The Leap of Faith That Could Whip You Into Shape

Workout classes change lives. We spoke to a panel of devotees.

November 13, 2023 5:50 am
A workout class taking place outside under a bridge.
Failing in public sucks. But it could be just what you need.
Universal Images Group via Getty

Richard Maher tried everything: weight machines at discount gyms, treadmills, ellipticals, even fitness video games. “The list was long, and the time spent [attempting each] was short,” he tells InsideHook. He could never get a new workout routine off the ground. Even a stint with a personal trainer petered out.

What was the issue? Maybe it started back in high school. Growing up, Maher was the only openly gay student in a conservative town. His classmates reminded him time and time again that he wouldn’t be a welcome participant in any team sports. Maher came to think of exercise as a companionless slog, which was a true shame — he might not have been a natural athlete, but he was always a natural extrovert.

“It would have been good to have had an environment where I could be a part of a team dynamic, but the mark that separated me from them had been left,” he says. So the years passed, and Maher spent many of them sitting around. “Being sedentary made it feel like I’d aged decades in a few years.”

The lightbulb moment arrived in 2019, when Maher signed up for a class at a barre studio. He was nervous about whether he could get through it, and do so without injuring himself, but it went surprisingly well. In fact, it was downright fun. He felt like he was part of a community.

These days, Maher works out at AKT, a dance-inspired fitness studio. There are three class types (Dance, Bands and Circuit) and he attends over 20 a month, always doubling up one day a week to pair a higher-intensity session with a low heart rate, strength-based course. It might sound gung-ho, but Maher’s feeling inspired — and at peace.

“AKT helped me realize that fitness could be fun and shouldn’t be taken too seriously,” he shares. “Being too serious gave my fears power. When I would just let go and have fun, the progress also came quicker. Working out used to be a chore…now even the soreness from testing my limits is gratifying and enjoyable.”

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The Wellness Collective

Maher’s story is a stamp of approval for the “wellness collective,” or put more simply, workout classes. The fitness tradition nearly flatlined during the pandemic (there were only so many glitchy Zoom sessions trainees could take, and “connected fitness machines” like Peloton, Mirror and Tonal had burst onto the scene), but over the last 18 months, in-person classes have charged back to the fore.

According to research data from ClassPass, fitness reservations increased by 95% from 2021 to 2022. Re-openings and vaccinations played a huge role there, to be sure, but Google Trends data indicates the interest has persisted into 2023. Mindbody, ClassPass’s parent company, has its ideas on why people seem keen for connection right now. In one review, it wrote, “Nearly half (43%) of all consumers say that community is a very important part of wellness experiences…. Is this growing desire for community due to the increasingly remote workforce? Perhaps.”

This tracks. Those of us on hybrid or permanent WFH schedules are sorely lacking a third place, a location beyond the home (the first place) and work (the second place) to hang out, exchange ideas, challenge ourselves and form bonds. A place to exercise with others can definitely constitute that all-important third place. (And if you’re working from home 24/7, it’s actually only your second place. That’s where a trusty coffee shop or pub comes in handy.)

While workout classes make sense for this moment in particular, there’s also something timeless in their appeal. They get the job done. A study conducted by the University of New England found that group exercise — when compared with partnered exercise, solo exercise and no exercise — “[led to] the most significantly decreased levels of perceived stress and increased physical, mental and emotional quality of life.” In other words, the right workout class is excellent for your mental health, which keeps you coming back, which inevitably leads to progress in your physical health.

Finding the Right Fit

The word “right” is paramount here. Some workout classes aren’t going to work for you, no matter how much you try to force it. Maybe it’s the activity. Maybe it’s the instructor leading it. Maybe it’s the precise period in your life that you found it. That’s all perfectly fine, but you won’t know what you don’t like if you never try. Somewhere out there, there’s a class for you. Maybe it’s something new.

Chellie Ferguson found refuge at Row House, a trendy studio that offers high-cardio workouts on stationary rowing machines. She’d gained 20 pounds during the pandemic, and felt extremely sedentary. “I was overweight, with little energy,” she says. “I knew I needed to make a change.” She signed up for a Row House membership after her very first class, her legs still shaking. The studio’s been the driver of — and intimate cheerleader to — her fitness journey ever since.

Between attending four Row House sessions a week, walking a total of 10 miles every few days with one of her best friends and fine-tuning her nutritional intake, Ferguson has lost an astonishing 110 pounds. Her mentors at the studio are over the moon. “The coaches started noticing that I was attending more classes on a routine basis and would always coach and cheer me on through class. I started making friends with the others around me. The weight started to come off, and more people would compliment me and encourage me. The community at the Row House is more like a family than just a gym. We text each other; we do activities outside of rowing together; we are each other’s cheerleaders, especially when we need a pick-me-up.”

Weight loss aside, Ferguson has transformed her body into that of a seasoned athlete. Early last year, she received a notification from her Apple Watch that her heart rate had dipped below 40 bpm for 10 minutes. Alarmed, she went to the doctor for tests; the results came back with a notation that Ferguson now had an “athletic heart.”

Pick Your Poison

To avoid decision fatigue, consider signing up for whatever workout class you find yourself remotely interested in. The list is already long (hot yoga, HIIT, jiu-jitsu) and getting weirder and more specific by the year (indoor surfing, warrior bootcamps, ice bath breathwork, mega-reformer nightclubs). It’s not your job to have a read on all of it before you try something — nor should you want to. If you find a little corner that works for you, there’s something self-fulfilling in that. The fact that you keep going back means you’re both parts challenged and inspired. Ride that wave.

Workout classes can offer a nice boost for those who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves sedentary, too. You’re also allowed to have different “eras” in your exercising life. John Chino began his running adventure back in the 1980s, a true marathon guy. He ran that distance for 10 years, until his performance peaked and his times started sliding in the wrong direction. Then he pursued open-ocean swimming for eight years.

“It wasn’t a long-term fit for me, so I switched to something else which worked,” Chino says. “What’s the cost to trying something and finding it’s not the right fit? Not much. But what’s the cost of missing out on something you love?” At 55, Chino began his next journey at Orangetheory Fitness. “It uses water rowing, treadmill running (or walking) and plyometric exercises. As a marathon runner, I was familiar with several of the concepts, but had not previously experienced them combined for one 60-minute workout. It was exhilarating, and totally satisfied my competitive cravings.”

That initial step back into group exercise reignited Chino’s love of team sports, too. (He played lacrosse in high school and college.) Now he plays pickup hockey with some friends — one of them the COO of the Anaheim Ducks. “We play weekly and it led me to take ice skating lessons (power skating) and to enjoy hockey clinics. Who knew skating was so hard? Never mind actually playing the game. I am terrible, but the weekly humiliation is good for my soul and it’s the most fun you could have doing something badly.”

On top of all that, Chino’s finding time for extra credit: stretching. He goes to StretchLab, an assisted stretch studio, where “flexologists” knead sore muscles and work to help trainees restore mobility. It’s a worthy reminder that group exercise doesn’t always take the form of a sweaty studio. There are countless recovery outlets out there, which can make sure whatever work you’re putting in at your other workout class isn’t going to waste. It sounds expensive, but so are medical bills.

Immediacy and Camaraderie

While there is no silver bullet for the many crises that dominate health headlines — obesity, loneliness, screen addiction — the right workout class offers a hell of a lot of hope for those struggling. It’s out there. It may be on your very street. (It may even be moving up your street. Running clubs have exploded over the last few years. Strava discovered that runners in “grouped activities” have logged 78% more active time than those who ran solo this year.)

All you have to do is commit to 10 minutes of research and 60 minutes (or so) of a brand-new experience. Know that your anxieties about that prospect are shared by much of the population. “I’d say you have to get comfortable with the idea of looking silly or being a beginner again,” Kristjana Hillberg says. She started boxing in her 30s. “It’s like being the new kid…it feels nerve-racking and scary and brings back some feelings of ‘Will they like me?’ ‘Will I fit in?’ Learning how to be comfortable in the uncomfortable…or at least being willing to say, ‘Fuck it. I hate this and I’m doing it anyway.’ The biggest change will be internal.”

That’s an ongoing transformation for Hillberg, who still heads to her boxing classes fretting over whether she’ll throw her combinations in the right order, or whether her coach will make her spar. But it’s that very mind game that keeps her coming back: the power of the unknown, the challenge in the uncomfortable, the singularity of working out with other people in the here and now.

“It brings me back to the current moment,” she says. “There’s always potential to fail…and to fail in front of mostly dudes! It gives me no other option than to think right then, right now.”

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