The first fitness class I went to was led by a 6-foot-2 non-union actor with bandannas tied around his forehead and bicep who for 50 minutes badly impersonated a military drill sergeant. "You're here to work!" he'd shout between whistle blows, shaking his head at a 14-year-old girl's sorry attempt at a burpee. It was 1999 and boot camps were springing up all over Los Angeles. The most in-demand instructors yelled the loudest.
While CrossFit and Tough Mudder are strongly carrying the pain-is-gain fitness dictum, elsewhere the fitness landscape is looking unprecedentedly...lazy. Cardio classes are offered in 20-minute sessions, restorative sessions run a full hour, and the most popular fitness apps don't track calories burned but REM cycles.
Fitness's New Goals
If the fitness goal at the turn of the millennium was ripped arms and low-rider-worthy abs, 17 years later the focus has shifted—inward. Balance and center have supplanted bulging muscles and low body-fat percentages as drivers to the gym. Increasing awareness of the mind-body connection is imbuing exercise with holistic import. "I go to calm my mind," said Holly, a Santa Monica, California, yoga practitioner. She used to run to keep slim, but she's less interested in her figure than she used to be. "I was dating; it was the '90s. Now I just want to feel good." In fact, data continues to pour out confirming the "feel-good" effects of exercise, which in many ways mimic the effects of morphine.
Even for those interested in the solely physical effects of working out there's a greater focus on mobility, functionality, and flexibility. "My students want to know how they can alleviate stiffness or keep up with their kids longer," one Pilates instructor in Los Angeles told me. People aren't showing up to be whipped into shape but to be supported on their journeys. It's a paradigm shift taking place across the wellness world.
Behind the shift is a slew of data on cortisol, a stress hormone implicated in cravings and weight gain. Suddenly those in-your-face fitness instructors and tear-inducing workouts came under new scrutiny: If they raise your stress levels could they be undermining your fitness goals? And likewise, if your career, home life, and the greater political climate are stressing you out, would a more effective use of your daily fitness time slot be directed toward chilling you out? When fitness blogger Jordan Younger wasn't losing weight despite daily cardio and high-intensity interval training, she got her hormones tested. Her cortisol levels were off the chart. Cutting back was the cure she needed. "For me, running or HIIT no more than twice a week, coupled with lots of restorative yoga, sleep, and water are what I need to feel balanced."
Here's how this softer, gentler attitude toward fitness is taking form:
Short and Sweet
Backed by evidence that shorter workouts can yield the same results as longer, 30- and even 20-minute classes are replacing hourlong sessions at studios across New York City. At the Fhitting Room, clients see results with twice-weekly sessions. At Inform Fitness, some clients don't even change out of their work clothes to get through their 20 minutes. Interval training has been found to improve age-related decline in muscle mitochondria after just 12 weeks, so many are asking: Why spend more time at the gym?
Recovery and Restoration
Some of the busy urbanites who five years ago routinely snuck out of cycling classes early, more interested in hitting the showers early than spending time to stretch, are now devoting full hours to recovery. "People are looking for some balance, relief, and ease," says Donna Flagg, the owner of Lastics stretch studio in New York City. " Strength is the yin to flexibility’s yang. You need both—equally—to be balanced." Stretching studios like Flagg's and like StretchLab in LA’s Venice Beach have cropped up across the country specializing solely in flexibility. Active recovery is now standard at CrossFits across the nation and popular classes like Rebecca Kennedy's often carry a waitlist.
Could a trip to the spa help you accomplish your fitness goals? Far infrared saunas mimic the effects of a workout by raising your core body temperature and making you sweat. Gaining some of the cardiovascular benefits of sweating can be as simple as lying down for a nap in an infrared pod. Therapeutic massage, especially forms of myofascial release, have shown tremendous potential in healing tissue. Hot baths unexpectedly took the limelight after a study suggested they might burn more calories than exercise and lower blood sugar more effectively.
Breath Work Over Heavy Breathing
New data, and ancient wisdom, on the healing benefits of breath work are compelling a new fitness-focused class to allocate precious workout time to developing a breath-centered practice. Like a blood-pumping cardio class, controlled breathing can reduce a host of psychological ailments, like anxiety, depression, insomnia, PTSD, and ADD. It can also lower cortisol levels by calming the parasympathetic system. Meditation guide and beauty brand founder Desiree Pais says breath work is an essential part of fitness. "Our body needs oxygen for optimal functioning. When we don't breathe deeply and properly, which many of us don't because our diaphragms are tight from so many years of shallow breathing, then we deprive our body of the oxygen it needs to function. We feel sluggish, tired, have chronic inflammation, disease, the list goes on." She's seen a noticeable uptick in interest from those in the fitness scene.
Could sleep hold the key to better fitness? Several studies have shown how sleep affects your metabolism and your ability to lose weight. It seems depriving the body of sleep, as more than one-third of Americans regularly do, hinders the brain's ability to regulate appetite. One study showed that on identical workout regimens, participants who sleep well lost weight while those deprived of sleep actually gained. With dozens of sleep monitoring apps available on iTunes, like Eight and Sleep Cycle, it's no wonder the New York Times touted sleep as "the new status symbol." Last month, sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., told mbg, "Sleep should be considered the new vital sign." Just as people treat heart disease with cardiovascular training, now some fitness enthusiasts are treating their depression with an extra hour of shut-eye. "If there's something wrong with your sleep," says Dr. Breus, "chances are it's affecting something else, causing weight gain, brain fog, or worsening a chronic disease." At least one gym brand, David Lloyd Clubs in London, is adding sleep to their class lineup: Their Napercise sessions include a brief stretch followed by a 45-minute nap tucked into bed with a blanket and an eye mask.