. Others come because they like the social aspect.

And the November Project is not for everyone: Some people don’t like to run, or can’t, and some people are night owls. Others will find community-based programs that fit their lives better: DC alone plays host to chapters of groups like Black Girls Run, Pacers Running, and DC Front Runners—all of which are free, too.

Still others want to pay for a gym or boutique class, and the communities they can build. But as long as more people get moving in a way that suits them, we’re all winning, Mandaric says.

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There might be something to the November Project’s model, though, that can teach us broader truths about the kind of community that fosters fitness habits.

Johnson, the kinesiologist at the University of Wyoming, started a pilot study on November Project earlier this year. Right now, his team, which is funded by his university, is collecting surveys from participants who routinely attend November Project workouts.

He has a theory about people who participate—which we aren’t sharing here, to avoid confirmation bias in case any participants happen to read this article. His hope is that if he can show, quantitatively, that November Project has benefits that extend beyond the workouts themselves, they can be applied to other groups.

Andrew Carter, a public health professor at San Jose State University, is also studying November Project, but he’s taking a more qualitative approach. I first heard about his work at a rainy November Project workout in Oakland, California in December; Carter had lent me a backpack full of canned goods for a weight-based workout that would end with a trip to a local food bank. He’s interviewing some 50 participants to learn more about their experiences, seeing if they can be translated to populations with cultural barriers to exercise.

Although November Project itself is an inclusive community, the idea of fitness itself doesn’t translate everywhere. “If you go into these rural communities, a lot of the participants found [the idea of exercise] a very elitist and a white activity,” Carter explained. If he and his university-funded team can figure out what makes November Project special, maybe they can find ways to make it culturally relevant to other groups.

There’s something to be said for that approach, I think. I stayed away from November Project while I was injured because I felt like there was no point in going if I couldn’t do the workout. I can see how fear of being unable to do a workout, or not seeing representation of your own fitness abilities or preferences, would prevent others from venturing out to join an exercise group.

After months into my recovery—and after all my free trials at boutique gyms ended—my loneliness outweighed my bitterness over not being able to participate. So on a Monday morning in July, I decided to bike the 4.5 miles up to Malcolm X Park where the group meets. I figured if I couldn’t run, I could at least do situps and pushups.

To my surprise, I was greeted warmly. “We’re glad you’re here,” both friends and strangers said. Many people asked how I had been doing; they missed me, too. They listened to me lament my injury, and encouraged me to keep resting and working in physical therapy.

I wasn’t the only one recovering, it turned out: One woman I knew had tweaked her back, and I met another who had suffered some arm injuries in a rock climbing accident. We decided to walk together while the rest of the group did the circuit. It ended up being one of the favorite workouts I’ve ever been to.

Finally, I realized, my inclusion in this community had nothing to do with my fitness or ability. It’s impossible to put a price on being welcomed exactly as you are.