Today’s Gyms Emphasize the Power of Community
Group classes — whether spinning or dancing or core workouts — are all the rage in the fitness world, and it’s easy to see why. Working out in a group provides not only socialization and support, but accountability and motivation to maintain one’s progress. Often, area gym owners say, the biggest challenge is just taking that first step — and learning that fitness classes are, quite simply, a lot of fun.
Maggie Bergin is certified to teach spinning, TRX, and Group X classes, and has, in fact, been teaching fitness in the Valley for the past seven years. As the communications director at Open Square, she thought it would be a natural move to open a fitness facility in that complex overlooking Holyoke’s canals.
So, last month, she launched the Reset, which specializes in group classes, hoping to draw some of the 200 people who work at Open Square, as well as employees of nearby businesses, to take part in ‘nooner’ sessions at lunchtime and classes after work.
“I love leading people through workouts,” she told BusinessWest. “I designed the Reset to accomplish the medical things we are supposed to get done in the most efficient way possible. And what are we supposed to do? Getting our heart rate up on a regular basis, using our muscles so muscle mass doesn’t decrease over time, and stretching, so we’re not tighter than bark on a tree in our 40s and 50s.”
But there’s a difference between understanding the need to work out and actually doing it, she went on.
“I see that people have less and less time; we’re drawn in 20 different directions in the morning and exhausted at night. So things have to be comprehensive and quick. People think, ‘if I can’t get a full-body workout in an hour, I’m not going to do it.’ I created this place to hit those three goals so people can keep moving and stay healthy into their 90s.”
The Reset is equipped with TRX suspension trainers hanging from the ceiling, a popular fitness device designed by a Navy Seal to have intense core workouts with a minimum of equipment. But it’s not equipment that will draw members to Bergin’s new gym, she said; it’s the appeal of working out as a group.
In fact, group training classes have become the most popular element of today’s fitness facilities. Gym owners say people who might initially be reserved about working out around others are quickly taken by the sense of community, mutual support, and socialization these classes offer.
“Some people, particularly women, feel they have to be perfect immediately, and do it exactly like the instructor immediately. That is a lie,” Bergin said. “You don’t have to do it like anyone else; you can make it your own, within safety precautions, which I’m going to take care of. You have to embrace that you’re on a journey, and in a different place than someone else in the room.”
Marie Ball, owner and group personal-training specialist at the Anytime Fitness franchise in Agawam, agrees.
“The biggest trend we’re responding to is the need for small-group personal training,” she said. “People are more focused today on socialization in fitness, which allows for accountability and motivation. They like to work out in a group.”
However, the smaller groups that Anytime runs typically max out at five to seven participants, so there’s more individualized attention from the trainer, while maintaining that social aspect people desire.
“Some of the participants may not have the same ability, so the trainer is constantly checking and instructing and making sure they’re exercising with proper form, technique, and posture,” she said. “In a large class, the trainer might not have the ability to make sure everyone is doing things properly, so there’s greater potential for injury.”
Justin Killeen, owner of 50/50 Fitness/Nutrition in Hadley, said the trend has been away from commercial, big-box gym environments filled with Nautilus and circuit equipment, and toward a more supportive, community environment. He noted that the technology on today’s group workout equipment gives instant feedback for calories burned and other data, while allowing participants to compete against each other for extra motivation.
Mostly, though, what fitness enthusiasts — especially the younger crowds — are looking for is a fun experience.
“If we have a regular spin class but don’t make it fun and interesting, it’s not as engaging, and people won’t want to come back to it,” he said, adding that people also want a progressive experience, tracking their goals with each workout. “We want to build on each workout and tie it in to your overall health and wellness.”
For this issue’s focus on fitness and nutrition, BusinessWest examines why group fitness classes are growing in popularity and how they motivate people to get — and stay — healthy.
Time and Energy
When she considers where people find that motivation, Bergin agrees with Killeen that it starts with having fun.
“I keep things light. We’re not saving babies here; we’re trying to get stronger and stay healthy,” she explained. “I take my training seriously, but I’m not a yeller. I’m going to encourage, not berate. Some people want to be berated; they respond to that. At places with multiple instructors, you can find one that works best for you.”
Finding time can also be an issue, especially for people with jobs and kids. The 24/7 model at Anytime Fitness is geared toward this issue, Ball said. “In today’s busy world, people have crazy schedules, and it’s hard to fit time in for themselves and make that investment. That’s one of the benefits of our facility. You can do this on your own time.”
She said the overnight hours are beneficial not only for those with those so-called crazy schedules, but first-timers who might be nervous about working out in front of lots of people. Many of them, however, eventually move on to daytime classes and experience the social benefits of exercising as a group.
“Every fitness club or gym has a certain demographic,” she said. “Our club is kind of mixed; some members want to come in the when the gym is quiet, and our 24/7 model lends itself to that. People can work out on their own terms and don’t have to worry about being in an overwhelmingly busy place. Many are just beginning their journey, and they’re not comfortable exercising in front of people.”
Others strictly crave the one-on-one interaction with a personal trainer, which Anytime also offers, but the most popular option continues to be those small-group classes. “People like the socialization aspect. I think some people really need that in their lives to get motivated; they like that engaging atmosphere.”
Besides its popular group classes, 50/50, as its name suggests, helps members with their nutrition plans as well, as a way to bring total wellness under one roof — and save time in the process.
“We try to integrate a lot of the health and wellness spectrum,” Killeen said. “People might end up going to one place for a gym, then go to nutritionist, then a massage therapist. Our goal here is to pull as many of these together as possible.”
That said, “we try to create a network of people that come together here as part of a community. We bring the whole experience full-circle for them. The nutrition piece is certainly a big part of it. The underlying concept is a balanced approach, thinking more holistically, instead of jumping in on one thing at a time — diet for a while, gym for a while, and so on.”
It helps, he said, that people today are more educated about health and wellness and have options for improving their own.
“For the first time, the younger generation has grown up with it, and they consider it a fun and social thing to do,” he said of group exercise. “If you go out with some friends and go to a spin class and head out afterward, you form friendships. It’s the best of both worlds — the social piece and the feeling that you’re progressing toward something important.”
Still, Ball said, it can be difficult for some people to get started.
“I always say, when people walk in our door, that might be the hardest thing they’re going to do this month. That first step is so hard for people,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the sheer variety of fitness modes can be intimidating.
“It’s a good thing there’s a lot of options, but that can also be a bad thing, when they don’t even know what they need. The first step should be to check out a lot of places and find out where you’re comfortable.”
That’s why Anytime offers a seven-day all-access pass so people can get a feel for the center without a long-term, high-cost commitment.
“If people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to come back, and they’re not going to progress along their journey,” Ball said. “But it starts with stepping out of your comfort zone and finding like-minded people who support you. A lot of people out there though they couldn’t do it, and then they found they could. Everyone can have a success story.”
And, as Bergin said, success often starts by finding an activity that’s fun, because without that element, people don’t want to invest their money and time.
“It’s not food or shelter. You have to be interested and find joy and be willing to spend money on this thing,” she said, adding that there are always more people to reach with the message that fitness matters. “If we’d figured out how to get people motivated, we wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic and a pre-diabetes epidemic. We all know what we need to be doing.”
And she’s eager to help people find their fitness joy.
“I was always the second-to-last picked in gym. I don’t come by this naturally,” she said. “I have a deep empathy for people who haven’t found their thing yet. So, if you don’t like swimming, don’t swim. If you don’t like running, don’t run. If you want to dance in your underwear to Depeche Mode, then do that. And do it again and again and again. If I can find a thing, you can find a thing. And once you’ve found that thing, keep doing it.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]