Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
How you do anything is how you do everything." It's late 2012, and a raspy-voiced SoulCycle instructor is purring through her face-mounted microphone in a final push before these 45 minutes of grapefruit-candle-scented cardio come to an end. This gratis session, gifted to myself and co-workers at the buzzy startup we call 9-to-5, is my very first taste of what will become a downright boutique fitness explosion. And I like it.
Over the following two years, I'll subject myself to countless boutique fitness classes before hitting burnout.
I like the music, the dramatic lighting, the fact that my brain is so occupied adjusting each of my five senses that the time flies by. Normally, I'd spend an hour and a half at my neighborhood budget gym occupied with a mix of jogging on the treadmill, free weights, and stretching. Here, in this dark room with mirrors and equally-spaced stationary bicycles, I've sweat more than ever, and in just 45 minutes. It feels efficient, and the studio's accommodations are so damn sexy: The lockers don't require locks, just codes that you make up for yourself; everything is visibly clean and glossy white; and you get a cold, skinny bottle of SmartWater for free—well, free wrapped inside the $34 it takes to book a seat in the room.
But the instructor's motivational statement pulls me out of what should be "the zone." How you do anything is how you do everything? The half-hearted way I cook eggs for myself doesn't reflect the caliber at which I pen a loving birthday card to my grandma; the ten second version of "making my bed" each morning has no correlation to the dedication I funnel into my job. She's calling for all or nothing—a familiar attitude in hard-working New York, but one that I've always found obsessive and counterproductive.
Over the following two years, I'll subject myself to countless boutique fitness classes before hitting burnout. It won't be my body that gives way, but rather my tolerance for hollow motivational statements, cheesy instructors, and ‘80s rock-infused playlists. Throw in scheduling anxiety and subpar physical results, and it's no wonder that I'll finally hit class fatigue, eventually returning to the practically retro neighborhood gym.
There were some early hints that the boutique fitness world wouldn't be my sweat-drenched utopia. When that first SoulCycle class let out, I saw the gang waiting for the next class. Everyone looked impatient and no one was speaking, which struck me as odd, considering the positive energy of the class they were all walking into. More notably, that the group practically looked like a casting call: female, white, 23 to 34 years old, gross income north of $60k (or parental supplementation), equal distribution of self-loving and self-loathing. These were the girls who would get really into nail art once 2013 hit.
Fast forward to 2015 and both Broad City and The Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt have made fun of SoulCycle's dippy self-help culture and cult-like grip on its biggest fans. But back in 2012, I was encouraged enough by my one session to scoop up a GiltCity deal on classes at a competing indoor cycling studio. (SoulCycle never discounts, and Nicola never pays $34 for 45 minutes of sweating).
In one of my first rides, the instructor held a social media contest where the winner received vegan chocolate mousse, made by her.
In one of my first rides, the instructor held a social media contest where the winner received vegan chocolate mousse, made by her. She swore it was divine. In a few sessions, I learned how to clip in my cycling shoes all on my own, "ride to the beat," and grimace through a "Welcome to the Jungle" remix while I prayed for a Lil Wayne track to play next.
During this time, early 2013, I started working full time at Racked New York, covering the city's shopping scene, which quickly began to include shopping for fitness classes. Specialty sweat spaces were flourishing in the city: each neighborhood gained a CrossFit box, ladies-only HIIT classes emerged, and big name gyms like Crunch added niche classes with proprietary equipment like wobbly surfboard yoga. Of course, you can't really report on a studio without trying it, so comped trial classes became a regular part of my life. And the audience appeared to appreciate it—the pageviews for these articles indicated a real appetite for fitness news, and we were happy to feed the need. I supplemented my fitness habit by buying packages of the classes I liked, participating in studio challenges, and enrolling in ClassPass as soon as it launched.
Soon I was living in "athleisure" clothing—the physical counterpart to the class explosion—with a workout scheduled before or after work most days, and my trips to the actual gym few and far between. TRX, rowing, chair Pilates, aquacycling—my friends would ask if I'd tried the latest thing they've heard about and, yes, I always had. "Do you want to go together this weekend?" Ehh... not really.
Because, while it might be bratty to get jaded about free fitness classes, all the schtick was starting to turn me off: The Britney vs. Christina theme rides, the in-studio smoothie bars. An instructor declaring "It's Friday, which is my second favorite F-word" had me cringing before a session even begins. On top of that, I was getting tired of gauging the vibe at each studio (is the front desk bubbly and chatty, or more standoffish New York?), remembering to check studio accommodations in advance (will I be able to shower? Do I need to bring my own lock?), and stressing when I'm running a few minutes behind ("You can't be late to the gym," I think every time). I didn't love the kind of people I'm in class with, either—a lot of privileged Manhattanites whose studio habit coincided nicely with the similarly-timed growth of blowdry bars.
The breaking point came when a class leader ripped off his shirt and swirled it in a fan-like motion in front of sweating, panting me while something abysmal like Ke$ha played. This was so corny and I couldn't believe I was doing it with my free time. I felt a lot more like myself listening to Watch the Throne and lifting weights next to a gaggle of beefy men at my $20 per month gym in South Williamsburg.
All of this might be a matter of taste, but the really evil cherry on top of this fancy fitness sundae was that my body didn't change for the better. I actually gained weight, despite the theory (myth? legend?) that "mixing it up" will lead to "muscle confusion" and you'll "outsmart your body" or something.
The really evil cherry on top of this fancy fitness sundae was that my body didn't change for the better.
In my experience, consistently repeating the same routine with increased difficulty over time has been the gold standard for getting into better shape. I suppose committing to one studio's method with escalating personal bests in class would lead to that kind of change, but at $30 a pop, four times a week...well, I'm a pragmatic midwesterner at the end of the day, and dropping nearly $500 a month on fitness classes just isn't me. (Before you rebutt with ClassPass at $99 per month, keep in mind that you can only repeat each studio three times per billing session, which makes it a good way to get a taste, but not a great way to build a habit.)
I cancelled my ClassPass membership, finished up the packages I'd bought, and started declining offers to try the hot new group treadmill workout. I began to feel a lightness: My iCal had fewer appointments and I was freed from toting sneakers and dry shampoo with me. I started to carry small bags again. I joined a gym near my apartment where I show up when I feel like it, stay for as long (or as short) as I like, and luxuriate in my expletive-heavy playlists. I don't need motivational statements; I'm "Feelin' Myself."