The wild world of group fitness classes
Why suffering with others may be the best way to keep fit
Words— Calum Marsh
For about as long as I’ve been able to pick up a dumbbell, my idea of fitness has consisted almost exclusively of sweating it out in health club weight rooms, gamely lying prostrate on a bench press and occasionally scuttling along a treadmill. But frustrated with my lack of serious progress—and, let’s face it, spending most of my time at the gym scrolling through Instagram, listening to Carly Rae Jepsen—I was eager to find a more efficient way to work out and get fit.
So I signed up for some classes. These days, group fitness is more fashionable than ever, and most cities offer more ways to exercise with strangers than you’d imagine possible. We might look back on this era of trendy group fitness classes the same way we look at Tae Bo or Jazzercise now. But for the time being, I thought it prudent to see what was available.
It can be an excellent way to keep in shape. It can also get a little strange.
SoulCycle is an intensive indoor spin class whose fans treat it with an almost cult-like reverence. You sit on a stationary bike in a dark room lit by candles, surrounded by a lot of grim, healthy-looking people, as a cheerful instructor urges you to dig deep, or empty the tank, or a number of other euphemistic orders that mean “try harder.” SoulCycle rooms are decked out with state-of-the-art speaker systems, and they blast techno and hip hop at deafening volumes. The vibe is a little like a nightclub—and the next day, body pummelled, you might feel worse than after a night of heavy drinking.
Self-described, modestly, as “the best workout in the world,” Barry’s Bootcamp is an ideal gym for masochists and gluttons for bodily punishment. A combination of treadmill sprints and High-Intensity Interval Training, the workout will leave the underprepared battered and humiliated, slumped on the floor in a pool of sweat and tears. (At least, that was my humbling experience.) That’s hardly a bad thing: where fitness is concerned, suffering can be beneficial, and after 45 minutes in the ringer, you can practically feel your muscles firming up and the pounds sliding off.
Florida’s OrangeTheory is similar to Barry’s Bootcamp, but differs in two critical respects: one, its gyms are brighter and more cheerful, absent Barry’s trademark hellfire-red glow. And two, it’s a lot more welcoming to newcomers, beckoning the fitness-wary with workouts designed for people of all ages and bodies of all types. At OrangeTheory, you wear a band on your wrist that tracks your heart rate and other data, and over the course of the workout you collect Splat Points, which are tied to your heart rate and the calories you burn. This videogame-ish aspect adds an element of competition that can be wildly addictive and fun.
Jumping on a trampoline does not exactly seem like serious exercise, but a group class in this increasingly popular format is no joke—the combination of aerobic cardio and strength training is enough to exhaust any athlete, even if the activity itself seems like kids’ stuff. At the Fit and Jump studio in downtown Toronto, where I gave it a test-bounce, the instructor has you springing up and down on small personal trampolines, called “Rebounders,” with the leg-straining vigor of a squat gauntlet. I did feel a bit goofy when we launched into a rousing performance of “YMCA,” but the next day I was sore enough to have new respect for the Village People.
The boxing you’ll do at group boxing classes isn’t boxing—not really. You wear the gloves, and you punch a bag, and you do some moves that look like reasonably authentic, true. But this isn’t the sort of training that will prepare you for ten rounds in the ring with Evander Holyfield. The format’s like Barry’s or OrangeTheory, combining movements from CrossFit with intense rounds of cardio, only in this case you substitute speedy jabs and uppercuts for running in place. Not a bad trade, all things considered, and it’s a blast even if it isn’t truly technical.
Though it has a reputation as the domain of the elderly, aquafit isn’t just for senior citizens wanting to keep active by splashing around in the pool. Aquafit workouts use buoyant foam dumb bells for cardio-heavy resistance training, and when it really gets going, the thrusters and jumping jacks will have you panting in the deep end, struggling for breath. Most YMCAs and local city pools offer Aquafit classes for the community for much cheaper than your chic alternatives. Plus, the old folks who do turn up diligently tend to be really friendly.