People love gyms like CrossFit and Pure Barre because they’ve made fancy fitness a status symbol

People love gyms like CrossFit and Pure Barre because they’ve made fancy fitness a status symbol
Image: China Daily/Reuters
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Americans have developed a taste for fancy gyms. Attendance at specialty gyms like SoulCycle, CrossFit, Pure Barre, Orangetheory, and countless others grew by 70% between 2012 and 2015, according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). And high-end boutique fitness studios now make up 35% of the $25.8 billion fitness market.

It’s a costly habit: specialized classes in spinning, CrossFit or hot yoga can run anywhere between $20 and $40 per class, and monthly passes are significantly more expensive than memberships at no-frills alternatives. Yet boutique studios are thriving because they’ve figured out how to tap into a motivational strategy long noted by exercise scientists: feelings of community and belonging keep people coming back.

Low-cost gyms turn a profit by selling memberships to hundreds—sometimes thousands—more people than they can actually accommodate. Most members never come. Meanwhile, while some boutiques offer monthly passes, many charge per class—which means their billions in revenue come from people who are actually showing up to exercise. As only 20% of Americans meet federal guidelines for physical activity, that is no small feat. Here’s how they manage to keep people coming back:

1. They make you feel like you’re getting more than a workout

SoulCycle, which touts itself as having “revolutionized indoor cycling” and promises to help you “change your body” and “find your SOUL,” opens its sign-ups for weekly classes every Monday at noon. The famed rush to snag a spot is part of what ensures that SoulCycle classes continue to sell out 10 years after the company’s launch.

Boutique studios present their classes as uniquely refined and rigorous—not just any old class you can take at your gym. Pure Barre promises that its method is “the fastest, most effective way to change your body.” CrossFit plays into its hardcore reputation as a “strength and conditioning program for police, military, and athletes.” In fact, CrossFit calls its instructors “coaches” and refers to every class participant as an “athlete,” regardless of skill level.

“Boutiques cater to a very specific, specialized, and passionate segment who are willing to pay more for being part of a ‘tribe,’” said Meredith Poppler, IHRSA spokesperson. “It’s the sense of belonging where everyone is ‘like them’ versus a traditional club, which caters to many different types of exercisers.”

2. Their cult-like atmosphere makes you feel accountable

Exercise researchers have found that people who are motivated primarily by intrinsic factors like enjoyment, not by extrinsic factors like physical appearance, are more likely to work out consistently. And being surrounded by highly committed people is one of the best ways to create intrinsic motivation.

“Being with a group of people who have the same goal, even if it’s just a short-term goal like trying to complete the workout, helps motivate you,” said Danielle Wadsworth, who leads the Exercise Adherence and Obesity Lab at Auburn University. At a boutique, you aren’t just working out with the group that wandered in for a 2:30 class. You’re working out with people who have bought into a particular philosophy, who went out of their way to reserve a coveted spot, and who are accordingly enthusiastic about being there.

That “tribe” also notices when you have skipped workouts, making you accountable for your behavior. “Sure, I could skip a few weeks,” said Amanda Payne, a CrossFit enthusiast in Pullman, Washington. “But when I got back, I’m sure my coaches and the other athletes in my classes would ask where I had been. They wouldn’t do it to be rude or condescending, but because they really wondered where I was and missed me being there.” When you know your absence will be noticed, you’re less likely to blow class off.

3. They lavish personal attention on members

Members of traditional gyms are often left to their own devices, popping in and out independently to hop on the elliptical or lift some weights. You can always hire a personal trainer to demystify the squat rack, but it comes at a hefty additional price.

By contrast, boutique studios always offer their members direct instruction rather than leaving them to their own devices. Typically, there is no open workout space in these gyms. Studio attendees are always in a class, small group, or personal training session, with an instructor there to demonstrate exercises and explain the use of any equipment. “Because these facilities are smaller than traditional gyms, there is often a greater opportunity for staff and members to interact with each other,” said Poppler.

Stephanie Bagwell, a Michigan resident and devotee of the high intensity interval training studio Orangetheory, notes that she works harder when she gets direct attention from instructors. “I was used to just going to Planet Fitness, but I wanted to be pushed harder. Once I started going to Orangetheory, I got addicted to the atmosphere but also the intensity that I would never replicate on my own,” she said. Orangetheory equips each member with a heart rate monitor so they can gauge intensity and monitor their progress. Rise Nation, a Los Angeles studio that bases its workouts around the VersaClimber (a sort of total-body Stairmaster) similarly encourages participants to track how many feet they have climbed.

Individualized attention and clear metrics of progress are the big differences between boutiques and budget gyms. “At a lower-end gym, unless you know enough about exercise to vary your frequency, intensity, time, and type, you’re not going to be able to see results,” said Wadsworth. “At a high-end studio, all you have to do is walk in the door. You don’t have to have enough motivation to actually complete the workout by yourself.” Personal attention isn’t just about good customer service; Helping people feel confident in their workout also makes them more likely to stick with it.

4. Fancy fitness is a status symbol

Of course, there’s a big barrier to this motivational bonanza: price. The people in the US who can afford to spend $34 on a spin class several times per week are often also the ones more likely exercise regularly. “Research shows that higher income level means a higher rate of exercise participation, particularly among racial minorities,” Dr. Wadsworth said.

If the status symbol of 2004 was the Juicy Couture tracksuit, in 2016 it’s an updated athleisure look and a front row spot in spin class. But this means that lower-income people who could also benefit from a motivating, exciting exercise intervention are left out of the trend almost entirely. IHRSA data shows that membership in nonprofit fitness centers like YMCAs, which offer classes and have financial aid programs for low-income members, dropped 12% between 2012 and 2015. Most likely, many of these members are decamping for the new breed of even cheaper gyms, with few to no class offerings.

The good news is that the rest of the fitness world seems to have finally noticed the trend. The culture of boutique gyms sets them apart from traditional facilities more than the substance of the actual workouts. So while nonprofit facilities can’t provide that kind of atmosphere, they are working to enliven their class offerings. New York City YMCAs offer spin, trampoline fitness, TRX, boot camp, and host of other specialty classes. Those classes may not come with the same bragging rights—but try a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach and you can achieve the same results.