By Susan Harrison
If you’re anything like me, this past winter was a true test of your fitness mettle. Trudging to studios in sub-zero temperatures became a type of normal for the die-hard gym-goer. Layering was the name of the game, and all the parka/sweater/fleece/sweat pant/snow boot disrobing added not only extra time, but extra cardio to the workout (at least that was how I chose to look at it).
In true Type A-New Yorker fashion, others seemed to be making a sport out of it as well. The freezing tundra of the “Fitness District,” with its infamous 7th Avenue wind tunnel, served as a breathing warm-up for a punishing treadmill or kettlebell session. The frosty natural elements provided incessant obstacles as we navigated our way to our chosen studio. On one particular morning, while sidestepping through treacherous ice and leaping over massive puddles on my way to a punishing Bootcamp class, I dreamt of the sun and warm breezes that spring would bring, when the elements would be kinder, and we could focus all of our energy on important things like burpees and weighted squats.
But it got me to thinking, even in the beautiful sunshine, I would still be on my faithful daily mission to the same places, lulled into countdown under the warm dim red lights at Barry’s Bootcamp. It hit me after hurtling my fourth puddle, that I was like the U.S. Postal Service, “neither snow nor rain, nor heat nor gloom of night…” can keep me from delivering myself to the promised land of the fitness studio. But why? If Spring Cleaning ushers in a change and awakening in us, shouldn’t it apply to our fitness regime as well? Can’t we take our bodies and our workouts outdoors, instead of remaining cooped up inside?
I decided to ask some of the most admired fitness professionals in the city what they think of New Yorkers’ obsession with indoor fitness. My first stop was Joey Gonzalez, COO and Partner of Barry’s Bootcamp. For him, the reason New Yorkers stay inside to get their sweat on during the spring and summer months, is consistency of results.
“A nice jog in the park or an afternoon bike ride can’t replace the experience of a measured and controlled workout like Barry’s,” says Gonzalez. “The results-driven exercises we pack into a 60-minute class are difficult to replicate on your own without the right equipment or fitness knowledge.” And there is nothing like sweating with your besties, he acknowledges. “People are also motivated by the accountability of showing up to work out amongst their peers and friends. Not only do they trust their instructor to deliver a service that works, they respond to the support of a community at their respective boutique gym.”
Amanda Freeman, founder and CEO of SLT, agrees. “New Yorkers like their routines,” she says. “They get in the habit of taking a class, and they stick with it. They aren’t in the habit of outdoor fitness, so they are less likely to all of a sudden switch over. Meanwhile, their peers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, because the weather year-round is nicer, weave a combo of indoor and outdoor exercises into their daily routine.”
Kari Saitowitz, founder of the Fhitting Room, thinks the number one reason New Yorkers stay inside to work out during gorgeous weather is the community and camaraderie of group fitness. “Our clients develop friendships with each other and with our instructors. They love each other’s company, and they know they are entering an environment that will cheer them on and challenge them to be their best self every time they walk through our studio door.”
Her sentiments were echoed back to me time and again, as I asked fellow clients why they chose dark studios over luminous sunshine. Allison Sullens, die-hard Flatiron fitness enthusiast, and mother of 3, says, “I like to see my friends! And – having a routine helps coordinate the day.” Sophie Johnson, Institutional Salesperson at UBS agrees, “Indoor workouts are about camaraderie, seeing my friends. Fitness is the goal, of course, but I want to be with people I like, while doing something I love.” Finally, Bob Richter, Antiques Dealer and Designer, summed it up, “No matter the weather, I always prefer working out indoors, where I can check in, take part in group fitness, and check out. I think you’re hard-pressed to find the sort of energy and killer workout that exists between the four walls of a Barry’s Bootcamp studio, and I always appreciate a regimented, time-constrained workout that burns calories and leaves my endorphins pumping.”
I agreed totally with these comments, because they completely nailed how I felt. The friend and camaraderie factor are huge for me – we celebrate each other’s victories in class, and give each other a hard time when we don’t show up with our A game. It’s like Cheers – everyone knows your name, and they know your favorite protein shake. Instead of bar patrons on stools, we are fitness clients on treadmills – all gathering around the same fire, exchanging stories and sharing our souls between classes.
But I was torn — was I really going to succumb to the New York/Postal Service grind, and continue as a fitness zombie throughout the summer months? It reminds me of those kids who stay inside playing video games all summer, when it is beautiful outside. But it is hard to argue with results! The routine and consistency of what to expect during and after my workouts has become imperative. As a mother with not too much extra time to spare, I need to maximize the precious time I do carve out for exercise. I don’t want to risk doing something “less than” the norm I am used to, even if it means forgoing enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. Barring my admittedly less frequent Central Park runs, which I have done pretty consistently since the first week I moved here nearly 20 years ago, activity outdoors in the city has been to me, purely leisure enjoyment — a stroll in the park with my husband, children, or friends; a visit to the playground — all lovely and recreational, but can it qualify as my fitness regime? Definitely not.
Kira Stokes begs to disagree. A few years ago, the legendary fitness phenom tackled the issue head on. She decided to take her popular “FIT Camp” outside, starting when the weather warms — usually around mid-May — in Central Park. “It’s extremely motivating to try to use things in your environment and your own body to create a challenging workout,” says Stokes. “It’s very easy to just grab a 15 lb. kettle bell in the studio, but it takes a lot of work to think outside the box, get creative, and shake things up a bit. It’s more work programming these kinds of classes, but it’s every bit worth it.”
Stokes’ FIT Camp meets year-round, a group of about a dozen women who have regularly done her “Stoked 360” class, and are intermediate to advanced athletes. “These are women who have been together for a year or more, and who may not have anything in common other than a sheer love and desire for fitness. We have been through so much together — births, deaths, sicknesses, divorces, you name it.” Stokes says taking the Camp outdoors in the warmer months introduces a new element — it forces people to talk to one another. And the usual camaraderie experienced inside a fitness studio becomes enhanced, because there’s more opportunity to bond. “Every year the program is more successful not less,” she says.
“But what about music?” I ask. (I’m pretty sure I hit my first sprint at a 12.5 in large part because my instructor was playing one of my favorite songs.)
“Music is a great motivator, for sure,” Stokes says, “but if you can’t motivate by your words, then you’re not really doing your job as a trainer. The beauty of being outdoors is that you can separate from technology and the norm, and it’s an awakening of the senses. You hear the birds, you hear the sounds of the city, and the fresh air is hitting your face. Nothing beats that as a mood booster.” One of Stokes’ favorite expressions is, “Shock it to rock it.” She believes that in order to change your body, to really get results, you have to take it out of its comfort zone. And what better way to do that as New Yorkers than to take our fitness outside?
In general, New Yorkers are creatures of habit, especially if we find something that works. We re-visit the same restaurants, coffee shops, department stores, service providers … and of course, the same fitness studios. Even within the studio, we tend to take classes from the same teachers, and go to the same treadmill, bench, or floor spot. In a city with so many unknowns, we leave little to chance, fine-tuning our lives to such a degree and hoping that any external vibrations will only minimally disturb our core.
After all my interviews for this article, I remembered a breakthrough I had over Spring Break this past March, when we stayed with family friends in the Caribbean. I was warned ahead of time that there would be no fitness center, let alone a bootcamp class or spin studio. The first morning, I pulled out my booty and resistance bands — and there I was, in the bright sunshine on the edge of the ocean, doing my own combo of lunges, squats, burpees, pushups, and anything else I could think of. With nothing but the sound of birds and my own breath, it was a way of centering myself in the moment. I followed it up with a run through the hills with my friend, where mid-way we stopped to do more squats and lunges (and some high fives!) before our run back to the house. By the end of our 60 minutes, we were out of breath, panting, and sweating up a storm to rival even the most intense New York fitness classes. It felt great! It was an empowering concept, to be able to take the moves learned in class and in personal training sessions, and apply them outdoors. When I first started working out I was terrified to be away from the studio for a week or two of vacation, worried that all the hard work I had put in would somehow evaporate, and my body would suffer from being out of its routine. What I found was the opposite.
We depend so much on outside services in New York to give us what we need. For fitness, we walk into a studio and hand ourselves over to the instructor for that hour. After showing up 5-7 days a week to the same classes, we can almost robotically do what is required. That’s okay – and it’s in large part necessary for us to get and stay in top shape. Not to mention, the skills and training that our instructors have is mandatory for our safety and our proper technique. What is less okay is not to realize that our body is ours to manage, not a studio or a trainer. Patrick Frost, Master Trainer at Barry’s Bootcamp and Nike NTC instructor likes to say, “Put your mind into the muscle” — which is basically a way of saying, think about what you are doing with the movement. Why is this working and what is it doing?
After so many classes, we are more capable than we think, of taking ourselves outside our comfort zone of the studio and into the great outdoors. Hop on a bike! Hop on a paddleboard! Play tennis! Run around the Central Park reservoir, and use one of the hundred park benches for tricep dips or pushups! It doesn’t need to replace your studio program if you so choose, but you may find it unleashes something within you that you can’t get from your usual routine. It’s a powerful feeling when you realize that the work you’ve put into your fitness regime in the gym, actually serves a purpose through functional movement outside of it.
I will leave you with one final picture. At the end of last summer, the Stokes FIT camp women were running up and down the Bethesda Terrace stairs in Central Park, when a couple street jazz saxophonists started playing the theme from Rocky. Indeed — a true New York fitness moment.
Susan Potok Harrison worked for 15 years on Wall Street and in Investments before she became a mother. She’s a die-hard Bootcamper who also loves trying new fitness programs around the city. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and Theater from the University of Michigan, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and twin boys.