It’s a cold January morning, and Natalie MacMillan doesn’t feel like going to the gym.
When she belonged to a big box gym downtown, the excuses piled up quickly: It’s inconvenient. It’s impersonal. It’s boring.
“I just never went,” says MacMillan, a university student in Halifax. “The 20-minute walk was a real barrier for me, and the classes weren’t great.”
Then she joined Move East, a new boutique gym in her neighbourhood, and the excuses stopped.
“It’s around the corner,” MacMillan says after a recent aerobics-style strength training class at the Quinpool Road facility.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m dragging my butt to the gym,” she says, noting that she goes nearly every day. “It’s not a chore. It’s really enjoyable.”
The boutique fitness industry is booming in Atlantic Canada, with new small-scale gyms popping up across the region.
The smaller studios emphasize group exercise and unique, specialized workouts often paired with carefully curated music playlists.
Although competition is tough as the market becomes increasingly saturated, each gym tends to hone-in on a particular niche – like kickboxing, cycling, pilates or yoga.
But it’s more than just a place to sweat: Boutique gyms offer a lifestyle that values community.
They’re tapping into the so-called experience economy, a term coined in a Harvard Business Review article more than 20 years ago but increasingly used to describe millennial consumer trends.
“For me it’s basically a social event,” says Emilie Comeau after a recent class at Move East. “The sense of community is amazing.”
She adds: “It’s something our generation is maybe missing. I could go to the gym alone or use an app, but I need other people around me to push me and enjoy myself.”
Hannah Kovacs, the owner of Move East, got her fitness certification while working at a desk job in Toronto.
The former competitive soccer player soon partnered with Lululemon to offer free community classes, and developed her own app-based fitness class – HIIT with Hannah, or high-intensity interval training – before leaving her job to become a full-time fitness instructor.
“I committed myself to learning from the best studios in the city,” says Kovacs, who opened Move East in November and is holding a grand opening on Saturday.
“The best and most successful gyms are community minded,” she says. “What I love is having a room full of people that I can develop relationships with and get to know personally.”
Unlike the more anonymous atmosphere typically associated with large gyms, boutique gyms play up socializing while staying healthy.
For gym-goers, the social bonds they form while sweating keep them coming back.
“We know from the research that individuals are more likely to stick to exercise if they exercise with others as it creates a sense of accountability,” says Lori Dithurbide, an assistant professor in kinesiology and sport psychology at Dalhousie University.
She says smaller gyms may also provide members with a more personal approach and social atmosphere.
“That sense of community can also create a sense of belonging and provide support.”
Andrew Ling, a mental performance consultant for athletes with Lingo Performance Consulting, says group dynamics can also motivate people to work harder.
“Research has shown that adherence to an exercise regime is higher when someone is working out in a group or social environment,” he says.
The increasing popularity of boutique gyms may also stem in part from frustration with larger chain gyms.
Unlike larger gyms, which are often notorious for having hard-to-break contracts, smaller studios tend to be more flexible.
“We’re trying to be as inclusive as we can with our classes and our pricing,” says Sonny Wilson, who recently opened up IronMatrix with Leanne McDow in Spryfield and Dartmouth.
The boutique gym, which has a variety of classes including kickboxing, bootcamp and “animal flow,” has multiple options like a two-week trial, a day pass, a class pass, a month-to-month or a monthly recurring membership.
“We don't want to lock you in for life,” Wilson says, noting that if someone signs up but their circumstances change, they’ll find a solution. “We want people to be there because they want to be there.”
Still, the cost of a membership at boutique gyms is pricier than at larger gyms.
A one-month membership ranges from roughly $120 to $180 at a small studio – about double the average of $60 to $75 charged by large chain gyms.
“It’s not just a gym membership or workout,” says Connie McInnes, owner of R Studios, three boutique fitness studios – Rio, Rebel and Rogue – in Halifax and Dartmouth.
“You’re also paying for that social component and that individualized attention.”
As schools and workplaces become increasingly virtual, with online courses and video meetings replacing face-to-face interactions, McInnes says human connection is a key part of the ethos of most boutique gyms.
“There’s something about like-minded humans getting together and enjoying a particular form of movement that’s really special,” says McInnes.
“It’s difficult to meet people sitting behind a desk. Human connection is a really important part of what we offer.”
Wilson with IronMatrix adds that working out and building community are good for mental health.
“When people take one of our classes, they’re learning a skill,” says Wilson, who grew up boxing and playing team sports.
“For 45 minutes to an hour, they're completely out of their own heads. It gets their mind off of whatever's going on outside of the gym … it's like therapy.”