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How the right exercise class can change your life

Richard Maher has tried it all: weight machines at discount gyms, treadmills, ellipticals, even fitness video games. “The list was long and the time spent (on each attempt) was short,” he tells InsideHook. He could never start a new exercise routine. Even being with a personal trainer is gone.

What was the matter? Maybe it started back in high school. Growing up, Maher was the only openly gay student in the conservative town. His classmates reminded him again and again that he would not be a desirable participant in any team sport. Maher had come to think of exercise as an unfortunate coincidence, which was a real shame—he might not have been a natural athlete, but he had always been a natural extrovert.

“It would be good if I had an environment where I could be part of a dynamic team, but the mark that separated me from them remained,” he says. So the years passed, and Maher spent many of them sitting. “The sedentary lifestyle made it seem like I aged decades in a few years.”

The light bulb moment came in 2019, when Maher enrolled in a course at the Barre studio. He was nervous about whether he would be able to pull it off without being offended, but it went surprisingly well. In fact, it was pure fun. He felt like he was part of the community.

These days Maher practices at ACT, a fitness studio inspired by dance. There are three types of classes (dance, bands, and circuits), and he does over 20 of them a month, always doubling up one day a week to pair a higher-intensity workout with a low-heart-rate strength-based class. It may sound violent, but Maher feels inspired—and at peace.

“AKT helped me realize that fitness can be fun and not to be taken too seriously,” he shares. “Being too serious gave my fears strength. If I just let myself go and have fun, the progress was faster. Exercising used to be a pain…now even the pain of testing my limits is satisfying and enjoyable.”

Wellness collective

Maher’s story is a stamp of approval for the “wellness collective,” or simply put, exercise classes. The fitness tradition was almost cut short during the pandemic (there were only so many failed Zoom sessions exercisers could take and “connected fitness machines” like Peloton, Mirror and Tonal burst onto the scene), but over the last 18 months, face-to-face teaching has become increasingly important again.

According to ClassPass research, fitness bookings are up 95% from 2021 to 2022. Reopening and vaccinations certainly played a big role, but Google Trends data shows interest he persisted in 2023. Mindbody, the parent company of ClassPass, has its own ideas about why people seem to be hooking up right now. In one review, he wrote, “Nearly half (43%) of all consumers say community is a very important part of wellness experiences… Is this growing desire for community a result of an increasingly remote workforce? Maybe.”

These traces. Those of us on a hybrid or permanent WFH schedule really miss a third place, a place outside of home (first place) and work (second place) to socialize, exchange ideas, challenge and create connections. A place to exercise with others can definitely represent that most important third place. (And if you work from home 24/7, it’s really only yours other place. This is where a reliable cafe or pub comes in handy.)

While exercise classes make sense especially in this moment, there’s also something timeless about their appeal. They do the work. A study conducted by the University of New England found that group exercise—compared to partner exercise, solo exercise, and no exercise—“(led to) significantly reduced levels of perceived stress and increased physical, mental, and emotional quality of life. ” In other words, the right exercise class is great for your mental health, it keeps you coming back, which inevitably leads to improvements in your physical health.

Finding the right fit

The word “right” is everywhere here. Some exercise classes will not work for you, no matter how hard you try to force them. Maybe it’s an activity. It may be led by an instructor. It may be the exact period in your life when you found it. That’s all very well, but you won’t know what you don’t like if you never try it. There’s a course out there for you. Maybe it’s something new.

Chellie Ferguson found shelter at Terraced house, a trendy studio that offers high cardio workouts on stationary rowing machines. She gained 20 pounds during the pandemic and felt extremely sedentary. “I was overweight, with little energy,” she says. “I knew I had to make a change.” She joined the Row House after the first class, her legs still shaking. The studio has been the catalyst – and intimate cheerleader – of her fitness journey ever since.

Between visiting Row House four times a week, walking a total of 10 miles every few days with one of her best friends, and fine-tuning her food intake, Ferguson lost a whopping 110 pounds. Her mentors in the studio are delighted. “The coaches started to notice that I regularly attend more classes and they would always coach me and cheer me on during classes. I started making friends with others around me. The weight started to come off, and more people would compliment me and encourage me. The community at Row House is more like a family than just a gym. We send each other messages; we do activities together outside of rowing; we are each other’s cheerleaders, especially when we need to pick 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 dropped below 40 beats per minute for 10 minutes. Alarmed, she went to the doctor for tests; the results came back noting that Ferguson now had an “athletic heart”.

Pick your poison

To avoid decision fatigue, consider signing up for any exercise class that interests you. The list is already long (hot yoga, HIIT, jiujitsu) and from year to year more and more strange and specific (surfing indoors, camps for warriors, ice bath breathing, mega-reformation nightclubs). It’s not your job to read it all before you try something—nor should you want to. If you find a little corner that works for you, there’s something self-fulfilling about it. The fact that you keep coming back means you are both challenged and inspired. Ride that wave.

Exercise classes can offer a good boost for those who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves sedentary. You are also allowed to have different “periods” in your exercise life. John Chino started his running adventure back in the 1980s, a true marathon runner. He ran that distance for 10 years, until his performance peaked and his times began to slide in the wrong direction. He then swam in the open ocean for eight years.

“It didn’t work for me for a long time, so I switched to something else that worked,” says Chino. “What is the cost of trying something and finding it doesn’t fit? Not much. But what’s the price of missing out on something you love?” At age 55, Chino began his next journey to Orangetheory Fitness. “It uses water rowing, treadmill running (or walking) and plyometric exercises. As a marathoner, I was familiar with several concepts, but had never before experienced them combined in one 60-minute workout. It was exciting and completely satisfied my desire to compete.”

That initial step back into group exercise also reawakened Chin’s love for team sports. (He played lacrosse in high school and college.) Now he plays pickup hockey with some friends — one of whom is the director of operations for the Anaheim Ducks. “We play every week and that led me to take skating lessons (motor skating) and enjoy the hockey lessons. Who knew skating was so hard? Never mind that you’re actually playing the game. I’m terrible, but the weekly humiliation is good for my soul and the most fun you could have doing something bad.”

On top of all that, Chino makes time for extra credit: stretching. He goes to StretchLab, an assisted stretching studio, where “flexologists” knead sore muscles and work to help exercisers regain mobility. It’s worth remembering that group exercise isn’t always a sweaty studio. There are countless places to recover, which can ensure that the work you put in during your second workout won’t be for nothing. It sounds expensive, but so are medical bills.

While there’s no silver bullet for many of the crises dominating health headlines — obesity, loneliness, screen addiction — the right exercise class offers a heck of a lot of hope for those struggling. It’s outside. It might be right up your street. (It might even be moving up your street. Running clubs have exploded over the past few years. Strava found that runners in “group activities” logged 78% more active time than those who ran alone this year.)

All you have to do is commit to 10 minutes of research and 60 minutes (or so) of a whole new experience. Know that your anxieties about that prospect are shared by a large part of the population. “I would say that you have to come to terms with the idea that you will look silly again or be a beginner,” says Kristjana Hillberg. She started boxing in the 30s. “It’s like you’re the new kid … it seems nervous and scary and it brings back some feelings of ‘Will they like me?’ ‘Will I fit in?’ Learning how to be comfortable in the uncomfortable…or at least be willing to say, ‘Fuck him. I hate this and I do it anyway.’ The biggest change will be internal.”

It’s a permanent transformation for Hillberg, who still goes to boxing classes nervous about whether to throw her combinations in the right order or whether her trainer will make her spar. But it is precisely this game of the mind that keeps her coming back: the power of the unknown, the challenge in the uncomfortable, the specialness of exercising with other people here and now.

“It brings me back to the present moment,” she says. “There is always the potential for failure…and in front of mostly guys! It gives me no option but to think right then, right now.”

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