Monday 18 July 2016

Women Are The Reason Fitness Is Having A Major Moment

Wendy Naugle

Here’s a little nugget I learned recently: from 2003 to 2013, the half marathon was the fastest growing race distance in the U.S. As Jason Kelly writes in his new book, Sweat Equity: Inside the New Economy of Mind and Body, "The half marathon is the Goldilocks of distance racing—not too short, and not too long." In other words, running a 13.1-mile race is challenging, worth striving for. But you can still walk the next day. And women are filling out most of those race forms—a full 61 percent of finishers in 2013 were women, up from 49 percent in 2004, Kelly writes.
It goes beyond just road races: Women are driving many of the fitness trends we see today. We’re demanding different exercise classes, starting different fitness companies, using tech wearables in different ways. Full disclosure: Kelly, the New York bureau chief for Bloomberg News, is a friend of mine, and I’m constantly trying to keep up when we run together (he’s a blistering fast, sub-3:10 marathoner). So I thought it was only payback to get him to talk on the record about all the ways women are winning in the fitness world right now.
GLAMOUR: When women line up at Flywheel or register for a race with a group of friends, most of us aren’t really thinking about the business going on behind the scenes. But women are really driving this big fitness boom we’re having.

JASON KELLY: One of the most compelling stats I found early in my research was that from 1990 to 2013, the number of race finishers quadrupled. But the number of women increased ten-fold. There’s been a disproportionate increase. One reason was the introduction of Title IX. Generations of girls have now grown up playing team sports, through community leagues and high school and college. But without an outlet after that, all of a sudden they are not going to give up sports.

GLAMOUR: There are also more women in the business of fitness—launching their own companies like SoulCycle. What impact does that have on the way we work out?

JK: Looking back, women have made fitness more present in our culture at large. Olivia Newton John with “Let’s Get Physical.” Cher doing ads for health clubs. Jane Fonda—I remember my mom pushing furniture aside in our Atlanta home to do her aerobics tapes with leg warmers on. They put fitness front of mind for all of us.
Fast forward 20 to 30 years, and many fitness or wellness entrepreneurs—like Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice of SoulCycle—saw that they had an opportunity to blend work and a passion for wellness, and launched companies around this idea. And when you look at the success of SoulCycle, Flywheel, Pure Barre—a lot of those are built around this idea of community. Women entrepreneurs understand more intrinsically the importance of belonging for their consumer. For both men and women—at Barry’s Bootcamp or something like the November Project—that social aspect is really part of the movement.
The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt parodied the cult-like mania around some boutique gyms.
GLAMOUR: You have said that, in many ways, fitness is the new religion. Explain.
JK: If you look at what happened after 9/11, after the great economic crisis—those both triggered people to search for a broader meaning in their lives. And one of the things about exercise that is often overlooked is that it makes you feel good. The science is pretty consistent on that idea. And when people are able to [work out] in a communal way—especially at a time when, for millennials in particular, there is a questioning of the institutions of religion—wellness is something of an alternative, if not a replacement. Running, cycling, boutique fitness, yoga, Pilates—they emphasize mindfulness and peacefulness, provide stress relief, combat anxiety, and are a way to be with other people. We used to get those things from church or a place of worship, now we’re at a Sunday morning workout.

GLAMOUR: And you say tech is fueling this too, but not because we’re hooked on all the new gadgets. So it’s not just the Fitbits and the Apple Watches?

JK: Tech has enabled exercise in a lot of ways—from the peloton [leaderboard] at Flywheel or the exercise machines at Equinox. But the group fitness aspect is many ways a reaction to how much we are engaging with tech in our daily lives, sitting in front of a computer, posting to Facebook. Part of what attracts us [to communal fitness] is this idea of being together, but also being together outside of all the stresses of social networks put on us.

GLAMOUR: You write about fitness as status symbol—it’s not just the latest handbag, but literally your body.

JK: Sociologists say this is a very affluent trend. When you are able to compete in an Ironman or go to SoulCycle—all of those are financial investment, a time investment. The upper class has long defined itself in contrast to the lower class. At a time when food was scarce, the upper class would be heavy to prove they had access to food. It’s partly why we have this fitness boom when obesity is at an all time high. There is a class divide that is happening here. Apparel makers are implicitly encouraging that. When yoga pants become the staple compared to denim, it’s clear that the clothes we wear are about accentuating a type of body that is seen as ideal.
But there is a fine line between building community and building a clique. Take yoga, for example. People are starting to feel yoga has been hijacked by the well-to-do, and women who have unlimited time and resource to master these poses. And there’s a backlash to that; it’s antithetical to a lot of what yoga is about.
GLAMOUR: So what’s the next cool workout? Any predictions?

JK: I’m not sure if it’s a workout. I’d say the whole area of mindfulness. There is more and more movement from investors and entrepreneurs toward the mind, and a more holistic and wellness approach beyond just working out. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of that.

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