Minneapolis St. Paul Magazine
Let's Get Physical!
By Allison Kaplan. Suddenly boutique gyms are everywhere—with boxing or barre, classes for new moms or boomers. Take a walk in our gym shoes to find the one that’s best for you. It’s there, like a wagging finger, every time we drop off the dry-cleaning or pick up a pizza: another fitness studio. Rare is the strip mall these days that does not include some sort of boutique gym—be it yoga or weightlifting, barre or boxing. They’re open early, late, and even around the clock. This extreme access and convenience flies in the face of our best excuses for not working out.

Now there’s an exercise routine for everyone, whether you have 20 minutes or two hours, whether you want to sweat...or not.

Fitness expert Chris Freytag is of the sweat mentality—her High Intensity Interval Training class packs the largest gymnasium at Life Time Fitness in Plymouth every Saturday morning. She’s worked in and around gyms for years, and she’s noticed it, too: There have never been more options. That’s good news for those of us who struggle to fit fitness into our already over-filled lives. “There’s no one-workout-fits-all,” Freytag says. “The industry is expanding as we’re learning more about healthy living.”

The Twin Cities tends to be more fit-focused than other places in the nation. But with a whopping 68.1 million Americans who are inactive, obesity and diabetes on the rise, and health insurance changes on the horizon, the pressure’s on. And more people seem eager to get off the couch—especially as the economy recovers.

Health club membership leveled off during the recession, but it’s inching back up again. Aging baby boomers, who tend to have money to spend on fitness as well as the bulges and aches that come with age, are a big factor in this uptick. First Lady Michelle Obama’s crusades against childhood obesity are driving an increase in gym membership among teens, too.

And for those of us who are accustomed to finding exactly what we want when we want it on our smartphones, treadmills in a cavernous warehouse just don’t cut it.

All of this has contributed to a growing number of gyms, both large and small. The trend is particularly pronounced in Minnesota, which has a reputation for being a fitness industry launch pad. We’re home to three of the biggest health club chains in the country: Life Time Fitness, Anytime Fitness, and Snap Fitness. We’re also home to The Marsh in Minnetonka, Ruth Stricker’s pioneering health and wellness fitness center, as well as STEELE Fitness, one of the original boutique gyms, which may take its luxury personal training–focused business national this year.

“Everything in the world is moving toward smaller. Smaller, more focused, and better at what we do,” says CEO Steele Smiley, whose core concept is to bring personal training to the client—wherever and whenever it’s convenient. “The average person is more committed and overscheduled than ever before. Concepts that succeed are the ones that completely bend to the customer.” This much is for sure: We have options. No fewer than five ballet-inspired barre studios popped up in the Twin Cities in the past year. Small group personal training is the focus of several newer gyms, including Discover Strength and Tiger Athletics. Others, such as OrangeTheory and Koko FitClub, are incorporating technology to track the effectiveness of a workout.

Gimmick, or the new norm? Time, and class registrations, will tell. Workouts come and go like fashion trends. Industry veteran Lonna Mosow, who runs a fitness studio in Eden Prairie, has seen this cycle before: small gyms giving way to big health clubs and back to smaller studios again. “There’s been almost a full evolution,” she says.

Big gyms are responding to the current boutique boom by adding more classes and niche programs. Hastings-based Anytime Fitness, founded on a less-is-more philosophy, now has group exercise rooms at some of its 2,000-plus locations around the world. Life Time Fitness is focusing on specific programs such as adult swimming, rock climbing, and triathlon training.

“The dynamic we’re seeing now is a new set of consumers saying, ‘I need to take personal responsibility—there’s no magic pill or diet.’ But they want to get healthy by doing what they love,” says Jason Thunstrom, vice president of public relations and corporate communications for Chanhassen-based Life Time. “The old model was, sign up for a membership, then figure it out. Now we’re seeing more people leading by interest area first.”

Of course, for most of us with jobs and families and mortgages, it’s challenging enough just getting to the gym—any gym. Now we’re supposed to learn Latin dance, train for a race, and find our way to inner peace on top of a stronger core. How do we fit it all in?

Sara Afdahl, a full-time retail buyer, wife, and mother of two, canceled her gym membership when her son was born six years ago. She bought an elliptical machine and ran outside until the first freeze, but gradually she starting trying small classes at Balanced Barre & Pilates in St. Louis Park and Wayzata, Discover Strength and Tiger Athletics close to home in Plymouth, and Core Power, which has yoga studios all over town.

She and her husband alternate morning or evening workouts and kid duties, or she sneaks in a 30-minute session over the lunch hour. Afdahl doesn’t like to pay for a workout more than twice a week. Even so, she ends up spending more on packages at small fitness studios than she did on monthly dues at the big gym. It’s worth it, she says. “Working out is my only stress reliever.”

Afdahl likes the variety, the intimacy, and the intensity of small studio classes. “I want to be pushed,” says the 36-year-old. “Especially as I get older—if I’m going to take an hour to work out, I want to leave it all there, know I did what I could do, and move on with my day.”

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