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Why Smaller Spinning® Studios Can Offer a Big Advantage

By Raquel Rezàra Schmidt, Ph.D.

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An encouraging trend in recent years has been the increase in the number of privately owned “boutique” Spinning studios around the world. Large health clubs and corporate franchises usually offer a big variety of class formats and instructor options, but it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or lost in large classes. Smaller clubs tend to embrace a more intimate approach that helps clients set personalized goals and track progress toward individual achievements. I personally have taught in several types of fitness settings and feel there are specific advantages and drawbacks to different types/sizes of venues. Let’s explore some of the unique characteristics of different Spinning settings, both large and small.

A Brief History of the Modern Health Club
As with so many other significant concepts in fitness, the origin of the gymnasium can be traced back to ancient Greece. Gymnos means naked in ancient Greek, which describes the natural state in which athletes at that time trained. In the U.S., the first YMCA opened its doors in 1851. Athletic clubs (segregated by gender) became popular locales for wealthier Americans to exercise, relax, and engage in activities like bowling, archery, and swimming. Twentieth century group fitness entrepreneurs like Jack LaLanne encouraged men and women to lift weights (his chain of health clubs started in California ultimately became Bally Total Fitness) and avoid eating processed foods. The 1980-90s ushered in the era of corporate fitness chains like LA Fitness, Lifetime and Equinox. Meanwhile, the health club stereotype of shiny spandex and thong leotards was famously immortalized in Olivia Newton John’s 1981 hit Physical.

During this time period a dynamic young gentleman from South Africa named Jonathan Goldberg started working as a personal trainer in Venice Beach, California and developed what would become known as the Spinning program. By the turn of century, Spinning had made its mark and forever changed the fitness industry. In 1994, Mad Dogg Athletics introduced Spinning education programs to meet the demand for instructors at the rapidly increasing number of licensed Spinning facilities. Since that time, Spinning has educated thousands of enthusiasts to become Certified Spinning Instructors around the world. Huge franchises like The Sports Club and Crunch offered hundreds of Spinning classes on a weekly basis and helped make indoor cycling “America’s Hottest Fitness Craze” (American Council on Exercise) in the late 1990s and 2000s. With many facilities, bigger meant better and it wasn’t unusual to see several scheduled classes per day filled with 30+ participants sweating and pedaling in unison. I personally think the biggest advantage of a “big box” club is variety. A wide range of class times, vastly different instructor personalities, new types of exercise formats—all these features can be more easily reflected in a bigger club that has a deep well of resources, superior marketing ability and a large pool members to fill classes. Currently, about 12% of all Americans belong to some sort of health club. With skyrocketing global rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, the role of physical fitness in overall health and wellbeing takes on an increasingly critical role.

Advantages of Specialized Facilities
Spinning originated the group exercise genre now commonly known as indoor cycling, and it’s interesting to note that a return in sentiment to its intimately humble origins (Johnny G’s garage) is occurring. While there have been small and dedicated cycling studios since Mad Dogg Athletics first began licensing Spinning facilities, much of the growth of the mainstream popularity of indoor cycling classes can be attributed to the sheer number and size of classes offered at large chain clubs. Shape Magazine named the increase of smaller specialty studios as one of the hottest fitness trends of 2013. The bottom line for most of us who exercise is results and specialty studios can fill a niche for exercise enthusiasts who perhaps don’t have the financial means to afford a home gym or full-time personal trainer, but still want a more customized and focused workout beyond the daily experience of a large group exercise class. Spinning studios can help bridge this divide.  I recently spoke with Heather Mills, owner of SkyBox Studio in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. She observed, “My best recommendations come from my members. I started the studio because I wanted to give back and show others it's possible to overcome any situation. A small dedicated studio is just that: dedicated to its members. I know everyone by name and they know me and my family and we are all one great big family.”

This community-oriented feel was echoed by another private cycling studio owner, Melissa Spredermann of Velocity in Mequon, Wisconsin. “I wanted to build a sense of community,” she said. “At bigger gyms you may know a few people, or recognize faces, but you don't really know anyone there. At Velocity, we sit and chat after class, some participants e-mail me with questions, etc. It has turned into my second family.” 

Another attractive feature of a specialty studio is economic efficiency. Many smaller facilities have a fee-based structure where participants can pay by class and avoid the hassle of paying for membership in a long term contract. At first glance this can appear more expensive than the typical all-inclusive-pay-one-low-price monthly membership fee that most major chains offer. A 2003 Stanford University study of eight thousand gym members over three years found that the average number of monthly club visits was five, and it’s likely more cost effective for the typical gym goer to pay a per-use fee (especially in clubs where premium classes like Spinning, Zumba® and yoga have an additional class charge). This correlates with documented statistics since the typical member significantly overestimates how many times per week they will go to the gym to exercise. Interestingly, exercisers who paid the per-use fee were significantly more likely to keep working out beyond the one year contract period most new members sign up for.  

The International Health, Racquet, and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)’s most recent Trend Report shows that increasing numbers of individuals are willing to pay more money to get observable and measurable results. This fits well with the more personalized approach in smaller facilities. Skybox Spinning enthusiast Susan L. explained, “I have tried to get motivated and lose weight for at least eight years. From the moment I walked in the door, I have felt welcome, comfortable, inspired, encouraged and I am finally on my journey to a healthier lifestyle. I go to bed at night and can't wait to get up and go back to class. “

In many ways indoor cycling has revolutionized group fitness in the 21st century. Heart rate monitors, training zones, and the mind-body connection have been the foundation of the Spinning program since its inception. Whether you participate in Spinning classes in a large fitness facility or small studio, the ultimate goal is to build a healthy and fit lifestyle that will see us well into a spry old age. It’s ultimately about creating a sustainable lifestyle that leads to peak wellness for each of us in the long term.

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Author: Raquel Rezàra Schmidt, Ph.D.

Raquel has been a certified ACE/AFAA Fitness Instructor since 1988, teaching hi/lo aerobics, step, hiphop, and body sculpting classes while still in high school. Currently, in addition to teaching Spinning, she also teaches yoga, cardio kickboxing, and bellydance. She also is a mat & reformer Stott certified Pilates instructor. In 2004 she was selected to join a regional cycling team as a category 4 cyclist and went on to win gold medals in the New York State Criterium Championships (2005), New York State Time Trial Championships (2004), and a bronze medal in the New York State Road Racing Championships (2005). Internationally she has traveled to Europe (with bicycle in tow) to cheer Lance on to victories five and six and also rode several stages of the 2003 & 2004 Tour De France with local cycling enthusiasts. Raquel holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of Buffalo and is a full time faculty member at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.

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