Bellying up to D.C.’s fitness smorgasbord
By Vicky Hallett,
Getting injured running the 2010 Boston Marathon wasn’t much fun for Meaghan Stakelin. But what happened next was.
“I quit the gym,” says Stakelin, who used her recovery time to reassess her fitness program. She needed something inspiring to take the place of running, and rooms of equipment just weren’t cutting it. So Stakelin started sampling classes from Washington’s smorgasbord of yoga studios, boutique gyms and other exercise operations that let her drop in without signing up for a membership.
The habit has turned into a blog, DC Fit Crasher, which the 26-year-old Cleveland Park resident started in September. Stakelin is attempting to chronicle every single fitness class in Washington, whether it requires flipping tires at a strongman gym or performing plies at a barre studio.
“Some things work for me, some don’t. But there’s no harm in trying,” Stakelin says. “It’s important to shake things up.” And that approach is worth copying — especially if you’re still on the hunt for a New Year’s resolution.
Finding classes doesn’t require much exertion. A flood of new fitness businesses over the past few years means you can’t walk around Washington without passing a cycling studio, a boxing gym or a pole dance program. Lululemon Athletica partnered with 50 D.C. area yoga studios to offer free classes on Election Day, and that wasn’t even close to every studio in the region. Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit (a popular conditioning program), told me this summer that Washington has more affiliated “boxes” than practically anywhere else in the world.
To make sense of all the options, Stakelin’s strategy is an ever-evolving spreadsheet, but there’s an easier alternative if you’re not quite so organized: Gorecess.com. The site, co-founded by Georgetown grad Megan Smyth and Bill Arzt and launched in April, bills itself as basically the Open Table of exercise. Type in a location, and it’ll spit out a list of classes nearby, so you can click to make a reservation.
Just like you make brunch plans with friends, you can organize group Pilates outings, which makes fitness more social — and more effective, according to Smyth. “You’re more likely to stick with it with a workout buddy,” says Smyth, who started the site because she’d gotten hooked on boutique fitness classes while living in New York City. (Washington is the site’s second-busiest market after New York.)
Another upside of small, specialized places is that they not only know your name, but they’re also likely to know what they’re doing. That makes 30-year-old Marcia Joseph of Silver Spring comfortable every time she visits Off Road on U Street NW to take a cycling, boxing or TRX class (a form of body-weight training using straps suspended from the ceiling). When she was a member of a larger gym, Joseph says, “it was like going to Macy’s. They have a sampling of Michael Kors, but it’s not a Michael Kors store.”
At places such as Off Road, which opened in October, you’re going for the specific purpose of taking a class rather than the nebulous “going to work out,” so there’s no risk of getting lost. “It’s a lot less intimidating,” says 37-year-old Robb Hudson, who feels like at bigger gyms, he’d need to pay a trainer to tag along with him.
A key selling point? No commitment. Of course, Tali Wenger, co-owner of Off Road, would like to see clients again and again, and along with drop-ins and class packages, there is a monthly unlimited membership available. But there’s no pressure to sign a year-long contract. The point is to offer flexibility, so folks can cut back without guilt when they’re traveling, slammed at work or trying other fitness classes.
“The worst thing is to sign up for something and feel like you let yourself down,” Wenger says.
She won’t hear any disagreement from psychologist Tracy Sbrocco, director at the Uniformed Services University Center for Health Disparities in Bethesda. “I work with overweight and obese people who moan and groan about the gym membership they never use,” says Sbrocco, who tries to steer her patients into setting more attainable exercise goals than the perennial loser of “going to the gym every day.”
Not to say that large gyms don’t work for many of their members. (Just look at the numbers: 59 million Americans visited a health club in 2011, more than 51 million as members.) Sometimes you’d rather work up a sweat solo, or do your own specific routine. Plus, many Washington gyms have busy schedules that make studio offerings seem paltry.
But if that approach has flopped for you in the past, chances are it will again. Sbrocco often suggests sampling as a way to find a kind of fitness that you enjoy enough to keep doing — maybe that’s yoga, or Zumba or even walking. “You work all day doing things you often don’t want to do. So you don’t want to spend another hour doing something you don’t want to do,” she says.
You also probably don’t want to spend a lot of extra money, and one drawback to paying a la carte is that the costs add up fast when drop-ins are often $20 or more per class. Even in Washington, where gym memberships can top $100 per month, someone working out once or twice a week at boutique gyms can end up shelling out substantially more cash.
“But it’s far less expensive than a personal trainer,” notes Kate Arnold, who owns the Bar Method studio in downtown Washington and is set to open another outpost of the national chain in Bethesda this month. “Our teachers know how to push you individually, and you get inspiration from the group.”
Stakelin, of DC Fit Crasher, says her health is worth it. Besides, she says, the variety and personalized attention are worth the extra cost. “You get what you pay for,” she says.
And with gym memberships, that might not always be the case. Stefano DellaVigna, an economics professor at University of California at Berkeley, published a study showing that most people choose gym membership over pay-as-you-go programs, but — based on their attendance — they would have saved money if they’d paid for each visit individually.
But the problem with paying per visit is that it provides an economic deterrent to exercise.
DellaVigna’s solution? Multi-class packages purchased in advance. “You’re saving money but not disincentivizing yourself,” he says.
Sounds like a good start to a New Year’s resolution.
@postmisfits on Twitter
Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read past columns by Hallett and Lenny Bernstein at washingtonpost.com/wellness . There, you can subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter to get health news e-mailed to you every Tuesday.