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It was dawn, and DJ Daywalker was playing remixes of Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez at 140 beats per minute, trying his best to recreate the sounds of a Miami nightclub. But this was D.C., and no one actually stays out dancing until 7 a.m.
Instead, DJ Daywalker, wearing a “Make Sweat Sexy” shirt, spun for a half-dozen people who had voluntarily—heck, they paid $26 for it—woke up before work on a Thursday morning to squat, jerk, and shake it in a more deliberate, calorie-burning way than during a typical night out.
The class formed a line in a second-floor room in BodySmith Gym and Studios on 14th Street NW facing instructor Sadie Kurzban, the founder of 305 Fitness, who brought to D.C. her successful New York exercise class, which ostensibly recreates a sweaty night out in Miami (the 305 references Miami’s area code). The class mimicked Kurzban’s obscenely energetic moves for a tough 50 minutes. Some stared into the mirrored front wall, contorting their backsides like they were dancing in a Shakira video. And others—like me—had the sexiness and rhythm of your clumsy cousin playing “Dance Dance Revolution” at the mall.
“Because I do a lot of high school events, I’m kind of trained not to look at too much of what’s going on,” Arlington-based DJ Daywalker, who’s known as Patrick FitzGerald when not on duty, reassured me. “I’m looking either at the instructor or my time. I don’t have much time to look at the class.”
Such is fitness in 2014 in D.C., where the catalog of local gym offerings seems as absurd and expensive as the cocktail bars that surround them. There are early morning DJs, Pilates in an art studio, CrossFit, and countless variations of cycling classes. Many will run you at least $20 for less than an hour-long workout. If you’re endorphin-hooked and want to take the class more than once a week, that’ll set you back a couple hundred bucks—which would mean monthly tabs that approach rent levels for some people, if the rent wasn’t also so damn high.
No longer just a place to shed calories or the workday’s aggressions, gyms are becoming yet another signifier of a changing District. On 14th Street NW, for instance—the same street that hosts Le Diplomate and a cocktail bar that pays homage to the neighborhood’s prostitution-riddled past—there are half a dozen fitness studios between N and W streets alone. And that’s not even including the Flow Yoga Center, VIDA Fitness, and Lululemon store on P between 14th and 15th. Half of these opened in the past two years.
The neighborhoods most crawling with real estate agents and would-be future gentrifiers all have either a CrossFit or yoga studio, most of them both. H Street NE has a couple of yoga studios and CrossFits, as does Petworth. Navy Yard has CrossFit and yoga and is now home to the city’s newest VIDA Fitness. (Even VIDA founder David von Storch admits that when he opened his first gym in the Verizon Center in 2006, he would never have imagined that he would one day open a massive fitness center in Southeast overlooking the Anacostia River.)
The District, as Mayor Vince Gray and everyone in the industry will tell you, is now the fittest city in the country, according to a May ranking by the American College of Sports Medicine, beating out Minneapolis. The study took into account heart disease and diabetes death rates, parks, recreations centers, and the walkability of the city. And indeed, any given morning reveals people walking their dogs, a traffic jam of cyclists commuting to work, and hordes of well-dressed joggers.
But the District’s fledgling fitness scene isn’t really a function of a population suddenly caring about its wellness. It’s about a new wave of already fit residents willing to fork over $30 to ride a bike inside for an hour. Which means, like so much in D.C. these days, it’s about money.
On a recent Saturday, the 8:30 a.m. class at Zengo Cycle, an indoor cycling studio on 14th Street NW, had a waitlist. The 45-person class at 10 a.m. was also booked, as was the 11 a.m. class. The one-room underground studio, which charges $22 per class, had raked in almost $3,000 before noon, and that’s not counting the profit the studio might make from selling $2 bottles of Smartwater at its front desk. The vicinity of 14th and U streets alone has more than five other spinning options, but if Zengo offered more spots or classes, those would have filled, too.
“I tested all the cycle gyms in the area, and he was by far the best,” Karey Smollar, a 35-year-old consultant, says of her Zengo instructor. Smollar frequently travels for work and appreciates that these boutique gyms allow her to pay per class, rather than monthly. “It’s great to have all these options.”
The District’s ability to fill these classes is in large part due to the influx of wealthy, young professionals like Smollar. The District saw a net gain of 12,583 people aged 25 to 34 each year between 2010 and 2012, the biggest millennial bump in the country, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census data.
Wellness, at its core, is an egalitarian concept: Everyone’s doctor would tell them they should work out and be healthy. Most people can run, use the parks, or ride a bicycle outside. But everyone cannot attend expensive classes and gyms, which are fast becoming the norm in the D.C. fitness world. A VIDA Fitness membership runs about $100 a month (not including enrollment fees or pool memberships), and von Storch says the gym targets people in their late 20s to mid-40s who make more than $80,000 a year. If you go to a smaller gym with classes like CrossFit, [solidcore], or the much hyped SoulCycle studio in the West End a couple times a week, though, the cost winds up being far more than $100 a month.
The wealthy clientele pouring into these establishments can seem particularly discordant when new gyms that view themselves as community-oriented mom-and-pop shops open in neighborhoods that only recently began drawing people who could afford to pay $26 for DJ Daywalker to wake them up.
One place these new fitness boutiques aren’t opening: the neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates in the city. East of the Anacostia River, Ward 7 and Ward 8 have boxing gyms but no full-service gyms of any kind, much less any studio offering DJed classes. The citywide obesity rate is 22.4 percent, according to the D.C. Department of Health; east of the river, rates are 35 percent (in Ward 7) and 44 percent (in Ward 8). Ward 3, which covers most of upper Northwest,has an obesity rate of just 7.5 percent. A February city survey found that 68 percent of residents in Ward 8 say they have done some sort of physical activity, including leisure walking, in the past month. That figure is 92.2 percent in Ward 3.
If the boom in high-end fitness was purely a question of health, no one would have distributed the gyms this way. How many fitness centers do we need west of the Anacostia before neighborhoods to the east get their first full-service gym, period? The D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation offers free classes at community centers, and popular nongovernment programs like the November Project also host free workout classes. But rec center classes don’t have the marketing muscle of, say, a big-box gym on a bustling street or a CrossFit studio whose clients are running with weights in the middle of the street.
These advanced classes, of course, are run by businesses, and there’s more money to be made catering to a population that’s already in pretty good shape than opening up in neighborhoods the rest of your industry is also ignoring. Those willing to spend big dollars for small classes are likely well aware of the importance of fitness. Which means all these new gyms aren’t necessarily making D.C. a more fit city, no matter how much the mayor wants to brag about the latest national rankings; they’re just serving as new, luxurious outlets for already fit Washingtonians.
Tom Brose, the co-owner of CrossFit DC, just opened his second studio on H Street NE and even received a Great Streets grant—a city revitalization program for new businesses in underdeveloped neighborhoods—for an eco-friendly roof. But Brose knows his studio likely doesn’t serve many of the neighborhood’s longtime residents.
CrossFit DC has about 300 members in its Logan Circle and H Street locations; a monthly membership of unlimited classes costs $225 per month. Ultimately, Brose says, he wants to be able to offer free, basic exercise classes that would serve more people near H Street NE.
“But we have to break even first,” he says.
The reality of the limited but growing demographic the District’s fitness industry serves was made clear early this summer, as the D.C. Council voted to expand the city’s 5.75 percent sales tax to include, among other services, health and fitness clubs—a sector that had long been exempt. Gym owners, employees, and regular gym-goers were predictably outraged; the tax became known as the “yoga tax.” Opponents did burpees in front of the Wilson Building, launched a social media campaign, and lobbied councilmembers against the expansion. It still went into effect Oct. 1.
Opponents argue the city is discouraging people from working out and staying healthy through classes and gym memberships—something they say the government should consider akin to, say, buying vegetables at the grocery store.
But Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who championed the tax, says studies showed it wouldn’t keep residents from working out. Plus, D.C. already taxes gym equipment and gear, and no one ever complained about that, Mendelson says.
VIDA’s von Storch predicts the tax will force out some people who pay for a gym membership but are either on the fence about it or don’t use it regularly. Running a gym like VIDA, he says, is a fixed cost; it runs him the same amount of money to serve 200 people as it does 150 people. Anyone who buys a membership and only uses it infrequently is just adding to his profits. It’s these unenthusiastic gymgoers—whom many refer to as the “New Year’s resolution crowd”—that gym owners are afraid they’ll now lose.
Von Storch ultimately decided to pull out of a location for a new gym near H Street NE, in part because of the tax. He wasn’t sure how the tax would affect his revenue, and he didn’t want to put any more money on the line before he knew. “There’s no question that we’re going to have a problem with retention in the next year,” he says.
But while the “yoga tax” left the fitness industry feeling picked upon, a growing industry with fees as high as the new gyms charge may have just been irresistible for politicians looking for new ways to bolster the municipal budget.
And while a walk down 14th Street NW may give the impression that the market in D.C. is already saturated, the local industry is still growing, with no signs of slowing down, tax or no tax.
Kurzban of 305 Fitness says that compared to New York, the fitness economy here is “barebone,” suggesting that she and other health entrepreneurs will continue to expand as long as there are residents who will pay for their services. Erika Elko, the VP of business development at [solidcore,] says the studio is looking to expand. And Marc Caputo, owner of Zengo, says the cycling studio plans to open a second Northwest location in March of 2015 and has sights on further expansion in Fairfax and Gaithersburg.
Not to mention that VIDA Fitness is opening its biggest location yet in Navy Yard this week.
By the time the gym opens, it will already have around 1,000 paying members enrolled.
My inner thighs finally cease twerking after my first [solidcore] class, allowing me to hobble to the front of the gym and mingle with my fellow victims of the brutal 50-minute workout, involving constant tension and full-body controlled movements on a torturous-looking MegaFormer machine.
Some talk about the next classes they were slated to take. One woman explains the transformation of her body since starting [solidcore]. Two people discuss their vision of their ideal thighs. And some sip on a small $7 raw vegan Goûter “Nourish Melk” drink available for purchase after class.
One 20-something man, who proves to be a star student, works at Lululemon and is at the class on quasi-official business for the pricey workout clothing company, most recently in the news for its occasionally see-through pants (and its founder’s assertion that some women shouldn’t wear them). Lululemon pays for him to take classes and conduct some on-site research to determine what kind of gear the chain’s local stores should be selling and what types of clothes work best at specific D.C. classes. Sometimes, he says, he’ll surprise a whole class with a piece of Lululemon clothing if the company is testing a new product. (“We want to make sure we are informed in the community,” Carolyn Manning, Lululemon’s area community manager for the northeastern U.S., says when I ask her about the research.)
One thing I learned while attending trendy local classes at Zengo, [solidcore], 305 Fitness, and Off Road Indoor Cycling: A lot of women in D.C. own something made by Lululemon. (Another: Everyone in D.C. spending money on these classes is in better shape than I am.) Half the women in my classes are wearing the chain’s clothing, though I’m never showered with any free Lululemon clothes from a sexy company rep planted in a class.
The class I was most nervous about ahead of time was CrossFit—the nationally popular workout that combines weightlifting, interval training, plyometrics, and more—that outsiders sometimes refer to as a cult. The term likely originated with people who were tired of hearing their friends talk about CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets. Though it could also be because there’s some sadism involved in a burpee—a flagship CrossFit move that involves squatting, dropping down to the floor, a push-up while you’re there, and an eager jump back up for more. (Most CrossFitters think the label “cult” is pejorative, not entirely incorrectly, and say CrossFit is actually a very welcoming community.)
I sign up for a free introduction class at Hierarchy CrossFit in Adams Morgan. One Saturday morning, I complete three sets of burpees, three sets of jumping on a box that says ROGUE on it, and three sets of fancy sit-ups.
That whole trial class lasted six minutes and 51 seconds, but that’s enough: When I laugh the next day about the fact that my dreaded CrossFit experience lasted less than seven minutes, my abs still ache.
I needed some help on the physical aspects of CrossFit, but the social facets of the workout seemed relatively straightforward. The glass-doored fridge near the front desk of the gym mostly housed water, but it also had a couple of beers lying around—a clear infraction of the many rules of the Paleo diet, which often goes hand in hand with CrossFit. Hierarchy owner Tyler Millstein explains that his gym has the classic “work hard, play hard” mentality (a phrase you hear a lot around boutique fitness studios in D.C. and the people who frequent them). He, his clients, and his coaches work out rigorously all week, and only some adhere to Paleo. Millstein says the workouts are intense, describing them as an “emotional bonding experience that translates outside the gym.”
“Shirts come off,” he says. “And things get real.”
So when they go out, often together, they let the carb consumption begin. They’ve earned it. “I can only drink so many vodka sodas before I get sick,” says Millstein. “Drinking is a free-for-all.”
It all seems perfect: Rich, good-looking people get even better looking, take off their tight sweaty shirts together, drink, and let whatever else comes naturally happen next.
But dating your CrossFit student is bad for businesses. “It’s not encouraged,” Millstein says. “You can lose clients.” Millstein’s lucky: He once dated a student, but even though they split up, they’re friends, and she still takes classes at his studio.
Millstein’s story isn’t that unusual. Most studios charge a couple hundred bucks a month for unlimited classes. (CrossFit Hierarchy is on the cheaper end, charging $160 for a month of unlimited classes with a six-month commitment, or $200 a month with no commitment.) People attend as many classes as they can to get their money’s worth, often at the same time, with the same people, each week. There are small breaks between exercises, making it easier to chat up your fellow students than at spinning or yoga. The fact that so many CrossFitters are Paleo makes for fewer awkward dinner-date explanations about dietary restrictions. And unlike most group classes, which are predominantly female, CrossFit is typically an equal mix of men and women, making it a prime workout for dating.
“It’s to the point that if I were dating someone outside of CrossFit, they just wouldn’t understand a big part of my life,” says Christine Bald, 28, a coach at CrossFit Hierarchy.
Brose, of CrossFit DC, described a similar community at his gym, though he didn’t admit to any illicit beers on premises. He launched D.C.’s first CrossFit in 2005 while renting space out of a Balance Gym in Kalorama. Since then, 14 more official CrossFit affiliates have opened here. (To become an affiliate, gyms must be registered and approved by the international CrossFit organization, which has more than 7,000 affiliates worldwide.)
Between the two studios, one in Logan Circle and one on H Street NE, CrossFit DC has about 300 clients. Brose knows each by name and teaches many of the classes himself. He says CrossFitters will often grab a drink or a meal together after class.
Two members that met at CrossFit DC in 2010 are getting married this month. Back then, Amelia Modigliani and her fiancé were both taking the same CrossFit DC classes in Kalorama. They went on a handful of dates, though it didn’t really go anywhere. But CrossFit isn’t a place where you can escape an ex.
“It sort of fizzled,” she says. “But because of CrossFit, I would still seem him two to three times a week.”
They eventually “upped their communication,” started dating again, and now live together a block away from CrossFit DC’s Logan Circle location—a purely fortuitous coincidence, Modigliani says. She can deadlift 215 pounds, and he around 400.
As we sit in the fake grass on the rooftop pool deck, equipped with a bar and restaurant, at his newest gym in Navy Yard, von Storch tells me VIDA Fitness is stepping up its game. It’s the sixth location of the District’s high-end gym chain, but the first to respond in full force to the changes in fitness trends since the last time von Storch opened a new outpost in January of 2012.
VIDA has already established itself as a fashionable, luxury gym and spa filled largely with good-looking clients who want to stay, not get, fit. In all, VIDA has 14,000 members—that’s 14,000 people each paying around $100 per month (more than $1,000 a year) to work out, amounting to at least $16 million in annual gross revenue just from memberships. But VIDA isn’t only competing with other big gyms like MINT and Balance that offer luxury amenities in a spa-like setting: It’s trying to convince people to go to VIDA instead of small, specialized boutique places like spin studios or CrossFit—or at the very least, that they should get a VIDA membership in addition to all the other outside classes they pay for.
Von Storch is also competing with in-house gyms in D.C.’s new luxury condos and office buildings, where people can run on the treadmill or gaze at the TV on the elliptical machine for free. Some high-end apartment buildings are even offering group fitness classes that “appeal to [millennials’] desire to hang out with friends in a common space,” according to Bob Pinnegar, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the National Apartment Association.
So why would someone who has access to a basic gym and likes to, say, go spinning, pay for a VIDA membership, when there are two studios in his or her neighborhood that specialize entirely in spinning? For one, VIDA could be cheaper. SoulCycle and Zengo, D.C.’s two trendiest cycling classes at the moment, cost $30 and $22 for a single class, respectively. Do those classes a couple times a week, and you’re looking at more than twice the cost of an unlimited VIDA membership.
“It’s a full-service gym—the towels, the soaps, you can come and not worry about bringing any stuff,” says Lale Morrison, a 37-year-old Capitol Hill chief of staff who lives in Logan Circle and has a VIDA gym and pool membership. She’s become friendly with the people who regularly take a boot camp class at the gym, and recently picked up [solidcore] on the side. “We have a pretty consistent group of people going to the class.”
When designing the new $6.5 million, 30,000-square-foot gym in Navy Yard, von Storch wanted to ensure the class offerings at VIDA, included for free in a basic membership, match up to the boutiques. There’s a hot yoga studio, which cost $60,000 to upgrade from “yoga studio” to “perfect-temperature hot yoga studio.” There’s also a state-of-the-art cycling studio with a massive screen projecting what looks like an outdoor bike course on the front wall of the room. The faster the instructor cycles, the faster the bike on the screen goes.
Von Storch doesn’t think VIDA members, who are already willing to spend big money on fitness, are going to flee in significant numbers for smaller gyms, but says he needs to adapt to the latest trends.
“The real energy right now is in cycling studios,” he says. “We’d be foolish if we didn’t take notice of this trend.”
But Erika Elko of [solidcore] says her clients are dropping gym memberships to create their own workout comprised of different classes. She recently canceled her own membership at Washington Sports Club, a more traditional big gym with classes, personal training, and machines, but fewer luxury spa offerings.
Kevin Murray, 31, says he canceled his Washington Sports Club membership when he moved to a luxury condo in NoMa that had an in-house gym. He has since moved again and no longer has access to a free gym, but now he just does a combination of [solidcore], yoga, Pilates, SoulCycle, running (which is free), and whatever else he stumbles upon. That trend hasn’t gone unnoticed: The stock price for Town Sports International, the company that owns Washington Sports Club and similar gyms in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, has dropped from $12.85 two years ago to $6.67 today.
“I think the gym culture is dying, and I appreciate its demise,” Murray says. “I found just lifting weights narcissistic. It’s simply vanity.”
Gym culture may be different, but von Storch is putting some serious money against the idea that it’s dead. Similar trends are on display among educated professionals in cities from New York to L.A. The question now is how much of this shift is driven by temporary fads: Will there be more or fewer than 16 CrossFit gyms and a dozen cycling studios in D.C. in 2024?
High-end fitness, of course, has been in D.C. since the only apocalyptic associations of the word “millennial” involved the Bible. Results Gym helped to pioneer the luxury gym scene in the late ’90s, opening a location at 16th and U streets NW, an easy walk from either Dupont Circle or Logan Circle, where it drew most of its patrons.
That gym catered to the area’s large gay population and became known as a gay gym. When VIDA opened in the same spot in 2011, it grandfathered in a lot of those members. The clientele is much more diverse now, but the location is still known as a gym and social spot for gay men.
Stuart Smith, who was a trainer at Results in the ’90s and now owns BodySmith Gym and Studios on 14th Street NW, says the traditional box gyms in D.C. at the time weren’t catering to the city’s large gay population, and that’s why Results did well. The gym was in some ways modeled after the David Barton Gym—a popular chain in Miami, New York, and Chicago at the time that New York magazine described as mastering the “gym-as-club aesthetic: low lighting; thumping music; snazzy clientele like Anderson Cooper, Gwen Stefani, and Calvin Klein; and a palpable sexuality.” Results wasn’t exclusively for gay men, but it outwardly targeted that demographic.
“Results’ ads were all about the shirtless guys,” says Smith.
Physical fitness is a big part of mainstream gay culture, and D.C.’s large gay population had a lot of disposable income to spend on fitness. When Smith left Results in 1998 to start his own personal-training studio in Dupont, he says, his clients were more than 90 percent gay men, many of whom came with him from Results (which still has one large location on Capitol Hill, though Results Vice President Brian Moody says it’s not particularly gay-focused anymore, either). He moved to Logan Circle in 2003. Now that Logan Circle has a larger wealthy population in general and also more straight residents, Smith says his client base is more diverse.
But the aesthetics of luxury gyms like VIDA and Smith’s more boutique BodySmith Gym and Studios are still part of Results’ legacy. Posh, sexualized gyms have gone mainstream. One VIDA instructor offered a class this year simply called “Sexercising.”
“The whole culture of it,” says Tarcisio Buriti, a 45-year-old gay man who works at the IMF, explaining how VIDA started serving D.C.’s gay population. “Part of gay culture is to work out. You meet people here, you meet your friends here.”
Even the YMCA is going fancy. The new YMCA Anthony Bowen on 14th and W streets NW—named for a former slave and abolitionist who opened the first ever African-American chapter of the YMCA, in D.C.—has a rock-climbing wall, rooftop terrace, and a $70-a-month price tag.
VIDA has plants located throughout the gym, purely for design reasons. BodySmith, like VIDA, attends to things like the quality of the towels, and even the toilet paper. BodySmith is attached to Press Juice Bar, which Smith co-owns, and which sells $9 glasses of juices with names like “Beet Fatigue.”
These days, it’s easy to forget that VIDA, which seemingly anchors every trendy new residential neighborhood, didn’t even open its first gym until 2006, the same year that MINT DC, another holistic gym/“wellness center” combination, opened. Balance Gym—a place that says “we’re more than just a gym, we’re a place to hang out”—preceded those in 2004.
“Balance has morphed into the more modern health club,” says Graham King, who founded Balance and left to start the Urban Athletic Club in Glover Park in 2013. “People are looking for a new experience, something different, something unique. The big thing is that people don’t want to get bored.”
Standing on my bike in the corner of the crowded studio at Zengo, I’m finally beginning to understand what DJ Daywalker meant when he said that, after his fitness class, “regular music sounds way too slow.”
Gregg Pitts, the instructor (who shares some of his playlists with students on Spotify), is jumping on and off his bike, set on an elevated stage in front of the room, half-dancing out the motions we’re supposed to be doing on our own bikes. The pace of the music—sped-up renditions of Rihanna and Iggy Azalea—is supposed to dictate our speed and outdoor imaginations.
“Because the lights are low, I don’t feel like anyone’s looking at you,” says Michele Wild, a 37-year-old consultant who lives in Georgetown. “You can work at your own pace, in your own zone.”
There’s no technique instruction at Zengo or some of these other cardio classes; people are paying for equipment and an environment that forces them to push themselves as hard as they can.
It may be, in that way, the ultimate expression of D.C.’s boutique fitness craze: You could get the same workout with a high-BPM playlist on your iPod and an uphill bike ride. But then again, the people in these classes are the same people who flock to the joints in the same neighborhoods to pay entree prices for tapas and $15 for cocktails.
“There are plenty of people in D.C. who would go to happy hour and drop $50 twice a week on drinks, so it is really just about prioritizing,” says [solidcore]’s Elko. Her program has picked up scores of followers, including first lady Michelle Obama, and now it’s offering 190 classes a week at three locations. When schedules are released two weeks in advance, the primetime classes book up quickly. “It’s really about what’s important to you.” Drinks or trendy wellness—pick your poison.