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How Self-Care Is Carving a Place In the Fitness Industry

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Photo: fizkes / Getty Images

A few years ago, high-intensity workout classes took off and have maintained speed. This is largely because they're fun (bumping music, a group setting, quick moves) and the training style is effective. Studies show working harder for a shorter amount of time is a proven way to burn fat and boost metabolism. Plus, who would complain about spending 20 minutes instead of 60 at the gym? With faster, more efficient workout sessions, you're in and out, and on your way in no time.

Self-care, on the other hand—bubble baths, journaling, yoga, meditation, or massage—these things take time. And with overscheduled days, it can be difficult for even the most zen among us to fit in self-care practice on a regular basis.

So while speedy spin classes and Tabata-style workouts have picked up steam, you probably started to lose some of your own in the process.

The Resurgence of Full-Service Gyms

HIIT and fast-paced exercise classes have their place in every workout routine. But they also have their downfalls. Jumping into all-out training too quickly can damage the body (instead of making it stronger) and if you don't warm up, cool down, or execute the right form, you could be staring down injury.

And you can probably guess what's on the horizon if you're constantly pushing yourself with little downtime: You'll wear your body down, making yourself more susceptible to the negative effects of overtraining and stress. (Sound like you? Then read: The case for calmer, less intense workouts.)

That, in part, is why big box gyms are inviting people to linger longer, opening their doors not just for a workout but for restorative pre- and post-workout care.

Last month, Exhale Spa (which you know and love for their burns-so-good barre classes) launched a Fitness + Spa membership, which includes four monthly fitness classes and one spa service (plus 20 percent off other spa therapies throughout the month).

The company also now offers a "total well-being membership" (unlimited barre, cardio, yoga, or HIIT classes plus 25 percent off spa therapies).

"The old memberships, which still exist, were one or the other," explains Kim Kiernan, Exhale's director of public relations and communications. "Exhale saw a need to provide a membership option for those that love the best of both worlds—spa and fitness. Both play an important role in self-care, transformation, and healing."

In fact, emerging research suggests that post-exercise massage can alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), improving muscle performance; sauna stints can reduce oxidative stress; and clinical trials have found that a post-spin class spa visit (whirlpool baths, aromatherapy, and relaxing showers) can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and fatigue levels.

While gyms such as Exhale, Equinox, and Life Time have long intermingled the spa and fitness space (putting a post-workout sports massage within close reach), Life Time—which has gyms all across the U.S.—also has a full-service spa (hello, blowouts and manicures) on site, chiropractic care (for soft tissue and muscular work post-workout), and proactive care clinics where doctors, registered dietitians, and personal trainers can address your individual needs for both health and fitness before you're sick or injured.

If you consider that preparing for your workout (like not going into a treadmill speed sesh with cold muscles or a distracted mind) is a form of self-care, too, look no further than Equinox. The gym recently started using Halo Sport—a device that looks like pair of Beats by Dre headphones, but that actually uses neuroscience to prime your brain for athletics—to maximize motor learning and movement potential.

The Rise of Self-Care Classes

Fitness studios (which more often than not focus on a single method of exercise) are also starting to turn self-care into a habit, much like they've done with fitness. It's a timely change considering 72 percent of millennial women moved away from physical or financial goals this year, prioritizing self-care and mental health in 2018.

"Given how much our daily lives are spent constantly connected, overstimulated, and always on the go, the need for balance has never been greater," says Mark Partin, cofounder of B/SPOKE, an indoor cycling studio in Boston.

B/SPOKE, for one, recently opened an off-the-bike training space called THE LAB, where they're working to develop guided meditation, foam rolling, and trigger point release sessions. "We hope to launch DRIFT, our first restorative class, in the near future," says Partin.

Even SoulCycle, the queen of fast-paced sweat sessions, launched SoulAnnex, a space where instructors lead restorative off-the-bike classes. Reset is a 45-minute guided meditation class offering a "structured opportunity to escape the intensity of your daily life and enter a peaceful and tranquil environment." Another called Le STRETCH is a 50-minute mat class that works to improve mobility and flexibility while calming both mind and soul. (Think self-myofascial release and lengthening moves.)

"We've seen a rising interest in combining fitness with mindfulness," says Brooke Degnan, an instructor at Fusion Fitness, an exercise studio with multiple locations in the Kansas City area. Recently, the studio started a class called FUSION FOCUS—a crazy-tough workout bundled with meditation. Most instructors begin by sharing an uplifting quote or mantra and then lead the group through five minutes of guided meditation. HIIT training is followed by five or so minutes of standing mindfulness. Class closes with stretching and silent meditation. (Learn more about how meditation fits in with HIIT in trainer Holly Rilinger's LIFTED classes.)

"I started teaching this class after my dad passed away unexpectedly last September," says Degnan. "In my moments of deepest grief, I knew I needed to get back into working out but I also knew I needed something more than just the sweat and sore muscles."

And it seems like that's the message gyms and fitness studios are hearing loud and clear from members—you need your gym or studio to not only be a place for exercise but to also provide a one-stop-shop for all things wellness.

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