Sure, popping into a gym while on vaca will help your fitness goals—but the benefits of working out with locals go way beyond that.
Photo: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
I'm a 400-meter run and 15 pull-ups away from being done with the workout of the day at the CrossFit box I've been dropping into for the last week. Then it hits me: I love it here. Not because "here" isn't New York City—where I live and desperately needed an escape from—and not because I've suddenly become a Rhode Island die-hard.
Rather, this was the first time I've traveled somewhere and gotten to experience the place as a local, and thus felt like I belonged. And guess what? It's all because I decided to go work out.
Planning the Itinerary
As a freelance writer, I spend most of my days typing away in too-crowded coffee shops which I can easily trade for a beach view if there's a solid Wi-Fi connection. So when my mom invited me to accompany her and her boyfriend to a beach house they rented a week right after I was dumped, I agreed. (More on that: What Happens When Your SO Is Your Workout Buddy—and You Break Up)
I worried the trip might make me feel like a grown-ass, adult-sized third wheel for a full seven days. So, I mapped out my stay ahead of time. I'd read oodles of romance novels on the beach, ogle the lifeguards' abs (and then try to find them on Tinder), and go to sleep at a reasonable hour and wake up to the sunrise—which I'd obviously 'gram with a cheesy caption about never leaving. (Related: 6 Healthy Ways to Pass the Time While Traveling)
The morning before hopping on the train to meet my mom, I took a CrossFit class at my home gym. "Which box are you going to drop into while you're there?" my coach asked when I mentioned my travel plans and trip. Despite working part-time at a CrossFit box and doing the sport consistently for almost two years, I had never taken a class anywhere but my home gym. It seemed like the perfect addition to my vacation itinerary—plus, an easy way to keep up on my fitness while away.
After I arrived in Rhode Island, I searched Google maps for CrossFit gyms. I could have been more scientific about it—read reviews, checked out the coaches' Instagrams, or looked at their programming—but I just settled on the first gym that popped up. I booked the 7 a.m. class for the next morning.
When I woke up that morning, my anxiety flared. What if everyone else in the class knew each other? Or, worse—what if I was the only person who showed up for class? I watched the sunrise, swallowed my nerves, ducked into my car, and drove to the box.
By 6:50 a.m., I was foam rolling with about 20 slightly sunburnt athletes. Most knew each other and were regular members, but there were three drop-ins just like me. The coach led us through the warm-up, and as we all bonded over the workouts we'd done that previous week and how sore we were, my nervousness faded and I slowly became the girl I'm known for being at my gym: strong, giggly, and full of joy. By the time class was over, I had 19 new acquaintances—nay, friends. (Research backs up the fact that exercising in a group is better than going alone.)
The woman I back-squatted with during the strength portion of class owns the local Thai Restaurant and invited me for a comped dinner for one that evening, and the boy next to me during the workout was, coincidentally, one of the lifeguards I planned to drool over later. I didn't find the boy later on Tinder, nor did we flirt, but I made a friend. And you bet your ass I had the best green curry I'd ever tasted—and this was just day one.
Over the next week, I dropped into that same box every morning. One day, I did a partner workout with an older guy who owned a local coffee shop I hadn't been to before and got coffee with him right after class. Another day, I did a workout with one of the gym owners, who recommended a secret surfing alcove that I explored on a solo "date" later that day.
On the last day of my trip, I looked around the box at the athletes who had become both my friends and my tour guides. Going into this trip, I was grateful for the excuse to get out of New York, but I had expected to feel somewhat out-of-place and pathetic. Instead, what I felt was a sense of belonging. (Related: Why You Should Go On a Post-Breakup Vacation)
I realized that the best part of my trip wasn't just getting away—it was truly immersing myself in this new place. Sure, I spent a decent amount of time thumbing through novels with sand in my toes. But this gym gave me a chance not only to work out, but also to meet other health-minded people, make friends, and learn about the real gems this place had to offer—not just the ones reviewed by TripAdvisor.
No, It's Not Just CrossFit Boxes
Since that trip last summer, I've kept in touch with a few of my Rhode Island friends. And I've also continued to use CrossFit as a way to get insider info on the places I'm visiting.
Curious about if this was ~just a CrossFit thing~, I chatted up NYC-based trainer Katherine Gundling, who coaches at both a CrossFit Box and a studio that offers high-intensity interval training classes. She assured me it's not: "Friendly members is a small-studio thing," she says. "Most studios and boutiques that offer classes and membership will have some semblance of community."
However, you won't get the same vibe if you just hit up a Planet Fitness for a solo strength workout. "Big gyms don't usually harbor communities, because people are there to do their own workout," says Jonathan Tylicki, director of education for AKT, a dance-based fitness boutique franchise. "Small studios typically pride themselves on an inclusive, community-like feel." (Here's more on how to find your "fitness tribe," according to Jen Widerstrom.)
To get the best experience possible, Tylicki suggests bopping into a local athletic apparel store—somewhere like Lululemon, Athleta, Nike, etc. "They're going to know the pulse of the city's athletic scene and give you the best recommendation based on the workout style you'd like to try," he says. And if you're traveling somewhere with an outdoorsy scene, try other physical small-group activities like hiking, bouldering, paddle boarding, or biking, says Caley Crawford, director of education and programming at Row House in New York City.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Off-Site Workout
Get there early. Being late will take you out of your relaxed vacation state and being early will give you a chance to introduce yourself to the instructor and other exercisers. That's why Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott, certified personal trainers, nutrition coaches, and cofounders of Tone It Up, recommend getting to class a little early. "If you're nervous just remember that, like you, everyone there is passionate about fitness and leading a healthy lifestyle, so you'll have a lot to chat about," says Dawn. (Related: 5 Do-Anywhere Partner Exercises from the Tone It Up Girls)
Ask for recommendations. Take advantage of the other people you'll be working out with, suggests Gundling. "Don't be shy! Let them know you're visiting and dropping in. This is a great way to get fun and healthy recommendations from like-minded folks! Who knows who you'll meet or what recommendations they may have."
Keep in touch. Social media and the internet make it easy to keep in touch, so if you meet someone you vibe with, don't go back to being strangers. "Karena and I met at a gym!" says Scott. "We were both new to town and were looking for girlfriends, so we kept in touch. Eventually, we became best friends and created Tone It Up together." So yeah, NBD, but you might just meet your future business partner (just one of the many benefits of having a workout buddy).