Fitness Gets Personal: Boutique Gyms

Inventive workouts and luxury amenities have pumped up the popularity of boutique health clubs.

Rachel Howering hates to work out. But you’d never know it from watching her execute an acrobatic spin around one of eight floor-to-ceiling poles at Wellness on the Green, a Morristown boutique fitness studio where she takes a variety of classes four times a week.

“This is just fun. It doesn’t feel like exercise, which is something I could never do. I’m not one to exercise for the sake of exercising,” she says after a recent introduction-to-pole-dancing class, where Howering, a 25-year-old William Paterson University student and full-time bakery employee, was joined by eight lithe women ranging from their 20s to their 40s.

Howering has always avoided gyms. But lately she’s been noticing that her gym-rat friends are canceling their memberships, too. “There’s just so much more out there to do,” says the Florham Park resident. “Why should you spend your time bumping up against 20 other people trying to get on a treadmill?”
Howering, like many of her friends, is a boutique-fitness convert.

They are not alone. Sleek and scaled-down fitness clubs, offering everything from rowing to upside-down yoga, no longer seem exotic or faddish in New Jersey, although budget-minded exercisers still probably consider them too much of an indulgence.

“I’ve noticed a move toward the smaller boutiques, and it’s because, let’s face it: You go to a big gym and it can be very impersonal. You go through a turnstile, they swipe your card and then you’re in there with the masses,” says Mark Occhipinti, co-owner with his wife, Amy, of American Fitness Professionals and Associates, a training and certification program in Ship Bottom. “At boutique studios, you’re going to get some interaction. That’s why they’re exploding.”

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, an industry trade group, says boutique fitness centers—typically with monthly memberships of $250 or more—are booming nationally, at the expense of medium-sized clubs, which charge about $40 a month.

The trend can be seen throughout New Jersey, especially on weekdays at around 8 am.

“Some people don’t like to mix and mingle with 1,000 strangers at the gym,” says Art Palombo, a boutique-fitness fan from Chester. “People like to be with kindred souls in a place that’s purpose designed, where the class size is under control,” adds Palombo as he cools down from a Thursday 8:30 am spin class at Ride+Reflect in Bernardsville, a sweat-basted towel draped around his neck.

Soulfulness—insofar as it can be detected in a place with 24 gleaming stationary bikes arranged amphitheater-style in a studio that pumps loud pop songs—is what owner Juliet Patsalos-Fox was going for when she opened Ride+Reflect in January.

“I felt like gyms were so body-focused,” says Pastalos-Fox, a willowy 50-year-old Bernardsville resident originally from England. “I wanted a place where you could tone your body and tone your mind.” Thus Ride+Reflect’s à la carte menu of classes, which includes the 75-minute “combo ride plus yoga”—a spin class followed by yoga—as well as power vinyasa flow yoga and guided meditation. Single classes range from $20 to $35—the typical range at boutique clubs.

Ride+Reflect’s mind-and-body mix suggests a new-age atmosphere that spin regulars aren’t likely to encounter at spin franchises like SoulCycle in Short Hills and Flywheel in Short Hills and Englewood.
“I don’t like the way those places have boards where you look and see how you’re competing against other people,” says Pastalos-Fox. “We wanted a sense of community.” And support.

In 2010, when she was 46, Pastalos-Fox was diagnosed with stage-three colon cancer. She had made a pact with a friend before the diagnosis to one day climb Mount Kilimanjaro. “I finished my chemo in 2011, and I gave myself until September 2012,” says Pastalos-Fox, whose goal-oriented recovery included spinning and meditation. After a successful climb in 2012, she started planning the 4,000-square-foot Ride+Reflect.

“Maybe it’s misguided, but I wanted the kind of place where, if someone hasn’t said your name and looked you in the eye when you walk in, you know something’s wrong. I want people to feel welcome and know this is a place where we want to help you reach your goals, whatever they may be,” says Pastalos-Fox.

The appeal of smaller, specialized facilities is in some ways obvious. “When you’re not trying to be everything to everyone, you can attract people who are passionate about doing something they love, and doing it with other people who are like-minded,” says Michael Metzger, a co-owner of Guerrilla Fitness in Bound Brook, home to CrossFit Chimney Rock.

Guerrilla, which also has locations in Montclair, Morristown and Paramus, is a CrossFit training “box,” a specialized strength and conditioning gym in a warehouse-like building. Here, you lift weights, run, jump and perform burpees, pushups, sit-ups and/or pull-ups in a high-intensity setting that emphasizes teamwork. Up to two dozen exercisers at a time are clustered in small groups that cheer each other on throughout hour-long workouts. Ask for a description of those workouts, and the word grueling often ends up attached.
Metzger, of Morristown, opened the Bound Brook location in February. Greg Arsenick, Guerrilla’s founder, has watched the business mushroom since he opened in Montclair in 2008.

“It’s been exponential,” says Arsenick. The Montclair resident sees more than 100 regular CrossFit clients per day—men and women of all ages and fitness levels—at his 8,000-square-foot hometown location. The volume, he says, has everything to do with Guerrilla’s hardcore atmosphere, where clients are encouraged to challenge themselves.

“The sense of accomplishment and camaraderie is what helps you show up,” says Arsenick. Backing him up on that at a recent Guerrilla class in Bound Brook was Califon resident David Defreitas, who executed a series of perfect pull-ups. Before he started CrossFit a year ago, he says, he might not have been able to do one. Defreitas also measures his accomplishments in pounds; he has lost 40 of them through CrossFit.
The cost of boutique clubs also keeps clients coming back. “We’re not a $30-a-month gym where if you don’t go it doesn’t matter,” says Arsenick. “We’re charging upwards of $200 a month, which means we need to provide a service people are going to be happy with, where they see results.” (Monthly packages at Guerrilla start at $200 for three visits a week; a single drop-in class costs $15.)

For fans of niche fitness, results often take a more ephemeral form. “I should be sitting at home watching Lifetime movies. But because of this I feel 10 years younger,” says Jola Haschek, a 53-year-old from Cresskill, who attends anti-gravitational yoga classes twice a week at CoolHotYoga in her hometown.

“I never used to be a yoga person. I wanted to run and sweat and burn 700 calories at a time,” says Haschek after a recent class in which she struck yoga poses in a green silk hammock suspended from the ceiling alongside six other barefoot women. Upbeat music played throughout the class, taught by studio owner Michelle Copland of Norwood, who ran students through a series of strengthening and toning moves in addition to stretching in the cocoon-like silks. Some moves were done upside-down.

“To me this is a replacement for the chiropractor and getting a facial. It gives you a glow,” says Haschek.

Copland says her studio is one of the few in New Jersey that offer anti-gravitational yoga. The nine hammocks are always in demand, but CoolHotYoga, which Copland opened in 1999, offers other workouts—“something for every mood and personality,” she says—while still adhering to the boutique philosophy.

“I don’t think there’s any one exercise that’s the be-all and end-all,” says Copland. Cardio-and-toning “booty barre” classes as well as Zumba, pilates, hot yoga and traditional types of yoga are other ways CoolHotYoga’s 1,000 regular students stay active. Those classes are held in CoolHotYoga’s 2,000-square-foot Cresskill space; a smaller studio across the street is used exclusively for the anti-gravity classes, which Copland started offering 2½ years ago. (Single classes range from $20 to $25.)

An out-of-the-ordinary curriculum and what Copland calls “the off-putting environment of big gyms, where there’s loud music and you feel like you have to put on a face full of makeup,” also explains the appeal of Jump Studio in Cinnaminson. Kimberly Stoeckley of Philadelphia opened the 1,400-square-foot space two years ago because the Zumba class she was teaching in Pennsauken had gained a following big enough to convince her she should launch her own boutique.

But instead of sticking with Zumba, she started teaching Plyo Dance and Plyo Latino, too. Plyo, the brand name of a type of boots with a bouncy apparatus on the sole that lets wearers jump as if they’re on their own personal trampolines, are now Jump’s best-attended classes. In Plyo Dance, up to 15 jumpers at a time follow a teacher who choreographs jump routines to loud top-40 music; the crowd skews young, or at least it did during a recent Thursday afternoon class.

But, Stoeckly says, “anyone can benefit. Studies have shown 20 minutes of jumping is the best exercise for cardiovascular disease. And it also gives you a natural high. There’s a lot of endorphins involved.” The classes cost $11; a limited number of boots are available for a rental fee.

Novelty—a move away from classic boutique classes like bar and pilates—also attracts adventurous fitness seekers to Wellness on the Green, where Howering takes pole dancing in Morristown. The owner, Kim Henry, a Mendham resident, wanted to offer a place where “the classes aren’t boring.” She opened her studio more than five years ago. A recent hour-long Saturday afternoon Intro to Pole Dance class, attended by six women, was anything but. Belly dance, chair dance and hoop dance are also on the menu, at $10 to $20.

Such inventive classes might make an indoor rowing studio like GoRow sound tame. But Garrett Roberts, owner of the Hoboken club, keeps hour-long sessions in his 1,000-square-foot space enticing by ratcheting up the boutique attributes. The space is spotless and so are the club’s nine state-of-the-art rowing machines. More importantly, Roberts, an exercise physiologist with a physical therapy and strength-training background, knows what motivates his 1,400 regular clients.

“Before you come in, I have the settings where you need them to be. And I know everybody’s limitations so I can tailor each workout,” says the Hoboken resident. That level of personal attention and eye for detail comes from 20 years in the fitness industry. Before Roberts opened GoRow in 2012, he was the owner of Garrett Roberts Fitness Solutions, a management company. He’s still a personal trainer in addition to teaching most of GoRow’s three or four daily classes.

“I love the psychology aspect of it,” says Roberts. “Each person comes in with different goals, different ailments. It’s a challenge, but I tell people I’m committed to giving them a full-body workout every time I see them.” (Single classes are $29.)

And he does, says Shan Gettens, a Hoboken resident and regular Thursday-morning client, who was out of breath after a recent session.

“I’ve tried a lot of different classes, and I feel exhausted everywhere after this one. But in a good way,” she says. Gettens discovered GoRow a year ago. Previously, she belonged to a Hoboken gym.

“This is better,” she says, “It’s a little more expensive,” but the personal approach and intimate atmosphere are worth it.

“The days of the gym rat are over,” she says.

Tammy La Gorce is a frequent contributor. Her fitness routine includes strenuous finger workouts on her laptop computer and sprinting to and from her kids’ activities.

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