THE WEEKLY HOWL IS SHAKING OFF A FEW POUNDS

History: My dad once told me that every job is weird when you really think about it. What about entire industries? Is every industry weird too? I’m not sure but fitness definitely is. Harper’s Bazaar dove into the history of boutique fitness and it’s something. It started as an offshoot of the cosmetics industry:

The boutique fitness story begins in the first few decades of the 20th Century, when beauty and cosmetics pioneers (and fierce rivals) Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein opened salons that sold women on a then-novel concept: their physical appearance was in their control. 

“They were the first, the originators,” says Lindy Woodhead, author of the joint biography War Paint. “They put into the psyche of women around the world the idea that beauty empowered them.” Rubinstein herself put it more bluntly. “There are no ugly women,” she used to say, “only lazy ones.”

Well-to-do clients were given instruction on skin care, cosmetics and very gentle fitness regimens, which included light stretching, dancing (or “rhythmics”), yoga and other movements mostly designed to improve posture. At the time, the medical community didn’t yet universally recommend exercise for women’s health, but Arden and Rubinstein preached that it was indeed important for beauty and womanhood—that it would help women appear “slimmer” and more graceful.

              We’re starting to see retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue use boutique fitness to drive foot traffic so I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised by this but I am. I am not surprised that the focus on was staying slim and not adding muscle though. The idea that a woman can have some muscle and be attractive is a very new one. So what happened in the 1940s?

So instead, women embarked on extreme diets, swallowed diet pills and took themselves to “reducing salons,” where they hooked themselves up to machines that promised to shake, roll and pound away perceived flaws.

Among the most successful of these salons was a national chain called Slenderella. Its ads vowed to slim women “in all the right places,” Matelski reports in her book, without the “toil and suffering” of physical exertion. In its heyday, Slenderella operated 170 locations in more than 50 cities. The ethos at these salons seemed to be: the less you worked your body, the better the workout!

              God, there were so many bizarre ideas about fitness back then. Why is the human body such a mystery to us? So many smart people seem to lose common sense when it comes to fitness. Things started to get better in the 1950s and 1960s with Jack LaLanne and Kenneth Cooper. It was also the first appearance of the barre workout.

The 1960s also saw the birth of the modern barre industry. The workout was invented by Lotte Berk, a retired German dancer who combined ballet moves, yoga and rehabilitative exercises to help herself recover from a back injury. She discovered that the workout helped her stay strong and supple, and in 1959, opened a small basement studio on Manchester Street in London, where she attracted a star-studded clientele. 

A decade later, in 1971, an American named Lydia Bach would bring the workout to New York City’s Upper East Side—and go on to help train many of the women who would later open this country’s most popular barre franchises.

              I had no idea that barre workouts went back so far. That was probably the biggest surprise of this article. I thought that barre was a recent addition not the senior member of the boutique world. Jazzexercise was founded in 1969 and really took off in the early 1980s. That was also when Jane Fonda and aerobics became popular. And then yoga took off in the 1990s. The new millennium ushered in the golden age of the boutique.

Around the same time, many of the boutique brands that have come to define boutique fitness were born. Bar Method was founded in 2000 and Pure Barre in 2001. SoulCycle was founded in 2006 and cross-training franchise Orangetheory in 2007. Over the next decade, the studios would multiply to become the fixtures they are today. They would also inspire dozens of spinoffs—from boxing-themed Rumble and nightclub-themed Switch Playground to reggae-themed Pon De FLO and, well, model-themed modelFIT—all positioning themselves as temples of the body that not only help women achieve their physical goals, but also their more internal ones.

              They never mentioned Tae-Bo or the rise of spinning classes but it is a very interesting read. I would love to see an article on the history of men’s fitness as well.

Staying sharp: Why do you work-out? Your answer is probably somehow related to your body. You want to get stronger, get faster, lose weight, look good naked, etc. Now research is showing us that we should also be working out in order to keep our minds fit as well.

Scientists have more evidence that exercise improves brain health and could be a lifesaving ingredient that prevents Alzheimer's disease.

In particular, a new study from UT Southwestern's O'Donnell Brain Institute suggests that the lower the fitness level, the faster the deterioration of vital nerve fibers in the brain. This deterioration results in cognitive decline, including memory issues characteristic of dementia patients.

"This research supports the hypothesis that improving people's fitness may improve their brain health and slow down the aging process," said Dr. Kan Ding, a neurologist from the Peter O'Donnell Jr. Brain Institute who authored the study.

             

If you want to be at your best physically and mentally, you need to work-out. The evidence is starting to pile up that aerobic fitness is good for the brain.

 

Unlike previous studies that relied on study participants to assess their own fitness, the new research objectively measured cardiorespiratory fitness with a scientific formula called maximal oxygen uptake. Scientists also used brain imaging to measure the functionality of each patient's white matter.

Patients were then given memory and other cognitive tests to measure brain function, allowing scientists to establish strong correlations between exercise, brain health, and cognition.

 

A lot of people in the fitness industry like to demonize running but no only is it the most functional exercise but it can make you smarter too. Never skip a running day. Your brain will thank you.

             

The Fitness Laboratory: Fitness is a very fragmented industry. The advantage of that is that there isn’t some behemoth dominating the industry and stifling innovation. The disadvantage is that fitness is so fragmented that there aren’t enough big players to do much in the way of R&D. If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like it’s so much easier to do the unhealthy thing, it’s probably because other industries employ small armies of PhD’s and MBA’s to make it that way. And there is no equivalent on the fitness side.

Fitness is the best product in the world. What else makes you look and feel good, gives you more energy, makes you healthier, and boosts your self-esteem? But we’re still trying to figure out the best way to package it, market it, and sell it to people. Coca-Cola and Pepsi have built massive corporate empires selling sugar water around the world. Imagine if fitness had something even approaching that level of resources. Imagine what could be accomplished. We need more companies that are willing to invest in fitness. I’ve covered Project by Equinox before. It’s a group exercise incubator that the luxury gym chain runs in Manhattan. From Fast Company:

Alongside upscale eateries and fashionable boutiques on Soho’s Mulberry Street, you’d likely miss an unmarked, bare brick storefront. There’s no glaring neon sign or a pun-heavy chalkboard inviting patrons in. It’s quiet and unassuming, a rarity in this Manhattan neighborhood.

That’s because in it lies a laboratory of sorts, a barely known incubator devoted to the future of fitness. Project by Equinox is a sweaty think tank where instructors, exercise specialists, and program directors brainstorm the next Zumba. Created by Equinox, it independently lives outside a traditional studio to create an intimate training community.

“Our ultimate goal is to welcome ideas and innovation into the brand from outside that might provide us with scalable ideas to use back at Equinox,” explains Keith Irace, Equinox’s VP of group fitness.

              I realize that this is a fairly modest effort but it’s something. And it’s not like Equinox has massive resources. I just wanted to highlight the fact that Equinox is taking a proactive step to developing the next great group exercise class instead of just waiting for it to come along. They’re actually investing some money into people and ideas. Very few fitness companies do that and we need a lot more of it.

Fitness Marketing: Fitness appeals to young, affluent consumers. Those happen to be the most desirable consumers and marketers are catching on to that and using fitness to sell other products. I’ve seen commercials use fitness to sell breakfast sausage and light beer. Luxury stores are using pop-up gyms to draw in customers. And now a Volvo dealership in Boston is advertising a partnership with a gym as an amenity available to its customers.

Through a partnership with neighborhood gym NB Fitness Club, the dealership offers free gym access to customers waiting to have their vehicles serviced. The perk is an extension of Boston Volvo Village's other service amenities, such as loaner vehicles and shuttles to local retail stores.

"People want to use their time effectively while they're waiting for their car to be done," said Ray Ciccolo, president of Boston Volvo Village. "This affords them the opportunity to go and try a health club. If they like it, they might join."

              A growing number of people see fitness as the best way to reach potential consumers. That may be designing an ad campaign around fitness or offering fitness as an amenity for its customers. I call this fitness marketing and I’m seeing more and more of it. I didn’t anticipate a car dealership getting in on the action but I love the creativity. I wouldn’t mind getting a work-out in while my car is being worked on.

Big Data: The quantified self is underway. You can strap any number of fitness trackers and record your vital signs and metabolic activity and sleep patterns. You can check your heart rate and use GPS to get an accurate measurement of your run. And now you can stick a test tube of your saliva in the mail and get a detailed report on your DNA. From Men’s Journal:

Just 15 years ago, peering so deeply into your DNA was impossible. Then, in 2003, scientists finished sequencing the human genome—a roughly $4 billion endeavor—and kick-started the genomic revolution. In the years since, the technology has gotten better, faster, and much, much cheaper. Today, for a few hundred bucks, a lab technician will press your saliva onto a slide and scan through hundreds of thousands of base pairs in your DNA, looking for variations that are thought to impact athletic performance and diet. For instance, a variant of a gene called BDNF is believed to diminish a person’s natural motivation to exercise. Meanwhile, variants of the gene COL5A1 are believed to be associated with increased risk of Achilles tendon injuries; and a variant of the gene ACTN3 reportedly helps people excel in power sports, such as weightlifting.

             

              I understand how this could be seductive but more isn’t always better. If you used every method of recording your physical activity and genetic makeup, you would be swimming in a sea of data that most of us can’t understand. More data isn’t always better. After a certain point it becomes noise that distracts you from the handful of things that you should be paying attention to. I’m also concerned that for some people, DNA could become destiny. If you don’t have great genetics, then do you really need to have that scientifically proven to you? And who is interpreting all that data for you?

That said, Green’s major worry is that companies are overstating how large an effect a genetic variation might have, something with which scientists themselves are still wrestling. “An association can be a very small association,” Green says. “It can mean you’re 2 percent more likely to digest a particular food element efficiently or 3 percent more likely to have a kind of ligament that predisposes you to sprains or tears.”

There’s also the fear that people put too much stock in the test results. Analyzing your DNA “is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not a definitive answer,” says Scott Weissman, a genetic counselor. At his private practice in Chicago, Weissman’s schedule is filling up with more and more people who plunk down the cash for one of these kits, then want additional help deciphering the results. It can be confusing because these analyses look at what scientists call single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, tiny fragments of DNA that may be associated with a particular trait but aren’t necessarily the cause of the trait.

Further complicating matters is that it’s possible to have one SNP associated with a particular trait—trouble digesting starch, for example—and another SNP that indicates the exact opposite. In that case, nobody knows how the SNPs interact. Do they cancel each other out? Does one override the other? “The data is not there,” Weissman says.

              I agree that DNA testing isn’t going anywhere but I think that they have a long way to go on the analysis side. It kind of feels like it’s a solution in search of a problem at this point.

Going Soft(Ware): Being a hardware manufacturer is tough. It’s not the best business model. You spend a fortune on design and then again on manufacturing. And once you ship your product, there is no easy way to fix your mistakes. Plus, those software guys are always trying to eat your lunch. That’s a great business model. It may take a lot of capital to develop software but once it’s developed, software is the most scalable business out there. And you don’t have to lose sleep about your product being ready to ship but you can always just send out a patch or an update. Out of the Big 5 tech companies, 4 of them got their starts as pure software plays. And the one that didn’t (Apple) made hardware and software. What does this have to do with fitness? We’re starting to see companies in this industry come to this realization and start moving over to software. Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour are done with fitness trackers and focusing on fitness tracking software. Now FitBit seems to re-thinking its focus on hardware.

To that end, Fitbit has just announced that it is acquiring Twine Health, a cloud-based health platform that includes coaching services. We're not just talking about workout coaching (like Fitbit Coach), either. Twine coaches help users comprehensively manage their health by keeping an eye on important metrics like blood pressure or managing chronic conditions, including diabetes and hypertension.

The service can also assist with things like losing weight or quitting smoking. Twine combines artificial intelligence with human coaches to help them scale and assist many patients. Certain parts of the coaching process are automated, complemented by human interactions.

The deal will help accelerate Fitbit's goal of becoming a comprehensive digital health platform -- well beyond just tracking steps and workouts.

The company has also long had aspirations of building a subscription business that would alleviate its reliance on hardware sales. Despite trying to grow subscription revenue for years, less than 1% of revenue comes from subscription-based premium services, suggesting that Fitbit Coach adoption is relatively poor. Twine Health will create "opportunities to increase subscription-based revenue," according to Fitbit.

              High-end fitness trackers have shifted to smartwatches and Apple is poised to dominate that space. So Fitbit is looking to build a software platform that could live on any device. This is a smart move FitBit still has a decent amount of cash and a strong brand. They can pull this off. Letting go of their hardware ambitions is probably going to be tough for senior leadership though. We’ll see how they manage it.

You know who else wants to get into fitness software? Gatorade.

Volt Athletics is teaming up with one of the biggest names in sports business.

The Seattle startup today announced a new partnership with Gatorade and will rename its strength and conditioning consumer app to “Volt Fueled by Gatorade.”

The revamped app combines Volt’s “intelligent” workout technology with Gatorade’s sports nutrition expertise, offering a more complete digital fitness guide for athletes.

It’s a milestone deal for Volt, which has more than 100,000 users across 120 countries on its platform that launched in 2013. Volt CEO and co-founder Dan Giuliani called it “a truly unique offering in the fitness app space” and said it could lead to similar partnerships with other companies.

            I’m surprised that Gatorade isn’t developing their own app or acquiring one outright. I’m not saying that doing so would be the right move (there is a lot to be said for focusing on your core competencies and pursuing partnerships instead of acquisitions) but acquiring a fitness app would not be all that expensive for Gatorade, a subsidiary of Pepsico.

TidBits:

-Dave Castro is being as cryptic as ever about the CrossFit Open events

-If you spend a decade training in Kenya, then you’ll probably be a pretty good runner

-Do you want to run faster? Smile!

-Want some science with your fitness videos?

-Studio’s classes will now be available on Life Fitness treadmills