St. Paul Pilates Studio to Close After Four Decades
Gayle Winegar, owner of SweatShop Health Club in St Paul, stands in her gym. The SweatShop will close Dec. 17 after 43 years in business. Winter Keefer

St. Paul Pilates Studio to Close After Four Decades

After 43 years of working to expand body positivity and women's health opportunities, the SweatShop in St. Paul will close its doors Dec. 17.

Soon after Jane Fonda’s Workout Book first came out in 1981, Gayle Winegar, a young Macalester College student, spent her senior year on a sailboat traveling from California to the Panama Canal.

Staying active on a boat was no easy task, so Winegar would bring her predominantly-male crewmates to the boat’s deck to lead fitness sessions, Jane Fonda’s book in hand. Little did she know at the time fitness would end up being her life’s work.

Decades later, Winegar, owner of the SweatShop Health Club in St. Paul, will be closing the doors to her long-running gym. After all this time, the Pilates studio will hold its last class on Dec. 17.

“The grief is real. It’s the end of an era for many people,” Winegar said.

And it truly is the end of an era. The SweatShop started in 1981, long before Title IV made athletics more accessible to women. The gym gained national acclaim after launching a body positivity campaign in 1999 that published a calendar spoofing a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. They even posted a billboard of naked men over the gym building. That also gained the attention of national news.

Winegar takes pride in having helped launch careers for more than 1,800 group fitness, personal trainers, and Pilates trainers. Sweatshop trainers are world-renowned. Some even trained celebrities like Taylor Swift, Josh Hartnett, Sting, Twyla Tharp, and Andrew Zimmern.

The SweatShop, a gym in St. Paul, Minnesota, produced a 1999 "swimsuit calendar" to spoof
In 1999, the SweatShop produced a “Real Swimsuit Calendar” in response to Sports Illustrated’s long-running swimsuit issue.

But of the gym’s many accomplishments, Winegar says she’s most proud of being at the forefront of women’s empowerment and body positivity at a pivotal moment in history. The sociocultural anthropology and history major reminisced about her younger years as she walked through her studio on a Wednesday morning in December. She says she once thought she would be the next Margaret Mead in South America. Then she recalls being in Thailand and finding Jane Fonda’s book translated into Thai.

“It was covering the globe, and it was because it was the first time women in mass tapped into their physical power. [We saw] what fitness does for women and their self-confidence. And that, to me, is the driving force through this whole 43 years. It’s being able to empower women,” Winegar said.

The SweatShop’s place in history 

Decades ago, the first women’s aerobics movement included high kicking and high impact moves, Gayle Winegar said as she walked through her Pilates and fitness studio the SweatShop in St. Paul.

“At the time nobody took it seriously so nobody built a shoe that was going to work for women doing aerobics. So everybody had shin splints,” Winegar said.

This is why the SweatShop studio was outfitted with sprung wood floors. The gym’s goal was to keep people healthy and help women who didn’t have access to supportive shoes avoid injury. That meant that the gym had to invest in floors.

“A lot of people were doing aerobics in church basements to Jazzercise on concrete and they were killing their legs,” the gym owner noted.

The hardest part about closing is no longer being a hub for a community of fitness seekers Winegar says is composed of “70% women and 30% really smart men.”

“You know for men to be in an environment like this, they’ve gotta be pretty extraordinary. This is women-run, women-dominant, women-lived,” she said.

These “really smart men” included John Cowles Jr., CEO of Cowles Media who, following his retirement, became an aerobics coach at the age of 61. In 1991, he and his wife Sage Cowles helped Winegar finance the gym’s current home at Selby and Snelling. They also helped her buy her first Pilates reformer.

Why now and what next? 

The closure decision goes back to Sage and John Cowles, Winegar said. Because they helped support Winegar, she wanted to pay it forward and pass on the gym to new independent owners. But this was far from an easy task, especially as gyms remained in the throes of pandemic-related staffing shortages.

At the same time, Winegar said she and her trainers were exhausted as well. She went through more than half a dozen more candidates looking to take on a gym space in the past year, two of which were promising. But ultimately they all fell through.

“They determined they didn’t have the bandwidth on their staff. They were too exhausted. It comes down to workforce issues,” she said. “I felt like I was dating, almost ready to get married, and then it fell through. I did that over and over again all summer long.”

In August, she sold the building to Paster Properties. The closure was announced to members in November, with the gym providing accommodations for members to begin transitioning elsewhere in the month of December.

Though the SweatShop name is going away, Winegar said a few other opportunities have arisen.  She’s partnering with longtime friend and Life Time founder, chairman, and CEO Bahram Akradi to grow his company’s Pilates programming. Life Time has also offered to hire on SweatShop trainers. Meanwhile, Winegar said she’s also working with three neighborhood Pilates studios, including collaboration with Suzy Levi, owner of Defining You Studio.

Winegar is also partnering with Cultural Wellness Center of Minneapolis in the development of a Pilates and Wellness Studio in Midtown Global Market. This space looks to provide the community with a network of trainers from culturally diverse communities.

Anthony Taylor, a long-time advocate for people of color in sports, said he’s known and worked with Winegar since the 1980s. He’s seen her build space for women in fitness. The goal of the wellness center is to build a community for all underserved populations in the city, including BIPOC residents.

Charged with the Cultural Wellness Center’s community and economic development, Taylor says his life goal has been to eliminate the preconceived image people have of what someone walking on a trail or riding a bike should look like.

“My joke is always: If I’m going to give you $1,000 to predict the next mountain biker to come by, what race would you pick, what gender would you pick? What income level? What community do they live in? I think that can be said of a reformer too,” he said.