An exercise class in Manhattan Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Fitness has become far more than just a New Year’s resolution in many American cities. Once rife with grit and nightlife, many urban neighborhoods now embrace fitness as a lifestyle.

Updated: January 05, 2018 This story has been updated with new information.

Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, Lower Manhattan was known for two things: being a haven for artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals, and for its nightlife. Bars, pubs, and clubs that were popular 30 years ago such as Studio 54, Max’s Kansas City, Area, Danceteria, and Palladium have since become the stuff of legend. People smoked, drank, did drugs, and stayed out late. Working out and healthy living seemed like the last thing on their minds.

Walk down the very same streets today, and you’ll find them teeming with fitness-obsessed urbanites lining up at a myriad of “boutique fitness studios,” such as SoulCycle, Flywheel, Barry’s Bootcamp, CrossFit, CorePower, and Orangetheory, to name just a few. “Athleisure” shops and purveyors of green juice and acai bowls stipple the streets between them.

Indeed, the fitness industry has experienced an incredible boom in recent years. Health club revenue topped $81 billion worldwide in 2015, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA). That same year, more than 150 million members visited some 187,000 health clubs. Boutique fitness studios in particular have been attracting millions of dollars in investment capital. For example, in 2011, SoulCycle and Equinox—the upscale gym with scads of urban locations across the country—were purchased by the real estate development firm Related, in part to enhance real estate development projects across Manhattan.

These boutique studios are most prevalent in major cities. SoulCycle, the indoor cycling or “spinning” studio that was one of the pioneers of the boutique fitness craze, has 17 locations in Manhattan and 3 more in Brooklyn. These make up the vast majority of the state’s 29 total studios. Outside of New York City, too, SoulCycle studios tend to crop in top-tier neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, for example, there are a number of studios in desirable areas, such as downtown, Hollywood, and Santa Monica. Chicago has a studio downtown in the Loop; Boston has one in the picturesque Beacon Hill area; and in San Francisco, there are studios in the bustling SoMa and Marina districts.

Pure Barre—a strength-training studio where classes are focused around a ballet bar—has clusters of studios in urban areas such as New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles; Houston, Dallas, and Austin; Orlando and Miami; Boulder and Denver. Even a cursory glance at the location maps of these and a few other leading fitness studios shows their disproportionate concentration in major metro areas.

Pure Barre studio locations across the country. Data from Pure Barre, map by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Charting the location of fitness trainers and aerobics instructors provides another lens into the geography of the fitness revolution. More than 250,000 people were employed in these fields as of May of 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And these occupations are projected to grow by another 10 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Unsurprisingly, California leads the nation in the sheer number of fitness instructors, with more than 30,000 in all. That’s almost double the number of instructors than in each of the next five leading states: New York has about 18,000, followed by Texas (14,800), Florida (13,870), and Illinois (13,350).

But these figures are a function of the large populations of these states. A metric called a “location quotient,” or “LQ,” provides a better gauge of how states actually stack up, by providing a ratio that compares a metro’s share of fitness instructors to the national share. The leading states on this measure are Virginia and Massachusetts (both with LQs of 1.58)—meaning they have more than one-and-a-half times the national average for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors—Colorado (1.56), New Jersey (1.51), and New Hampshire (1.50).

As the map below shows, there appear to be two broad fitness belts, according to this metric—one across parts of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and the others along parts of the Plains, the Rockies, and the Northwest. The Deep South and the Midwest have the lowest LQs for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors. These places are among those with the highest levels of obesity as well. In this way, the urban fitness revolution reflects the large and growing divide in Americans’ health and well-being, no less because the classes themselves are expensive—at many boutique studios, the cost of entry is anywhere between $30 and $40 a class.

Data courtesy of BLS. Map by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

Fitness trainers and aerobics instructors are even more concentrated at the metro level. It’s no surprise that large metros like New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles contain the greatest number of them. But looking at LQs to control for population, smaller places, including a number of fitness-oriented college towns, come to the fore. San Rafael, California—just across the bay from San Francisco in upscale Marin County—tops the list with a high LQ of 3.4. Also among the top ten are Eugene, Oregon (2.6), which is home to the University of Oregon and is often referred to as “the running capital of the world”; Lynn-Saugus-Marblehead (2.5), a coastal boating, sailing, kayaking and fishing mecca outside of Boston; and Boulder, Colorado, home to the University of Colorado and a training mecca for runners, cyclists and skiers.

On January 4, the BLS released a new map documenting the LQ of fitness instructors by metro, using data from June 2017 (the most recent period for which data are available). It paints a similar picture: A handful of metros along the California coast, as well as in Oregon and Washington, maintain among the highest concentrations of fitness instructors. But in this new map, East Coast metros dominate, with a dense cluster of areas like Charlottesville, Virginia, and Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, which had the highest LQ in 2017—2.8 times the national average.

(BLS)

There are many things to like about the urban fitness revolution. Working out and healthy living are surely a better way to live than smoking, drinking, and staying out all night. It’s also a way to forge community and escape the drudging loneliness of everyday urban life. As one Toronto-based trainer, who owns a CrossFit gym in the city’s Liberty Village area, says: “It’s about having a few hundred members who get to belong somewhere … It’s the rise of the community gym.”

The urban fitness boom also helps to upgrade routine service by introducing more personalized service-oriented jobs to the market. The median yearly salary for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors across the U.S. is $42,780. It is as high as $50,000 in Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles, and more than $67,000 in New York City. While these instructors make considerably less than the knowledge and professional workers many of them coach, they take home a much larger salary than tens of millions of the nation’s routine service workers, the majority of whom make about $32,000 a year.

But there are some more insidious elements inside the urban fitness revolution. For one, the obsessive focus on staying fit reflects the growing pressure that many urban professionals face to look young and in shape. Exercise can also be a method of generating the physical stamina and mental focus required for long hours of knowledge work. As such, it is bound up with the relentless trends of the knowledge economy, which creates a lifestyle of continuous improvement, and the commodification of human capacities. Indeed, this is built into the very mantra of many urban fitness studios. Many of them pledge not just to change your body, but to “change your life” and help you “find your soul.”

Make no mistake: Good health is among most important things in life, and time devoted to keeping fit is rarely time wasted, wherever and however you choose to exercise. But as you head out to your preferred gym or fitness studio this New Year, it’s worth keeping in mind that your workout is not only about helping you look and feel better; like it or not, it enables you to be a productive cog in the knowledge economy machine.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An illustration shows two alleys in Detroit.
    Design

    Finding the Untapped Potential of Alleys

    “We’re starting to realize they’re just as powerful as a park or plaza.”

  2. A man sits at an outdoor table at a McDonald's restaurant, next to a sign urging water conservation.
    Environment

    How Cape Town Got to the Brink of Water Catastrophe

    And how it stepped back, just in time.

  3. Couples in formal 1950s dress dance as a band plays.
    Life

    Why Won’t Millennials Join Country Clubs?

    Golf-centric clubs are on the wane, even as private membership organizations for Millennials are re-emerging in urban areas.

  4. Design

    What's Inside a Neighborhood in a Box?

    On the outskirts of New York City, a new housing model aimed at Millennials asks: What is city living?

  5. A man shelters from the rain at a bus stop.
    Equity

    ‘Climate Gentrification’ Will Deepen Urban Inequality

    A new study investigates the intersection of climate change and real estate, and finds that higher elevations bring higher values.