When I was growing up, Saturday mornings were spent at the gym. My mom taught an aerobics class and I got to tag along, watching her class bounce around a dingy, fluorescently-lit room, perched on a step-bench just behind one of the two-way mirrored walls.
One of the decisions I had to make over the last decade, the one that pushed me into real young-adulthood, was a crucial one: What kind of fitness person did I want to be? What gym should I join? What I found was an almost overwhelming offering, mostly filled out over the last decade, that looked completely different from what my mother had been doing all those years.
The fitness trends of the 2010s were about more than fitness. My mom’s jazzercisers got up and came to the gym on early Saturday mornings to “melt their belly fat” away, or acquire “buns of steel.” But as wellness trends shifted away from that kind of messaging, the fitness industry had to as well. The industry moved further away from making thinness the primary goal of working out, and instead shifted toward more body-positive and “wellness” focused messaging. And it all happened inside facilities that looked as good on Instagram as they promised you would feel IRL, offering gym-goers a much needed sense of community in a more tech obsessed and lonelier world.
That shift worked, by the way. The last decade saw a major increase in gym-goers. Over the decade the number of American adults who joined a health club grew from about 45 million to 60 million by 2017. The health and wellness industry boomed as lots of new fitness studios and trends emerged to keep up with the demand.
A community experience
While Americans are more physically active than ever, they’re also lonelier than ever. A Cigna study reported that by 2018 loneliness in the United States had reached epidemic levels. The increase in social media and technology certainly plays a role in a lack of emotional connectedness, but smaller households, longer workdays, and increased stress didn’t help. Those that experienced regular, in-person interactions were less likely to report feeling alone, along with those who participated in regular physical activity.
Technology seamlessly wove itself into every aspect of our lives. Smartwatches, Fitness trackers, exclusively-online studios and even smart water bottles have changed the way we workout. Apps like Classpass and Gympass, which offer users access to various local fitness studios at their fingertips, appeared as alternatives to a traditional gym or workout video.
Crossfit refers to itself as “a lifestyle”; Soulcycle promises to leave you stronger, inspired and changed in your soul; and Zumba boasts that its dancers don’t just love their workout, they live it. Gone are the days when working out was something to fit into your life, now picking a fitness studio is like picking a new part of your identity. When you clip your shoes into a Soulcycle bike for the first time, you become a cycler. Even if it’s just for the length of the class, you can align yourself with all that comes with that particular aspirational persona: You can be the perpetually optimistic, oat milk-drinking, can-afford-a-vacation kind of person who can conquer a 5K bike ride — and somehow commit to feeling good in spite of a lonely, stressful and at-times deeply scary world.
The fitness trends that proliferated in the 2010s recruited cultish followings ready to take on a new lifestyle, not just a workout. At Soulcycle you don’t just purchase a membership, you join an “inclusive community [that] welcomes and embraces every soul, always.” At the very top of their site, in bold highlighted text reads: SoulCycle is “more than a workout — it’s an experience.”
What we now consider “wellness” is a broad term. It is celebrated as a more holistic approach to health, and one that has helped redefine and reshape the diet and weight-loss obsessions of the previous decade. But the fitness industry is still one driven by capitalism, and always has and always will profit off of the message that something is “wrong” with you or your body and there is a product or place you can pay money to in order to “fix” it. The new definition of wellness as a sunnier and more supportive side of fitness has been integral to the success of the trends in the 2010s.
As the body-positivity movement took off over the last ten years, fitness brands couldn’t exactly keep selling the gimmicky “get thin quick” fix that consumers had become accustomed to (not without a lot of blowback, anyway). Wellness was right there to grasp onto. Industries moved away from one type of model, and people with all kinds of bodies became more visible. And with the rise of Instagrammers of all shapes and sizes displaying their routines, it was all too easy to find inspiration to get moving from people who looked like you and felt authentic. Fitness brands picked up on the trend. They hired influencers who looked like they had your life (if the life you had looked like you wanted it to) — the kind that put a curated grid together of perfectly-placed cellulite and self-doubt. You know, “real” people. Working out was no longer about “looking good” — now, it was about feeling good (and, maybe more importantly, looking like you’re feeling good).
Instagram was an integral part in the over-all fitness rebrand. At the start of the decade, Instagram was home to 1 million users, and now has 1 billion active users, many of whom use the app every single day. It is the second most engaged social network. Over 80 percent of Instagram users find new services or brands via the app.
So, rest assured, #Fitspo became a thing.
Although Instagram helped break open the industry and introduce users to gym-goers who seemed to look and live closer to the way they did, it did leave people vulnerable to the same complicated and unhealthy parts of diet culture. Performing a perfectly curated diet and fitness routine for an audience comes with a cost. The hyper-visual medium and community, at its worst, opened users up to constant comparison with their peers — which could lead some to orthorexia (as some studies found), obsessive over-exercise, and skewed body image. Yet, there’s also a countermovement of recovery and, again, the success of body positive fitness instagrams providing a necessary image of how all kinds of bodies can explore and participate in fitness.
A boom in users, though, made Instagram the perfect way for fitness brands to get their messages directly to consumers. Gorgeous studios adorned with neon quotes, motivational mirror stickers and brand color painted walls thrived on the visual platform. Yellow is practically synonymous with Soulcycle, and most gyms now offer at least one spot for participants to take a post-workout selfie. It was as if to say, with a monthly membership, you too can show your followers you were here. For all the good the shift to a wellness-focused industry did, it really was a rebrand of the messaging my mother’s class had come to know.
This new way of advertising also helped fitness accessory and clothing brands find an audience. You simply couldn’t waltz into the gym in the ratty clothes from the back of your closet, especially if an Insta moment awaited you just around the stair-master. Drab dumbbells and white walls, old t-shirts and running shorts no longer cut it. But diverse influencers and millennial branding helped fitness brands like Girlfriend and Outdoor Voices thrive alongside the picturesque fitness facilities.
Fitness thrived throughout the last decade. New workouts offered users community in an era riddled with loneliness, and a shift to promoting wellness and overall health took steps, alongside the body-positivity movement and the age of Instagram, to make fitness culture more accessible to everyone. There is no mistaking that it also offered solutions during a time of uncertainty, stress, and loneliness. And it managed to do it all clad in neon and millennial pink, perfect for performing a gorgeous and full-looking life on our Instagram feeds.
Sure, the evolution of the fitness industry was no surprise during a decade that saw a rise in political, technological and social media-induced problems. But the shifts the industry made managed to offer solace, community, and purpose for many in a generation coming of age and in desperate need of those things. What begins as a performance could end in meaningful, intrinsically-motivated changes.
I answered the question of what kind of gym-goer I would become in a black and red, neon-lit boxing studio that combines both boxing and yoga. Covered in inspirational phrases and words on the mirrors and walls, the mostly female clientele passes a sign to get in the studio that boasts something about “boxing, burgers and backbends.”
My mom was around my age when she started her fitness journey — which was about looking good in an entirely different way. And, since then, the world and the way we work out in it has changed dramatically. When my own fitness journey starts to feel too much like an Instagram hoax, I remember what she taught me about showing up for myself and doing the work. Which I still do, twice a week, in a matching Outdoor Voices set.