Every month, I set fire to a small pile of cash to belong to a gym I do not go to. You may think this is a terrible waste of money, but I enjoy the ritual. In my mind, I’m always going to go to the gym.
(I never go to the gym.)
This, of course, is a longstanding business model in the fitness world. There are many gyms around the country collecting a hearty monthly fee from lazy-butted customers like me who never—or seldom—walk through the doors. It’s brilliant and paradoxical, like a subscription cupcake bakery for people who never come in to pick up their cupcakes.
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But the gym business is being disrupted. The Journal’s Rachel Bachman has been chronicling the rise of “specialized fitness” in America—the trend away from big-box gyms with a zillion exercise machines and toward smaller, boutique-style companies that offer narrower, more focused philosophies.
The Big Gym You Never Went To is under siege from The Tiny Gym You Actually Go To.
It makes sense. In exercise, as in weddings, 50% of success is just showing up. And specialized fitness—CrossFit, SoulCycle, Orangetheory and their countless cousins—is a far more effective workout than wandering into a gym, sitting down on a recumbent bicycle, and pedaling slowly while reading Facebook on your phone.
But it’s also expensive. It isn’t uncommon for monthly memberships to boutique fitness operations to cost $200 or more, or for individual classes to cost $30 a class.
$30 a class! You are now permitted to scoff. Seriously, scoff away:
For $25 I’ll chase you around the block with a stick!
For $20 I’ll make you carry a bag of potatoes up the stairs!
For $15 I’ll sit in a lawn chair and scream at you to jump rope.
For $10 I’ll just tell you to stop eating chips and Skittles.
I’m not here to judge. I do think it’s a little nutty to spend $30 to ride a stationary bike indoors when, for the cost of a handful of classes, you can get an actual, mobile bike which comes with free outdoors—and, as an added bonus, you don’t have to listen to an instructor crank Maroon 5.
But as a failed, money-igniting never-gym-goer, who am I to rain on the specialized fitness phenomenon? What price is too much to pay for one’s physical well-being?
People will spend money on almost anything, after all. My local coffee shop laughs in my face when it takes $5 for an iced coffee. My Journal tech columnist colleague Christopher Mims thinks people are going to line up to pay $1400 for a new iPhone. There are New York Jets season ticket holders.
Besides, the people at specialized gyms always seem so happy. They’re fit, smiley and full of energy. They’re standing outside after their classes, sweat-drenched and towel-wrapped, brimming with a sense of accomplishment. They’re zealous and sometimes cult-like about their chosen regimens. And why not? In some cases, they’ve changed their lives.
I used to be addicted to mini blueberry muffins. Now I am addicted to Burpees. And posting selfies on Instagram.
My pals who’ve taken the boutique fitness plunge—they become different humans. They get new friends, new clothes, new diets. They swap out nachos for beef jerky and make their own pizza with cauliflower crust. They say “paleo” more than cavemen. They’re a little annoying to be seated next to at dinner. Hand them the bread basket, and they recoil like it’s a plate of bloody eyeballs.
(Although I think bloody eyeballs are, in fact, paleo.)
Boutique-fitness users are spending less on luxury goods and gasoline and more on fitness experiences, Bachman reports. This may have something to do with gasoline being cheaper, but it’s hard to argue that boutique fitness is a mere fad. It feels like a phenomenon.
Participants ride during a spinning class at SoulCycle in New York City.Photo: Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
I’ve jumped in myself. While still paying for the big gym I don’t go to (I’m an idiot, yes), I’ve also done some CrossFit (effective), some spinning (effective, though loud), and I’ve recently been going to a Pilates-style place in which I slide around on a padded, spring-loaded board and yank on straps and basically spend 40 minutes sobbing about my upper body strength, which resembles the upper body strength of a 4-year-old child.
I love it. (I think.) For me it’s unquestionably better than the traditional gym, and, frankly, the money is a motivator here. I am so shocked I am paying so much for these classes, I force myself to go.
I know there will always be people who think this is ridiculous. If you’re the kind of person who can walk into your own garage and knock out 45 minutes of dead-lifts and squats, boutique fitness probably sounds like more careless spending by over-pampered ninnies. I don’t disagree, and in my next life, I want to come back as you, brilliant and motivated and ripped.
But for now, I will choose to pay. And go.
But first, this cupcake.
Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com