On a Friday night in London, twentysomethings are packing themselves into a dark basement. The lights are low, the music is loud and the room is buzzing in anticipation. Finally, a woman walks on to the stage and the room erupts.
You might think we are in a nightclub, but we’re not. We are at 1Rebel, a fitness studio in the City, about to do a spin class. This is not a traditional workout: people have dressed for the event in colourful, figure-hugging Lycra that wouldn’t look out of place in a cocktail bar, and in 45 minutes’ time, when it’s all over, we’ll be downing prosecco, not smoothies, at the studio’s licensed bar, because we have earned it. There is also a hairdresser on site for those who want to go straight out afterwards — a bellini and a blow-dry comes in at £30. This is the face of millennial fitness: health hedonists who don’t mind mixing up their workouts with their nightlife. I know this because I am one of the newly converted.
If you had told me two years ago that I’d be in fitness classes several times a week, I’d have laughed. Then, when I was 27, exercise generally consisted of walking home after missing the last Tube. Yoga was something hippies did in village halls. High-intensity interval training classes looked like a form of self-harm. Exercise seemed perfectly suited to people who were already fit and healthy, and that was not me. Now, instead of sleeping in till noon on a Saturday, I’m at an 8am spin session. I get up at the unthinkable hour of 5am to make my favourite yoga class and I catch up with friends at the barre before we go out for a drink. Detox then retox. It’s become the new socialising for many of my friends and we’re not alone.
On New Year’s Eve in London 150 people turned up for Rave & Behave. The event, run by the social fitness app Fitssi, offered prosecco and workouts from top trainers till midnight, then a DJ, smoothies galore and carriages by 3am. “I’m over that binge-drinking and feeling like death the next day thing,” says Janine, 35, who went along. She got into fitness after her marriage broke down and is now hooked. “Everyone was so friendly — we were all there for the same reason. It’s not the same when you go to a club, there isn’t that vibe.”
Meanwhile, boutique fitness studios are springing up as fast as coffee shops in London and they are full of people like me, still slightly stunned that it is a bike and not a bar stool they are sitting on. These fancy studios differ from traditional gyms in that they offer only classes and that they tend to have specialities, chief among them spinning, which was popularised by SoulCycle — “fitness-meets-therapy” — in the US and which earned its co-founders $90 million each when they sold the company last year.
I visit a branch of Psycle near Oxford Street in London, which has a similar concept. It’s 10am on a Thursday, a time when you might think most people would be at work, yet the building is packed.
I have definitely had people drunk in class. It tends to be the City workers
Our class is led by Rhian, a former swimmer for Canada who switched to spinning after she retired. I wish they had told me that beforehand. She gives a performance to rival that of any pop star, dancing across the front of the room to the music, playing with her mixer to alter the lights and calling to us by name. There are about fifty of us in the room and when she gets us to cycle in rhythm, the effect is hypnotic. I wonder if I have inadvertently joined a low-grade cult.
People don’t just go to Psycle’s classes, they become obsessed with them. In the changing rooms I speak to Pippa, a primary school teacher. She has racked up 200 classes in the past 10 months. Today, she’s treating herself to two: the 10am then, after root canal at the dentist, she will be back for the 6.30. “You can’t do that!” says Rhian. “No, I really can’t put off the root canal any longer,” Pippa replies. She gets her phone out and shows me some pictures from the recent Burning Man-themed ride — “I didn’t know what Burning Man was,” she says of the wild festival that takes place in the Nevada desert each year. That didn’t matter — she went all out when she bought her costume anyway.
It is a world away from the drudgery of a traditional gym, to which I was perpetually subscribed and only sporadically visited. “I know everybody’s name in the room,” says Melissa Power, who teaches spin at my studio, Centric:3Tribes. She left her job in television to become a full-time instructor and says that teaching “is like getting up on stage. I run on the adrenaline — I love it.” This is what brings people back. Plus boutiques tend not to have memberships: you pay as you go instead, but they do charge about £20 — sometimes more — a class.
Grace, 30, got into studios two years ago. She now goes to about five a week and pays up to £200 a month on fitness. “It’s a massive stretch,” she says. “But it’s addictive. I didn’t believe that endorphins from exercise were a thing before, but now I do. I feel good mentally and I don’t even look at the scales any more.”
Why are we doing this to ourselves? I go in search of the answer with Shara Tochia and Hettie Holmes, the millennials behind Whateveryourdose.com (dose stands for the “happy hormones” — dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins). Their guide to new studios and the top spots for healthy (or hedonistic) brunches and cocktails launched in 2016.
“I was sick of how the gym industry was always about aesthetic results,” says Holmes. “For me, it was about the way it made me feel. It was similar to the high I’d get from partying, except it was natural.”
I’m not a typical fitness trainer. I love to drink wine and cocktails
Tochia has taught spin classes for a decade alongside working for start-ups. “I’m not a typical fitness trainer,” she says. “I love to drink wine and cocktails, but there’s a balance. A lot of the people who come to me like to go out as much as they like to work out.” She says her studio often “smells of gin” by the end of a spin session. “People come to sweat out their hangovers. I have horror stories.”
Her experience isn’t unique. “I have definitely had people drunk in class — it tends to be the City workers who come to my evening class after a few,” says Marcus Veda, who teaches his rocket yoga classes in the capital’s millennial hotspots of Shoreditch and Peckham. “I did have a regular yesterday who had to focus so hard on not throwing up. At the end, he said he felt better — and he was so into it that he wasn’t thinking of anything else other than just breathing. So he was probably doing more yoga than half the people in the room.”
Veda was an international DJ before becoming a yoga teacher five years ago. “When I was a DJ everyone seemed to be one, now everyone’s a yoga teacher,” he says wryly. He believes the fitness culture at the moment is all about bingeing. “Work hard all week, exercise as hard as you can at the weekend. A lot of workers like to make yoga a part of their celebrations or it’s an excuse to not go out all night — they do a little bit of drinking then they come to do yoga.
“I’ve been told that two glasses of prosecco is the ideal amount for my class. I don’t even know what that means.”
Would he kick someone out if they were too drunk? “No one would do that, they’d be too embarrassed. My classes are serious enough for people to know it wouldn’t be funny.”
Not only is the number of fitness studios with an alcohol licence on the increase, but some of the country’s biggest clubbing institutions are rolling out exercise mats in an effort to capitalise on the trend. Last month, the Ministry of Sound launched Ministry Does Fitness in the same London location as its nightclub. “We do workouts in the only way we know how: with full production, lights, music and sound system,” says Olivia Brafman, who is behind the launch. “We wanted to bring two worlds into one space, which previously might have conflicted, but really are the future of this millennial generation and how they want to live their lives, which is work and play hard.
“Fitness instructors are the new DJs. When you come to a club, everyone faces the DJ and puts their arms in the air and hangs on their every word and tune. It’s the same relationship in a gym. The studio is your stage.”
Surely it can’t be a good look for a fitness studio to be serving alcohol?
“There’s already a whole drinking culture around exercise,” says Brafman. “I’m a big cyclist — we’ll go out for five hours of cycling then everyone ends up in the pub. And then you see with the football culture that people will play for a couple of hours then hit the beers. It’s a social, bonding thing. Why shouldn’t these two things exist in one space, and why should we feel guilty for doing one and not the other?”