On the last Friday in August, Dave Long, the CEO of Orangetheory Fitness (OTF), emailed a “pep talk” to members of the fitness studio. In a 500-word screed, Long announced that more OTF studios would be reopening as an increasing number of states begin to lift restrictions on public gatherings and return to a semblance of normalcy. The tone of the email was exciting and reassuring, littered with exclamation points and virtual high fives. But about three paragraphs in, Long presented his thesis behind the reopenings, writing “There’s no evidence to support the fact that gyms are contributing to the community spread of COVID-19 above any other types of businesses.” Long claimed that gyms like Orangetheory were vital because they lessen the impact of the virus and could even prevent it by keeping members in good health, a claim he attributed to “doctors” and the International Health Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
Orangetheory Fitness is a boutique studio that marries scalable cardio and weight training intervals with heartrate metrics. It differs from competitors like Flywheel or Barry’s Bootcamp in that the metrics are not used for competition within the class—there’s no leaderboard or race to get to the top of the screen, and cardio intervals are scaled to a person’s ability. That scalability, as well as branding that isn’t solely reliant upon the sexy bodybuilding models favored by SoulCycle or Peloton, is what attracts the OTF faithful, which numbered around 800,000 in 2018. On the other hand, the IHRSA is “a global community of health and fitness professionals committed to building their businesses and improving their communities’ health and well-being” according to their website. Not, as Long implies in his email, a group of doctors.
While OTF is not the only studio franchise reopening, SoulCycle and New York Sports Clubs have both reopened to some degree, Long is justifying the reboot with inaccurate and manipulated information, siphoned from what appears to be a lobbyist group for gyms and phrasing it has if the IHRSA was an unbiased organization. Long is also using the IHRSA, which claims to support an “active lifestyle” not a healthy one, to connect immunity to fitness. Long’s assertion about just how necessary it is to get back into his gym plays into the longheld narrative that aesthetic fitness is equivalent to health, so those who don’t appear to be fit—fat people, disabled people, extremely thin people, people who hate gyms and gym culture in general—are inherently unhealthy by choice and thus deserve whatever happens to them, including being infected with the coronavirus.
Moreover, because of Orangetheory’s devotion to metrics and their beloved circuit style of training, their studios have more communal touchpoints than the average gym class. As such, Orangetheory fans are confused and irate as to how exactly their beloved, high-touch gym hasn’t contributed to community spread, as Long implied, with members calling for him to step down immediately. Crazy that members didn’t immediately agree with health opinions disseminated by a fitness industry interest group.
My last Orangetheory class took place three days before all gyms in my state were shut down. I touched a communal iPad to sign in; opened a shared locker; high-fived the trainer; touched the screen on a treadmill multiple times to view my point and check my settings; touched the handlebars of a rowing machine, free weights, and a mat; and after all that I once again high-fived the trainer on my way out the door, which I also touched. Every single thing I put my sweaty palms on was touched by members in the class before me and would be touched again by members in the class after me.
According to Long’s email, over 1000 OTF studios have reopened since rolling shutdowns began in March, and “nearly, 106,000 Orangetheory members,” have gone to an in-studio workout. One of those studios is OTF Bedford in New Hampshire, which is referenced in the email by a woman named Natalia K, who praised her local OTF for a “superb cleaning protocol” and claims the “staff never cuts corners.”
Long’s claim that gyms are not contributing to the spread, an idea in conflict with the CDC, comes from a letter the IHRSA sent to every governor in the US. The letter asks governors to take into account the mental and physical health of all Americans, which they claim is partly reliant upon an exercise regimen. The letter references a survey conducted in “135 clubs with 3,443,123 total check-ins” and found that there were “0.004% of positive cases reported as of June 30” from those check-ins. What the IHRSA fails to mention is that gyms and fitness centers cannot and do not check people for the virus, and any tracking of covid-19 cases is reliant on self-reporting. It wasn’t until just recently that gyms even checked for fevers—which is how, in March, an Equinox in New York found itself fielding the ire of gym-goers when they emailed Flatiron club members that a man with coronavirus had been in the gym three days prior.
“Doctors,” Long writes, describe covid-19 as “ a disease of inactivity,” which largely impacts those with pre-existing conditions such as, “COPD, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and sickle cell disease.” These “doctors” Long cites is actually a single doctor, lifted from an IHRSA article, a group whose sole purpose is to represent the interests of gyms and fitness clubs in the US, written by the company’s communication director, Sami Smith. Smith quoted Robert Sallis, M.D., who is a doctor of sports medicine and not an epidemiologist with the knowledge to speak on community spread. “You go through the list of risks for COVID-19, especially dying… or being severely ill from COVID-19; those are diseases of inactivity,” Sallis told the IHRSA. “We’re all sitting in our houses huddled, waiting for a vaccine instead of going out and being active and exercising, when we know that’s the best vaccine we have right now.” Sallis makes no mention of the benefits of working out in one’s own home to maintain the safety of the masses. Sallis and Long are also playing into ableist stereotypes about what it means to be considered a healthy person, but considering that IHRSA is only focused on gyms and not actual people, it all tracks.
Since Long’s email was released, Orangetheory’s official Instagram account has been ramping up calls for members to return to their local studios with encouraging messages about preserving one’s mental health through exercise.
But while this latest round of marketing focuses on the mental and physical wellness one can achieve from returning to the gym, it ignores two crucial things. First, Orangetheory has been producing and publishing at-home workouts that mimic the style of studio workouts for free for months. Second, exercise is not a balm to be put over mental health as if it is the be all end all. Orangetheory is a gym, not a doctor’s office and Dave Long has never been and is still not, a doctor. Even more nonsensical, in a city like New York, a membership to OTF can end up costing more than actual mental health services.
I spoke to Andrew Coleman Smith, YouTuber and one of the most visible Orangetheory members, about Long’s letter and the likelihood of his return to his local OTF studio. Smith’s channel follows his ongoing journey to “become a fitness person” and much of that journey takes place under the orange glow of the OTF workout room. Since the inception of his channel, Smith has become the perfect poster child for Orangetheory and has even hosted “Fat Tuesday” (the name he uses to refer to his weekly fitness posts about his personal weight loss journey) events at studios in his state. If ever there was an Orangetheory-specific influencer, Andrew Coleman Smith is the one.
“I will be back when they open,” Smith said of his local studio before adding the caveat, “as long as there’s a mask mandate and people are at least six feet apart from me. Personally, that’s all I’m comfortable with, really strict rules.”
I asked Smith if he’d ever heard of the IHRSA and he said he had no idea what it was “but it sounds really official.” I explained to Smith that the IHRSA was a collective group representing the interest of gyms and the fitness industry overall, as stated on the IHRSA website, and not a collective of doctors. Smith was somewhat surprised, and said, “I’m pretty much a CDC-only kind of person. So, you know, if the CDC says what they said in that e-mail or if they can confirm it, then that e-mail makes me excited. Otherwise, I still need to get the facts.”