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Adrianne Madias leads a Barre Code class

The New Workouts

Boxing. Ballet. Hot yoga. What's driving the boutique fitness boom?

by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds

From the February, 2018 issue

Steve Bemis, seventy, is a Webster Township farmer. "I live a physical life, and so I wanted to strengthen my core--safely--as I get older," he says. "I thought about a gym, but my wife convinced me to go to someone who knows the human body and gears a program to what I need."

His wife, Judy, has long been working with health coach Darlene Sosenko. Which is how Bemis found himself at the newly opened JOY: Freedom in Motion studio on Main St. in December. Pre-Midnight Madness crowds flocked to the open house at the former Espresso Royale, curious about the elegant wooden "Gyrotonic" equipment.

"This equipment works our bodies in spirals, circles, and spheres, offering a three-dimensional approach to exercise," owner Heather Glidden explains as Sosenko demonstrates.

"We recognize that you're only as young as your spine is mobile," Sosenko adds. "When we move in life, we just don't go forward and back. We twist, turn, bend, and flex. Gyrotonics mimics our motions in real life, strengthening our body and encouraging more flexibility."

JOY also offers Pilates and yoga sessions, nutritional programs, a vibrating Galileo exercise machine that looks like a fancy scale, an elegant massage room, and infrared sauna. No showers, however. "I'm a firm believer in essential oils and the fact that Americans wash too much, removing oils from their skin," Sosenko says.


Baby boomers started flocking to gyms in record numbers in the 1980s, working shoulder-to-shoulder on medieval-looking equipment with the traditional gym rats, weightlifters and athletes, hoping to lose pounds and stress. But times and workouts have changed dramatically. Fitness-minded people are now circumventing gyms and spending their time in, and money on, small and intimate boutique fitness programs.

"In the last five years, we've seen a significant change in the marketplace for fitness," says John Rotche, founder of Ann Arbor-based "meta-franchisor" Franworth. "Interest has moved from big-box fitness centers with machines to boutique fitness centers with trainer-led programs for busy people who

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need to be in and out in an hour. Boutique fitness programs are more focused and supervised than gym workouts; they tend to be specialized."

Gyrokinesis. Pilates. Yoga in a multitude of forms. Boot camp. Spinning. Boxing. Jazzercise. Kickboxing. Rowing. Ballet barres. Boutique fitness is an umbrella term for a dizzying variety of user-specific programs held in small, intimate, often aesthetically pleasing surroundings.

"Gyms foster the mentality that fitness has to hurt. Everyone looks miserable as they try to disassociate from their bodies to endure their workouts," says Elaine Economou, who owns MOVE wellness centers on Jackson Rd. and S. State. Boutique fitness programs "involve smaller groups of people and a much stronger level of supervision. Nowadays more people understand the impact of fitness on their overall health. They're willing to pay for routines that positively impact their health."

And that can be costly. Monthly gym memberships can drop to $10 a month after the holidays, while boutique programs start at $18 per class and might rise to over $100 for individual sessions with a personal trainer.

So, what do boutique fitness programs offer that gyms do not?

Brenda Steiner, owner of Unique Hair Studio, has spent 1,500 hours training to become a Pilates instructor at MOVE, across Jackson from her studio, after Pilates exercises healed her back, eliminating the need for surgery. "Pilates teaches techniques that help us maintain our physical abilities as we age," she says.

Banker Eunice Frey-Dobbs chooses "boot camp" workouts and Jazzercize. "I like exercising in a welcoming buddy system," she says. "There's something very satisfying about sweating when you're doing it with others who share your commitment to losing weight and staying trim."

"When I went to a gym, I got bored or distracted, and I wasn't always sure I was using the machines properly," says Christina Gaskins, a thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur and mother of two. "I like the group atmosphere in a fitness program. We're not competing together; we offer each other moral support."

Boutique fitness also offers intangible benefits: "the sense of community you can't get in a gym," says Deb Gonzales. She drives from Saline three times a week for ninety minutes of Bikram yoga in 105 degrees at Pure Hot Yoga in Maple Village. "Most of us attend the same classes, so we get to know each other and care about each other. I moved here from Texas, looked for a Bikram class, and immediately found a circle of friends. We often go out for coffee after our sessions, or we'll meet for happy hour."

In addition to running Franworth, Rotche is CEO of the national Title Boxing Club and owns the local franchise on W. Stadium. He says Title was a pioneer in the boutique fitness field, having successfully made the transition from a low-cost boxing club in a large facility to a boutique whose product now is "experience first, exercise second."

When Rotche became president in 2012, Title was a low-cost and bare-bones gym experience. Noting that its clientele was 70 percent female, he convinced the founders to transform its facilities from big-box to boutique, making them more intimate, more upscale, and consequently, more pricey. The transformation worked; from fourteen when he started, the company now has 175 clubs around the world, with 225 more under development.

Alexandra Beattie, twenty-five, says she heads to the local club when her workdays end. "This is the greatest exercise," she says, wiping her forehead after warming up with weights. "Putting on boxing gloves and facing a bag isn't just physically rewarding, it's very empowering." In November, she ran in the New York marathon, and credits Title with helping her prepare.

Rotche will soon open another boutique fitness franchise, Cityrow, on E. Liberty near campus. Founder Helaine Knapp, a 2008 U-M grad, developed the concept while launching her career in Manhattan after a back injury limited her to low-impact exercises. "I was looking for a smarter and more effective way to work my body," Knapp says. "I fell in love with boutique fitness because I could work out in an intense hour that I could wedge between a crazy work schedule and happy hour with coworkers or clients. I couldn't find a low-impact workout with high-intensity sweat, so I started my own. I wanted to create something that would be fun, sexy, cool, and accessible." Cityrow combines workouts on its water-based rowing machines with either yoga or Pilates.

Elaine Economou's MOVE offers Gyrotonic equipment and Gyrokinesis. "Gyrokinesis is an exercise class that falls under the larger umbrella of Gyrotonic exercise," she explains. "It's derived from yoga, tai chi, dance, gymnastics, and swimming. It emphasizes increasing the mobility of the spine through continuous and fluid movements that help mobilize and create space in all the body's joints."

Economou says she strives to make her facilities "a place where people meet their fitness and wellness goals in a supportive, inspiring, and challenging environment." Client Shelly Kovacs says it "isn't just a workout, it's a program that attends to our mind/body/soul. Gyrotonics takes us out of our comfort zones while keeping us safe." Brenda Steiner isn't the only client who was so inspired by the program that they enrolled in Economou's Pilates instructor training program.

Ballet, too, can inspire an exercise regime. Adrianne Madias started what is now called Barre Code in 2014. At locations on Plymouth Rd. and E. Washington near campus, clients combine ballet positions and a barre with yoga, bucket boxes, and dance movements. "The barre helps increase breathing, flexibility, and strength," Madias explains. "We use lights, sounds, and music to help people zone in on the class and leave everything else outside."

"Keep burning" is the motto for Orangetheory Fitness, with locations on Plymouth and S. Main. It refers to the franchise's post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) program. Class members are equipped with heart monitors whose results are posted on a screen. Workouts change weekly and are challenging--they're designed to burn between 500 and 1,000 calories an hour, stimulating metabolism and increasing energy. When the heart rate hits the monitor's "orange" range, she says, the body will continue burning calories for up to thirty-six hours. Plymouth Rd. manager Corrine Rotondo says her clients range in age from fourteen to seventy-five.

In January, Tina and Johnny Miller held an open house at their new TRU Fitness studio, on Metty Dr. off Jackson. "We're the only 'Balanced Athlete' facility in Michigan," Johnny Miller says. "Our program combines yoga and Pilates for carefully supervised core training that improves posture and balance while relieving the body's aches and pains."

Most clients range from thirty-five to seventy-five and work out barefoot. "We ease people into yoga," Johnny says, "incorporating wellness and traditional strength training, and we work out barefoot because shoes compensate for our feet and mask problems."

Former instructors at Bally Total Fitness, the Millers have no plans to franchise. "I never want this business to grow so large I don't know every client's name," Tina Miller says. "This is a very specialized, highly supervised program that aims to have our clients feel stronger and better every time they leave. Our goal is daily improvement, not the development of a six-pack or preparing to train for a marathon."

That fits with the more holistic approach adopted at many of the new gym alternatives. "There's something almost ceremonial about boutique fitness programs," Rotche says. "It's a great, and constructive, way to exercise in a nice environment with like-minded people."


from Calls & Letters, April 2018

To the Observer:

I was misquoted in your February article "The New Workouts" by Cindy Furlong Reynolds. My comment that it "isn't just a workout, it's a program that attends to our mind/body/soul. Gyrotonics takes us out of our comfort zone while keeping us safe" was about Darlene Sosenko of Joy studio, not Elaine Economou of Move studio. Ironically, I have trained with Ms. Economou in the past and she is an excellent trainer. BUT my comments in this article were at a demonstration at Joy studio, and about Ms. Sosenko's unique ability to make ANY physical training session (not just Gyrotonics) support mind, body, and soul. My reference to Gyrotonics was about Ms. Sosenko's conscious efforts to help her clients achieve at their highest levels, which for me, has been through Gyrotonics.
Shelly Kovacs

Cynthia Furlong Reynolds had it right--we introduced the error while editing the piece. Our apologies to both Kovacs and Reynolds.     (end of article)

[Originally published in February, 2018.]


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