Boutique fitness is and isn’t working?

Posted on April 9, 2020

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(Last Updated On: April 9, 2020)

First, the good news.

From 2008 to 2018,

  • 9% less people are sedentary
  • 11% more people are meeting minimum aerobic physical activity guidelines
  • 6% more people are meeting strength training guidelines

CDC Exercise Rates

That’s pretty damn impressive. It’s not like it’s the adoption rate of using iPhones, but if you’re a fitness professional who inevitably, regularly, feels like you’re banging your head against a wall, that’s gotta give you some satisfaction. And it’s a lot better than “nobody will ever exercise / fitness is useless / we’ve made no progress / the world is ending next month due to climate change” (somehow that always gets thrown in there).

-> After gathering damning evidence against it, it took like 50 years for smoking to be banned in e.g. restaurants in a widespread manner. There are still plenty of places with not much of a ban.

What’s driving this improvement?

Fitness is always going through trends. People just being more aware of the benefits of exercise could be a reason. I also think there has to be consideration for entertainment. While women always have it harder with appearance, such as how they’re supposed to look in movies, that has become more balanced with how men have been portrayed of late. Leading men used to just not be fat. Now they need to be jacked. The biggest movies in recent memory -think Avengers- show a lot more male skin than female.

But I think it’s fair to say another one of the main trends the last ten years or so has been boutique fitness, like:

  • Pilates
  • Hot Yoga
  • Fit Body Bootcamps
  • Spin Class
  • CrossFit
  • Boxing
  • Barre
  • OrangeTheory
  • Superhero gyms
    • Not a joke

Like many trends, it’s not that these things haven’t been around for a while in one form or another, it’s they’ve been “hot” in recent memory. Much like diet hopping has been a thing, exercise hopping has also come about. There are now memberships which let you go to an assortment of boutique gyms, in contrast to the standard one membership for one type of gym.

I like to think of these kinds of exercise, let’s say experiences, as a cross between a big box commercial gym and personal training. It’s niched and more focused than “I go to the gym,” but not as personalized as having a one on one trainer.

You don’t have to go the gym and ask “what am I doing today?” as that’s taken care of for you, but you also don’t get much in the way of “let’s do this specifically for your situation.”

It’s also a cross financially. More expensive than a big box gym, but less expensive than a personal trainer.

Now, the bad news.

Since 2008,

  • 2% more people have diabetes
  • 3% more people have uncontrolled hypertension
  • 6% more people are obese

CDC statistics

This is of course mere conjecture and not some rigorous analysis (I don’t think we can get one of those in this regard), but one reason I lean towards the boutique trend as part of this is because it has simultaneously had no effect on adolescents.

With children, they’re exercising less (likely because they’re progressively playing less sports) and they’re more obese than ten years ago, and boutique fitness is obviously not aimed at adolescents.

-> Part of this lessening of sports participation is because of all the parents and fitness professionals who have professionalized youth sports. There is some irony here. As / if playing youth sports is continually made miserable, their business prospects decrease.

Also, if media portrayals were that big of a deal, we’d probably see more of an effect with adolescents too.

Furthermore, what boutique fitness clearly does is get people (who do it) to exercise more. What it does NOT clearly do is get people to be less obese. The best we could say with the above is the trend towards people exercising more has, maybe, made it so the obesity rate has not climbed as much as it otherwise would. “It’s not as bad as it could be” is never too inspiring.

Those same CDC results linked above say nearly 40% of people are either exercising moderately for at least three hundred minutes a week (that’s five hours a week!) OR exercising vigorously for at least 150 minutes a week.

Through exercise classes and whatnot, how much better can we really do than that? We’re talking in another decade being to where every other person is doing OrangeTheory or something like it? I mean, that’d be great…but I don’t think so.

-> Like 15% of non-geriatric adults still smoke.

If you’re skeptical of the accuracy of those numbers, so am I. It’s survey data, so it’s all but guaranteed to be too favorable (i.e. people are lying how active they are). It’s very possible people, due to being more aware they should be exercising, say they are, but in actuality society is no more active, at all. I mean, there might be something to the boutique fitness thing, but I primarily used that as a catchy article title.

-> In my experience a lot of the people doing boutique hopping are people who would be exercising regardless. The boutiques don’t make them more active, it instead changes what activity they do. It (in my experience) clearly keeps people active; I’m not so sure it gets non-active people to be active.

That doesn’t conflict with our takeaways though.

First, either people are more active and fatter, or they’re not more active and fatter. Fortunately, being more active has all kinds of benefits not related to one’s weight, and since a lot of people still aren’t meeting activity guidelines, people either should be even more active because they still aren’t meeting the guidelines, or people are lying and should be more active.

-> Considering those benefits of physical activity don’t look to be happening -like we have more diabetics- even more reason to think people are lying.

Within that, being more active through various fitness memberships has not been helping. Either because it’s not enough or because people are lying about it.

Getting people to do something like go to the gym even more I don’t think is going to happen. They’re either going a lot already (~3-5 hours), or they hate going so much they just lie and say they are going.

-> Again, it’s possible the people who haven’t gotten more activity have gotten so much fatter they’re outweighing a weight decrease of the group who has gotten more active. It’s just doubtful that’s what’s happened. And this is more of a broad takeaway. Not trying to get that granular, but here’s more data showing how, while we didn’t become less active in late 20th century, we still got fatter.

This is where the infrastructure argument comes in. Basically, people’s lives need to be made more active for them. Less elevators, making towns and cities more walkable, standing desks, walking desks, bike lanes, a culture of bicycling.

If you have to, or are given the ability to, bike to work every day (would get a great deal of us immediately to like five hours of exercise per week?), good luck NOT getting healthier. And more and more evidence is coming out people will get more active if the infrastructure is in place. As New York City puts more bike lanes in? People bike more. Induced demand can be used to the advantage of people’s waistline.

Worst case people get even more active and society has less car mileage.

Secondly, we have the same old “you can’t out train a poor diet.” Boutique fitness basically doesn’t address the calories in part of the equation.

-> The exercise part of the fitness equation has maybe made progress. The eat less side undoubtedly made none.

Maybe we’re about to start the next decade where we finally flip the switch on the trend in obesity. I don’t know. I doubt it. Dieting has already had it’s niched moment -Atkins, The Zone, Paleo, this diet, that diet- and it didn’t work. Maybe obesity will only keep going up asymptotically until something big happens, like government intervention.

The way I always preach it is you regularly see obese people doing marathons, but you don’t regularly see people who eat like a bird who look like a whale. When it comes to your weight, that makes it easy to see how going to fitness classes 1-3 times a week can easily not matter much. Really, even if you bike hours and hours a week, short of doing the Tour de France, it’s not that hard to make up for it with a few donuts and craft beers. We just can’t burn that many calories exercising and we just can consume calories that easily.

-> 4-500 is about as good as you’ll do exercise wise. A donut and 1-2 good beers will offset that. If you’re drinking Michelob Ultra, or that ghastly seltzer, for god’s sake run an extra mile so you can drink something that’s not 3.2% self-degradation.

-> Please note I am not saying exercise is pointless. Some people will start exercising and the weight falls right off. But plenty of people exercise and get fatter too. The “I can eat more because I exercised today” mindset.

-> A guess of mine is when people are more active through daily life, such as biking to work, they don’t end up with this mindset as much, because in a technical sense they are not exercising. Exercise, as it was defined to me in college, is conscious activity. Planning your 3x a week gym sesh? Exercise. Walking up the stairs at work? Not exercise, but clearly physical activity. I would be very interested to see if people respond differently eating wise to conscious vs non-conscious physical activity, though defining what’s conscious isn’t super straightforward either.

But the rules still haven’t changed. If you want to lose weight, you either need to be A LOT more active and not concurrently end up eating more, and even then it might not do much, or you need to change how you eat.

And if you don’t change how you eat, the government may do it for you,

The future of obesity treatment is here and personal trainers aren’t part of it?

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