In our rampant consumerist culture in which the food we eat, the clothing we wear, and the Instagram filters we use comprise the brand that is ourselves, it is no surprise that our exercise regimens are subject to careful tailoring and selection. While Americans are no strangers to brand-based workout experiments, a phenomenon pioneered by the neon-legwarmer clad stars of ’80s workout videotapes, this new exercise craze has a different character.
Today, it is about the workout fads: SoulCycle, Flywheel, Core Power Yoga, Pure Barre, Barry’s Bootcamp, Equinox Fitness. The explosion of these pricier, glitzier options onto the boutique fitness scene has rendered a simple jog on the treadmill akin to watching paint dry. The appeal of these workouts seems to lie, foremost, in their clever packaging.
For those unenthused by the prospect of a trip to the local gym, these workouts promise the intensity but also “fun” of a room blasting with a remix-heavy SoundCloud playlist and an über-fit trainer to hold you accountable to whatever fitness regimen you have subscribed to for the day. Furthermore, with price tags hovering anywhere between $20-$35 per session, these classes offer an air of exclusivity and elitism. It may be, in line with the brand-emblazoned lifestyle trends of our day and age, that high-end fitness classes are the newest avenues for conspicuous consumption.
The consumer appeal of these workout trends is compounded by the popularization of complementary industries, namely high-end sportswear and health foods. After all, you’ll earn way more admiration for your new Lululemon leggings at Flywheel than you would on the running path. Barry’s Bootcamp, a high intensity workout with locations in LA, New York, and Boston even boasts an in-house juice bar at each outpost, ensuring that you won’t have to venture too far for your next Instagram-able kale juice. SoulCycle, the immensely popular spin studio brand, whose yearly class revenue tops $87.6 million, recently collaborated with Shopbop, the upscale clothing retailer, to release a line of casual loungewear bearing the SoulCycle name. It turns out you can do your workout and wear it too. In sum, the union of these luxury lifestyle trends has spawned a health and fitness industry of gargantuan proportion.
However, the exorbitant price of these fitness fads make it only accessible to an exclusive elite, further inflating its consumer appeal. Writes Forbes journalist Sarah McKinney of her SoulCycle experience, “Everything is so fancy and nice, from the equipment to the complimentary lockers, hair ties, three flavors of Orbit gum sitting on the front desk, the smiling faces of employees, and the grapefruit-smelling Jonathan Adler candles, that it tricks me into thinking I’m not torturing myself, and am instead giving myself a treat.” For many patrons of these fitness boutiques, it’s more about the consumer experience—the fanciness of everything in the setting—than the workout itself. In this way, these high-end fitness boutiques could be likened to posh social clubs complete with a homogeneous, devoted milieu.
This postmodern notion of “identity,” something that seems to be determined by the aggregation of consumer products, is a distinct product of our consumer-obsessed culture. These trendy workouts, while offering serious exercise, have taken such a strong foothold in our contemporary economy because they are exhibitionist in nature. Just like the noiseless fall the tree makes in an empty forest, the same logic applies to conspicuous consumerism; if you don’t have the brand gear or the Instagram to prove your dedication to the workout destination, did you even go?
SoulCycle, Barry’s Bootcamp and Core Power Yoga are as every bit designer as Gucci, Prada and Chanel. They speak to a generation so deeply entrenched in a social media tradition of sharing, branding, and self-aggrandizement that experience without documentation is assigned to the realm of insanity. Nothing is private anymore. Therefore, conspicuous consumerism—a phenomenon that, in former generations meant simply an ostentatious wardrobe and perhaps a trendy new car, has accumulated infinite facets in our age of technology.
You’re no longer just what you wear, where you live, or what car you drive. Now your “identity” is also contingent on what you eat, where you work out, and the degree to which you can share that information about yourself. No longer can one be, in the wise words of Kanye West in his wisecracking ode to consumerism “Blood on the Leaves,” that girl with a “two thousand dollar bag with no cash in your purse.” In the off-hours, that girl still must be slugging green juices and sporting designer loungewear.
However shamelessly commercial these fitness empires appear, they nevertheless shouldn’t be wholly subjected to the bitter ire of capitalism’s critics. The consumer fetishism over, say, a 45-minute spinning class, is easily more justifiable than a cigarette. But it’s important to examine the psychological impulses that drive middle class hordes to these workout classes and has women clamoring for $80 SoulCycle sweatpants. After all, it’s not the SoulCycle workout that’s innovative, it’s their business model, their loyal following, and the power of their brand that has them brushing shoulders with Fortune 500 companies. Perhaps this trend also speaks to a desire for community among fitness patrons.
Sophomore Sophie Krakoff said that there is a personable aspect to businesses like SoulCycle in that patrons can elect to workout with the same, enthusiastic, motivational trainer each time.
“There’s something about making these kinds of classes a habit, seeing the same faces repeatedly, and even getting first-name recognition by the instructor that makes them so rewarding,” she said.
Another sophomore, Adrienne Caldwell, added that the group setting and blaring dance music pushes her to work even harder at her workout routines.
“The energy motivates me to push myself harder than I would on my own,” Caldwell said.
Somehow the anonymity of a gym membership can’t compete with the communality of a workout class. SoulCycle is a social, shared experience, a fact that contributes to its appeal. People share in the sweat but also in the idea of SoulCycle, and that’s why it works.