Gurus: If you have heard of Ido Portal, there is a good chance that Conor McGregor is the reason why. The MMA superstar retained Portal as his movement coach in 2015 and, as with everything in McGregor’s orbit, brought a tidal wave of publicity to the enigmatic Israeli. The Atlantic profiled Portal, asking the age-old question that must be asked of every would-be fitness guru: are they the real deal or just another huckster?
Star athletes reportedly pay Portal six-figure sums for two weeks of in-person training. He spent chunks of the past year doing “movement design” (something akin to choreography) for a multi-million dollar Bollywood film, and is set to star in a mini-series in which he works with elite athletes in sports ranging from surfing to fighting. (Some of his closest students have landed similarly glitzy gigs, with two recently serving as advisers to the current season of Israeli Ninja Warrior.) Portal has been called a “guru” and a “movement master” more times than I can count; one interviewer even called him “the smartest man in the world.” But the question—hotly debated on Reddit and on MMA blogs—endures: Is there value in the movement, or is Portal simply slinging snake oil?
The thing that drives me crazy about these type of arguments is that people usually fail to define what they’re arguing about. Is there value in Portal’s teachings? Of course, there is. The more relevant questions are whether they are worth the price tag and whether they are the best use of someone’s time. To an extent, almost everything in fitness works. You just have to figure out what that particular exercise or methodology is supposed to do. For example, body-building absolutely works. It does exactly what it is designed for: muscle hypertrophy and achieving a certain aesthetic. But it is a fool’s errand to use body-building as a method to improve sports performance because that’s not what it was designed for. Portal is not selling snake oil but what exactly is he selling?
But such personal transformations aren’t accessible to just anyone. Portal makes no bones about the fact that involvement in the community requires a significant investment of both time and money. In a 2013 Facebook post, he wrote that his movement camps were for the “got money and a ton of motivation and willing to travel kind of person” (for the “no-money, little motivation, want to fuck around kind of person” he recommended Zumba). In 2015, he lost fans in the parkour world and beyond when he announced he wouldn’t train vegans, saying they wouldn’t be able to keep up with his meat-eating “tribe.” The dozen or so movement schools that have cropped up in these past few years have made Portal’s methods more readily available. But even now, those wishing to take part in one of his camps are required to sign non-disclosure agreements and fork over between $600 and $1000 for two to three days.
“I’m willing to elevate the crowd by providing them with some of the things I’ve found to be useful. But I’m not willing to be pulled down by them into some watered-down thing—some P90X, some CrossFit-certification weekend event,” Portal told me, when I asked if he seeks to spread his method further. “If [the public] come with me, that’s fine, but I’m not going to them.” He added: “Sometimes I think, let’s let the trend die already for God’s sake, and have only the really hardcore practitioner group.”
When we spoke, Portal kept emphasizing that his approach has to be experienced, not just described. “It sounds very vague because there is nothing that I can say beyond these descriptive words,” he said. Maybe Portal’s elusiveness is just a way to convince outsiders he’s offering something new and revolutionary, as some have argued. Maybe movement just another cultish fitness fad with a short shelf life. Maybe you could achieve similar results, and the promised “paradigm shift,” training some other discipline multiple hours per day—like dance or martial arts.
Portal appears disinterested in bringing his methodology to the masses. He doesn’t want to make it something that the average person can fit into their life. He’s selling to the “hardcore practitioner” who wants their existence to revolve around this stuff. Part of me feels that if you need to do it for 6 hours a day for it to be effective, then you are not the real deal. That is completely unrealistic for 99.9% of the population. Even professional athletes need to practice their actual sport. Fitness should make our lives better, not subsume our entire lives. There is another part of me that feels that Portal is being upfront about this and we should just take it for what it is: something that is for a very small group of people. Of course, history tells us that eventually someone else will try to bring Portal’s teachings to the masses, probably without Portal’s consent. We will have to wait to see what that looks like.
Stay frosty: Brrrn has been getting a lot of press lately. The boutique studio prides itself on being the first gym to use cold temperatures as a way to…do something. They’re not so sure what exactly the benefit of exercising in cold temperatures is but they have some theories. From Fast Company:
“The hardest thing to do in the boutique space is to encourage movement,” explains cofounder Johnny Adamic, “and there’s nothing better in our opinion than to turn the thermostat down and just be completely in the moment–not feeling like your body has to sweat profusely to cool off.”
Theory 1: you need to turn down the thermostat in order to encourage people to move. People who have just paid $34 to get a great workout. Sure.
Cold, he argues, actually has a bounty of benefits. Research found that cooler environments boost alertness and performance, better serves heart health, helps you sleep better, and perhaps most relevant to fitness, burns more calories.
Theory 2: Being cold burns more calories. There is science to back this up but how much difference does 1 hour of the day make? Plus, once you start exercising, your body will warm up. The rule of thumb is that it will feel 20 degrees warmer once you start exercising. So, you’re not really getting that benefit. You’ll just sweat less.
Not to mention, as the body heats up during exercise, outside heat often just makes movement unbearably uncomfortable. It’s why marathons are held during the spring and late fall.
Martin likens working out in the heat to trying to have two conversations at once. He says the body can’t acutely focus on exercising if it must simultaneously cool itself. In colder (but not too cold) spaces, “All your body has to worry about is performing because it’s not working hard to dump heat to cool your body.”
Theory 3: This is the optimal temperature for running a marathon. In a long event like the marathon, the benefits of warmer temperatures (loose muscles) is outweighed by the benefits of cooler temperatures (less chance of overheating). But a HIIT class is not a marathon. Wouldn’t a slightly warmer temperature be ideal?
Western society essentially engineered cold out of our lives, but that thermal cocoon of comfort might be partially to blame for our nation’s obesity epidemic (along with overfeeding ourselves). Mild cold (55 to 65 degrees), claims Cronise, could reverse some of those effects. (Studies are still in the infant phase, with researchers conflicted on end results.) It’s part of a larger trend in the last few years that has seen the wellness industry adopt colder pursuits once reserved for elite athletes, such as cryotherapy, ice baths, and “fat freezing” centers.
Theory 4: This is somehow related to using cold-based recovery techniques. The goal of an ice bath after your workout is to reduce the inflammation in your muscles and hasten your recovery. Are they trying to imply that participants will experience less inflammation because they were exercising in cooler temperatures?
If this doesn’t set off your BS meter, then I don’t know what would. They can’t even settle on one coherent selling point. They are just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that something hits. The good news is that none of this is harmful. People will just sweat less. But this is marketing gobbedly-gook that Brrrn is using to differentiate itself from all the other boutiques in NYC.
What me worry?: Technology is eating the world. It’s transforming everything about our lives and the world that we live in. That includes the way in which we exercise as well. It has enabled a host of companies to offer increasingly sophisticated home fitness solutions. Could this replace traditional, brick and mortar gyms? From Racked:
This is all just the next version of at-home workouts that have been around since Jane Fonda pioneered them via VHS tapes in the ’80s. That progressed to DVDs from Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson, then to the Tae Bo hype of the ’90s. Finally, we got YouTube fitness content. But this new generation of live-streaming differs in some important ways that should make traditional gyms very nervous.
Live-streaming, or even rewatching live classes that have been recorded, offers an experience that’s actually really similar to the experience of being there live. The unscripted constant chatter and encouragement of a teacher and the presence of other people on bikes or mats working out in the background gives a sense of connection and community. That’s what draws so many people to group fitness classes in the first place. Many need the motivation and camaraderie.
Then there’s the variety. Macpherson was inspirational and all, but you can do the same canned workout only so many times. With tens of thousands of classes all taught by different teachers to choose from on any given day, there’s little room for boredom to set in. Users are also not bound to traditional gym schedules.
What this all means is much less need for anyone to leave their homes to work out, which should make traditional gyms very, very nervous. Some have already figured this out. Gold’s Gym offers streaming audio workouts à la Aaptiv. Crunch also offers class live streams. Both cost $9.99 monthly.
Traditional gyms should theoretically have a leg up on the startups because they have the talent and programming part done. More gyms need to figure out the tech part, because if they don’t go virtual soon, they could wind up just like that NordicTrack your aunt has gathering dust in her basement.
Fitness is far from a mature industry, there is still tremendous room for growth. We are far from the point where companies need to worry about stealing market share from one another. The biggest competition for everyone in the industry is still the couch, doing nothing. Success is all about developing solutions that make working out as convenient as possible for people. That might mean building out multiple, easily accessible locations or it could mean making working out at home as easy as possible. And here’s the other thing: everyone doesn’t want to work out at home. There are a lot of people that prefer going to the gym. They’re out of the house, they’re not sweating up their living room, there’s more energy there, there’s better equipment there.
I’d also love to see some stats on how many people participate in home fitness solutions and belong to a traditional club because I suspect that it’s pretty high. Let’s say that you are a Peloton rider. You dropped $2000 on a bike and pay $39/month. You’re not averse to spending money on fitness and you obviously have disposable income. You can get a membership to a big box gym for $30/month. And Peloton is great cardio but what about strength training?
Gyms need to evolve. They don’t want to be that old Nordic Track. Because if they don’t evolve, then someone else will take their place. You don’t see a lot of Nordic Tracks anymore but there are a bunch of companies selling cardio machines and doing well.
Happy Hour: The media loves to blame millennials for the downfall of well, everything. As if it’s their responsibility to like the same dumb stuff that their parents did. Case in point: nightclubs and bars. From The Guardian:
In fact, for some, the gym is replacing boozing. Young people are drinking less than ever before: according to one survey, more than a quarter of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal. A quarter of pubs have closed in the past 35 years, and those that survive largely do so through their food offerings.
In contrast, gyms are booming. The UK private health and fitness market is now worth £3.2bn after growing 20% between 2015 and 2018, according to Mintel. Adjunct industries, such as sports nutrition and athleisure clothing, are also bulking up (the sports food and drink industry grew by 11.5% to £77m in 2017-18). Fifteen per cent of the UK population has a gym membership, and that doesn’t include the premium, pay-as-you-go studios such as Frame, F45 and Psycle that are springing up.
In an agricultural/manufacturing economy, work was active so leisure was usually sedentary. Retiring to a pub to down a few drinks after a long day of work was a natural reaction when work was farming or toiling away in a factory. The information economy has turned that on its head, now work is sedentary so leisure needs to be active. After sitting in an office all day, doing something to get your body moving is a natural reaction. Millennials might be the first generation to understand this. Their parents didn’t quite figure this out and have paid the price for it with their bodies.
The other thing about leisure time is that people want it to have a social component. They want to do it with other people. So they go to a bar instead of just drinking at home. And they’re looking for their gym time to have a social aspect to it as well. Perhaps that’s why fitness companies that have tried to build a sense of community have experienced the most success the last few years.
Fitness Marketing: There has been a rash of fitness/music deals being made this year. I was aware of the trend but seeing it all condensed into a couple of paragraphs was eye-opening. From Forbes:
Consider this timeline: On May 22, licensing and rights-verification company Rumblefish (owned by Simon’s HFA) announced that it would be working with ClassPass, the health-club subscription service that just raised $85 million in a Series D round, on music rights administration support for on-demand fitness content. Just over a week later, B2B music-streaming provider Feed.fm announced its brand-new spinoff product Fitness.fm, which is already crafting custom music experiences for popular mobile fitness apps like Daily Burn, ASICS Studio and Pear Sports.
The end of June saw yet more fitness and music deals. First, audio-workout startup Aaptiv raised $22 million from investors including Warner Music Group, and it later revealed an additional strategic investment from Bose Ventures. One week later — to come full circle — Peloton announced its acquisition of B2B music aggregator Neurotic Media, whose team will be tasked with building new music features for the unicorn cycling startup.
Fitness classes are becoming the new place to discover new music. Music has always been a part of the fitness experience. Who doesn’t like to listen to music while they work out? This is another example of fitness marketing, advertisers using fitness as a platform to reach young, affluent consumers. And it’s a symbiotic relationship.
The right music can keep these users even more engaged in the long term: new research released this week from Feed.fm found that users of fitness apps with specialized music curation were 2.2x more likely to return the following month and 2.8x more likely to return the following quarter
Companies like SoulCycle understand that they’re selling an experience as much as they’re selling a workout and that music is a big part of that experience. This creates pressure to curate the right music for its consumers so these companies are seeking out partners to help them with that. Being in the fitness business is starting to mean that you’re in the music business as well.
-Cookeville, TN will now be the home of the World’s Fittest Man and Woman (plus Rich Froning)
-Equinox is accused of ignoring an attempted rape in one of its clubs
-Hollywood is working out with its kids
-Google is going to launch an AI trainer
-The DOD finally bans service members from using geo-locating fitness apps
-Here’s an alternative to Planet Fitness