Sam Eichner has written for The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications.
With their invite-only policies and coworking spaces, high-end urban gyms aspire to be fitness studio, social club, and office rolled into one.
In the future, an algorithm will spit out your optimal workout plan. It will be implemented by a private trainer, in a space that looks less like a gym than a sleek hotel lobby. After showering, you may walk out of the locker room to find other members milling around a pop-up art gallery.
They’ll be your friends. Or at least they’ll be part of your network.
This is the dream of Ghost, a “luxury fitness lounge” projected to open in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this summer. Its founder and CEO, Aqib Rashid, believes Ghost constitutes an entirely new market vertical, distinct from big-box gyms and group-fitness chains such as SoulCycle. Whether that’s true or not, Ghost is one of several businesses trying to redefine the modern gym for the always-on digital workforce and in light of the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry.
On top of its slick, event-space aesthetics, Ghost claims to offer the “first-ever machine-learning platform for health and fitness.” From a litany of biometric and musculoskeletal tests, designed to capture thousands of data points each quarter, proprietary software will be able to generate “physiologically-optimized” fitness programming tailored to each member. The club will also offer a slew of high-end amenities, from an infrared sauna to futuristic-sounding “meditation pods.”
Most importantly, it’s invite-only: to purchase a membership ($300 per month or $3,000 a year), you have to fill out an online application and pass an in-person interview. “We [will] have a lot less people,” Rashid said, comparing Ghost to other gyms, “and we can function not just as a training facility but a social club.”
Rashid plans to build a community of high-powered individuals from a range of backgrounds and industries, who will hang around for a variety of “after-hours” events—small concerts and wellness forums. His hope for Ghost is that it becomes “a living version of a lifestyle magazine.”
Ghost is not the first New York City gym to reflect that aspiration. Performix House in Manhattan is also invite-only and has amenities including cryotherapy and an in-house masseuse. Membership can cost up to $900 a month.
To get to Performix House, its approximately 400 members—among them, model Naomi Campbell and actress Frieda Pinto—enter through a nondescript black door on 14th Street. It looks more like the entrance to a clandestine nightclub than a health club. A virtual aquarium lives on a flatscreen in the lobby; a “concierge” stands alert behind a podium. Before every workout, members are offered free Voss water and the gym’s own pre-workout powder.
“Fitness is now a social symbol,” Matt Hesse, founder and CEO of Performix House, told me. He cited the prevalence of brunch-time athleisure: “People want you to know that fitness is part of their brand.”
The professional trainers who work for Hesse double as fitness influencers on social media. In this way, the gym functions as a branded content studio—trainers can produce videos for their Instagram pages, and Performix can create content for its partners, such as Muscle & Fitness. Essentially, it’s a kind of experiential brand activation, with no plans to deactivate.
When I asked Hesse to give me an idea of the typical Performix member, he offered, “a young entrepreneur who works really hard and wants to live a fitness lifestyle.” They might be 30 years old and work out four to five times a week. This person requires “efficiency, and everything in one place,” he noted.
At Performix, this efficiency is not just temporal, but chemical. Although the details are not yet finalized, Hesse hopes to launch a group-fitness “experience” in which members take supplements before, during, and after working out, and the efficacy of the products inside their bodies is measured.
“So, it’s like a lab?” I asked, with a little trepidation.
“It’s like a lab where the consumer gets to look inside and see in real time,” Hesse replied. “It’s like a daily clinical study that’s going on eight times a day.” (Or maybe it’s an iteration of Brave New World, set inside a GNC.)
The same push for optimization, for peak efficiency, assumes a slightly more rugged guise at BKBX, an “adventure training center” that opened in March near Harvard Business School in Boston. BKBX is an offshoot of Brooklyn Boulders, a franchise of urban climbing gyms founded in 2009. (There are plans to open a second BKBX in Brooklyn this fall.)
Years in the making, the BKBX facility was designed to help people train indoors for strenuous outdoor pursuits. The regimen revolves around group fitness classes, during which members wear technology that monitors up to 20 biometric factors in real time. The data is then reviewed by experts at the Adventure Bar, who track members’ progress toward specific “adventures” and make workout and recovery recommendations. (BKBX even developed its own performance metric, called the Adventure Quotient.)
BKBX, Performix House, and Ghost share an ethos that fitness is not a way to let off steam from work, but its own serious work of physical self-improvement. But the next-gen gym is not a place you go to sweat and leave; it’s a place to stay and interact.
“Cultish is the wrong word, but you feel like you’re part of a tribe,” said Brooklyn Boulders CEO and co-founder Jeremy Balboni, of the brand’s climbing gyms.
At Brooklyn Boulders, rather than knocking out a workout and taking off, members were hanging around for hours. Naturally, some began to pull out their laptops. The founders took notice.
In the original Gowanus location, they converted a back room into a makeshift coworking space, and they’ve built dedicated coworking spaces into each outpost since. It’s the inverse of Ping-Pong tables and beer taps in the offices of tech companies: Work is infiltrating sites ostensibly designed for play, not the other way around. But both trends are emblematic of the digital economy, in which the tether of smartphones has blurred or erased traditional boundaries.
No company negotiates these boundaries more fluidly than WeWork. It opened Rise by We, a wellness club, in the fall of 2017 underneath its mammoth location in New York’s Financial District. As of this spring, Rise had about 1,000 members, approximately 25 percent of whom are also WeWork members (they receive a discounted membership fee).
Rise is thoughtfully designed, with wood-paneled walls and whimsical artwork and hanging plants. Every area, from the hallway to the yoga studio, seems to exude a different scent. The centerpiece is the Superspa, a unisex facility with a steam room, a cold plunge pool, a mineral pool, a café, and a sauna (where a “sauna-meister” occasionally hosts “therma-therapeutic” sessions). When I visited, patio chairs were set up in a circle in the middle of the space, as if in preparation for a bonfire.
“We all look for belonging, and there are many ways of doing that,” said Balboni, of Brooklyn Boulders. “But you go into a city like New York or Boston or Chicago or D.C.; it’s not easy to find. Like, where do you find it? Do you go to a bar?” The ascent of self-care and wellness, as some young people become “sober-curious,” makes that less likely than it used to be.
Akin to social clubs like Soho House and The Wing, the recent crop of luxury gyms arguably makes the social stratification of old country clubs palatable to millennials. Rather than draw people based on their religious affiliation or ethnic heritage (which, on the flip side, excludes others on that basis), they appeal to people who share a strong drive for efficiency, who have the financial means to pay high fees, and who can, to some extent, dictate where and when they work.
As much as these new gyms trade in the late-capitalist argot of self-optimization, they bespeak a desire among digital natives to be around likeminded people offline. In that respect, it’s not so different from an old-fashioned club, or even the 20th-century office. The vision for the “luxury fitness lounge” is, in some ways, an afterimage from the past.