Can Boutique Fitness Create an Inclusive Community?

  • Misha Gajewski Misha Gajewski
  • Fitt
Can Boutique Fitness Create an Inclusive Community?

One perk that comes with going to SoulCycle is that it can feel like walking into your local bar. The kind, as the Cheers line goes, “where everybody knows your name”. There’s a sense of belonging and camaraderie that’s hard to come by in a commercialized brick-and-mortar gym.

This community-feel is huge part of the reason why boutique fitness studios have taken over.

Attendance at boutique gyms like SoulCycle, Pure Barre, Orangetheory Fitness (OTF), and countless others grew by 70% between 2012 and 2015, according to a recent report from the International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). And high-end boutique fitness studios now make up 35% of the $25.8 billion fitness market.

But there’s a catch. While these studios feel welcoming for some people, for others, the boutique fitness scene can be as ostracizing as a clique of high school cheerleaders.

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a few not-so-glamorous consequences associated with the rise of boutique fitness. If the price tag wasn’t a dead giveaway, these studios tend to cater to the very well-off, very young, very skinny, and very white demographic.

And as much as we love cool new workout spots—and even hype them for the community-building, high-energy workouts—we have to pause to pose a question that needs answered: can boutique fitness break its exclusive mold to create a community for everyone?

  • A monochromatic aesthetic

    Fitness Boutique
    image via @blackgirlinom | Instagram

    Fitness can be the perfect escape from everyday life. And while headspace is everything for your workout, it’s important to take off your rose-colored glasses every once in a while. Unfortunately, when you do, you’ll see that the boutique movement just isn’t as colorblind as we’d hope it to be.

    “When you rarely see anyone who looks like you, it can be disheartening, lonely, and oftentimes frustrating,” wrote Sonja Herbert, founder of Black Girl Pilates community, in a personal essay in SELF.

    The fact that boutique fitness is overwhelmingly white is definitely a problem, especially considering how much people look up to boutique fitness trainers. The good news is, boutique fitness is becoming slightly less white. (Key word: slightly).

    In the past few years, a handful of companies like Black Zen, Smart Fitness, TrapYogaBae, OmNoire, Black Girl Pilates, and Black Girl In Om, just to name a few, have started creating safe spaces for minorities to get their sweat on. These are studios where people can focus on the real reason they showed up—to exercise—and not on the inevitable pang of anxiety and self-consciousness that we all feel when we’re the odd one out.

  • The bad news: it’s still not enough.

    Yes, some places are trying to be more diverse. For example, SoulCycle tries to employ instructors from a range of genders, races, backgrounds, and personalities. They also maintain an inclusivity and diversity council and offer underserved youths in some markets 12-week scholarships to take classes and learn about nutrition.

    But the fact that people need to create specific companies, communities, and classes for minorities to feel comfortable speaks for itself.

    While these inclusive companies with corporate ethics departments are making progress, they’re nowhere near as widespread as your Pure Barre, Orangetheory, or CorePower Yoga, who are franchises with the liberty to do as they please as long as they follow a few brand guidelines. Just to give you a sense of the numbers, CrossFit, while not technically a boutique studio, has their own exclusive community of 13,000 affiliates in more than 120 countries… compare that to a socially-responsible gym like the YMCA, who only sports 2,700 in the US.

    So, when it comes to cultural significance, we might turn to “trap yoga”, what Fader heralded as “a sanctuary for black people”. It’s bright stars like DC’s Khepera Wellness and Houston’s popular Trap Yoga that bring together people from all walks of life in perfect harmony… and plenty of 808 drums. Hopefully, like the seemingly overnight rise of trap music, more cultural adaptations will be able to bridge the boutique divide.

    And while we’ve talked about racial diversity, boutique fitness still has a couple hills to climb because, race aside, they still have diversity issues when it comes to age, sexuality, weight, and disability. As if that wasn’t enough of a deterrent, there’s still the issue of access.

  • Dude, where’s the gym?


    Finding a boutique gym or studio that goes out of their way to be inclusive can be virtually impossible. Although boutique fitness-style gyms seem like they’re on every other block, that’s only the reality for those that live in cities. In general, they aren’t that common to begin with. So, when we ask if boutique fitness will ever be inclusive, it’s kind of hard to accomplish if the majority of people don’t have access to it.

    Most boutique fitness studios are in big cities, so if you live in rural middle-America, you’re excluded from the boutique fitness trend simply because it’s just not there… yet. This could be seen as a problem considering 80% of American adults don’t get the recommended amount of exercise. And of 2017’s Fattest States in America, not one of the 10 fattest states has a SoulCycle, and of the near 1,000 US-based Orangetheory franchises, those same 10 states are only home to 84 studios combined — using some simple math, that’s about 8.4% of OTF’s attention.

    But just because boutique fitness classes are the “in” way to burn enough calories to eat that burrito, it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to sweat it out.

    The bigger problem is that many Americans just don’t have access to basic space for physical activity and the exercise gap is widening.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 45% of American youth don’t have parks, playground areas, community centers, or sidewalks and trails in their neighborhood. Also concerning: less than 40% of adults live within half a mile of a park.

    And then there’s the problem of cost.

  • Class(Pass)ism

    One of the easiest ways to make something super exclusive is through price. Boutique fitness classes run between $20 and $40 per class, making it very hard for anyone who’s not rich to justify going. Groceries and rent often take precedence to luxury exercise classes, imagine that!

    But the fact is the higher-income Americans who can afford to join these places aren’t the group that needs more exercise opportunities the most. According to the American Time Use Survey from 2015, the poorest quartile of the population gets about half the exercise of the wealthiest quartile. Remember that exercise gap?

    Yes, there are things like ClassPass that are helping bring boutique fitness to a larger demographic by lowering the price point or Cyc Fitness, Green Tree Yoga, and Smart Fitness that charge less for a boutique atmosphere, but that’s not the point.

    As SLT founder Amanda Freeman said in an interview: “There’s a reason we charge $30 or $40 for classes.”

    The economics are set up so that the business can survive.

    Regular gyms can stay in business because they sell memberships to thousands of people, many of whom don’t ever actually show up to the gym. Whereas boutique fitness studios charge $34 a class but fill it every time.

    As things currently stand, there’s zero incentive for them to lower their price. Plus, it’s worth noting the economic psychology that’s at play — you’re paying a premium to be a part of a special group.

    “Feeling like you’re part of an elite group—that’s a huge purchase motivator,” Larry D. Compeau, professor of marketing and consumer psychology at Clarkson University told Vogue.

    The real problem isn’t that boutique fitness classes cost too much, it’s more that there aren’t many low-cost exercise options out there, and the government isn’t really investing in it either.

  • Making things right

    Clearly, boutique fitness isn’t all the glitz, glamour, and green juice that the studios’ Instagram feeds make them out to be. From the lack of diversity to the exclusionary pricing, there are definitely some problematic elements, but we hope that one day this might change.

    As it stands now, boutique fitness needs to maintain their high price points, exclusive clientele, and just general elite status for their entire business model to work.

    Loyal is a mild way to put their membership. Boutique gyms are founded on a level of exclusivity that is similar to the old-school golf clubs. It’s the idea that if the gym becomes as inclusionary as the YMCA, it completely loses its appeal. We know the boutiques need to uphold their brands, we just need a little confidence that it won’t become as ingrained as “tradition” like silver spoon social clubs.

    So, let us talk about reform: for boutique fitness to truly become inclusionary, they need to first get rid of that elitist thinking. But more practically, they would need expand widely so they’re easily accessible (aka not just in affluent neighborhoods) and drop their class costs. This would mean more people, and more importantly, different types of people, would gain access to the boutique fitness scene, inevitably making them more inclusive.

    And we’re not totally delusional. This could happen as companies like OTF, F45, and TITLE Boxing have some pretty epic expansion plans in the works. They might just expand beyond their limits and be forced to drop their price points… if the rules of supply and demand are to be trusted.

    Probably a more realistic scenario is that the type of classes offered at these boutique studios will filter down to the masses, similar to how it works with fashion. And we’re already seeing this happen. For example, New York City YMCAs offer cycling, trampoline fitness, TRX, bootcamp, and a host of other specialty classes. Those classes may not come with the same bragging rights — but they do bring the same kind of workout to those who need them the most.

    As it stands now, we’ll have to wait and see whether or not boutique studios will ever be able to strike a balance between growing their bottom line and shrinking the waistlines of all Americans.