The Next Stretch for Minnesota Gyms

Gym membership is rebounding, but consumers still crave the convenience of virtual workouts. Fitness trailblazers are working to find a winning combination for a hybrid future.

You are all amazing!” Heather Corndorf roars over The Sign,” Lizzo’s anthem for a post-Peloton movement. 

“I’ve been home since 2020. 

I’ve been twerkin’ and making
smoothies, it’s called healing 

And I feel better since you seen
me last

I’ve been trainin’, I can flex that ass

So when I shake it, I can shake it fast.”

Corndorf skips from one side of a dimly lit Edina exercise studio to the other, waving her hands in the air—Slide! Step together! Turn!—as a dozen middle-aged moms in Athleta gear follow her every move, dancing with synchronized fervor. Over the course of a 50-minute cardio class, Corndorf has taught these women a complete dance routine. The students continue bouncing and twirling even after the music stops. They high-five each other, towel off, and head out to the parking lot. It’s 10:25 on a Friday morning.

You can’t get this sort of adrenaline rush via streaming. “I may not know anything about you, but when we share a common experience of movement, we build community,” says Corndorf. A former professional dancer, she worked as a fitness instructor at Life Time and Equinox before founding her own Linden Hills studio, mXe, in 2018. She introduced on-demand virtual classes in 2019 at the request of fans beyond the Twin Cities, so she was able to quickly step up virtual offerings, including live streaming, during the early days of Covid lockdowns. mXe still exists online, but Corndorf closed her physical studio permanently in 2020. Now she’s dipping a toe back into live group fitness classes, teaching choreographed dance at the new SWEAT studio in Edina and her signature mXe Method body weight strength and mobility training at FIT Studio in St. Louis Park. 

Corndorf says she was reluctant to return to the overhead and pressure of maintaining her own brick-and-mortar space, but she’s itching for something more than virtual. She’s not alone. 

Two years after cancelling gym memberships and finding new ways to work out at home, Americans are gradually returning to fitness centers. According to a recent survey by marketing firm UpSwell Research, 80% of consumers are open to going back to gyms. Chanhassen-based Life Time reports a membership increase of 10% through June 30 over the same period in 2021. Anytime Fitness, a subsidiary of Woodbury-based Self Esteem Brands, reports that member visits this year are up 13% over 2021 and 3% over pre-pandemic levels. 

But the rebound hasn’t been as smooth for some boutique clubs, including SoulCycle, one of the best known and well funded of them all. An early winner of the boutique fitness craze that was still going strong heading into 2020, SoulCycle was scheduled to open at Nolan Mains in Edina when the pandemic struck. A “SoulCycle: Opening Fall 2020” sign still hangs in the window, suspended in time. But SoulCycle no longer plans to open at Nolan Mains, a spokesperson for the 50th & France development says. 

It’s not just Edina. SoulCycle recently announced plans to close 20 of its spinning studios across the country. Locally, FlyFeet Running and Physical Culture, two boutique clubs with devoted fans, were among the pandemic casualties. So it’s no surprise that fitness entrepreneurs like Corndorf are exploring their options.

Heather Corndorf in the gym
Heather Corndorf

“I think about how I can support people in a way that is bigger than squats.”

—Heather Corndorf, fitness instructor and founder, mXe

Back to basics

Barbells and squat racks line the bright white walls of FIT Studio in St. Louis Park. Sunlight pours through the garage doors of the converted industrial building. A boutique gym with a reputation for catering to elite athletes (including pro football and hockey players), FIT is owned by Christine and Aaron Leventhal.  A retired professional soccer player who also consults for other health club companies and teams, Aaron Leventhal is known for his methodical workout programs—more form and function, less backup dancer for Lizzo. But in the wake of Covid, Leventhal says consumers expect more from their fitness experience: fun, engaging, and purposeful. 

To that end, he’s invited Corndorf to teach some of her signature movement classes at FIT. The two powerhouse instructors recently teamed up for a pop-up session that showcased their yin-yang styles. Leventhal spent 20 minutes warming up the Saturday-morning group with squats, lunges, and burpees that emphasized quality over quantity. Then Corndorf stepped in, cranked the music, and incorporated those same movements into synchronized numbers that allowed participants to add their own flair. “I think about how I can support people in a way that is bigger than squats,” she says. “How can we get you in here to love yourself, to take care of yourself, to learn about yourself?”

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After 25 years in the industry, Leventhal is accustomed to the trend-chasing mentality of the fitness business. “It’s always been about what’s next—heart rate training, the Bosu ball,” Leventhal says. “What’s next now is really simple: It’s back to the basics. You have to provide members with a truly meaningful, impactful experience.” 

According to a 2021 CDC study, 78% of all those hospitalized with Covid were overweight or obese. “Covid put fear in people—if I’m not healthy and I get sick, something bad is going to happen,” Leventhal says. “All of a sudden, we’re the first line of preventative health care. It shifts the paradigm. Coaches have to go from fun and entertaining to curating a results-driven journey.” 

Minneapolis-based Alchemy 365 is a pandemic survivor. Before Covid, the company was adding amenities like a smoothie bar and retail offerings to its group fitness studios—five in the Twin Cities and three in the Denver area. But when membership plunged 70% in 2020, the company had to cut costs and sharpen its focus on what co-founder and CEO Tyler Quinn says really counts: great group fitness, offered both in studio and streaming on demand. “We don’t need a leather sofa in the lobby,” Quinn says. Alchemy has reopened two locations that had closed during the pandemic—Uptown in Minneapolis and Tennyson in Denver. In August, the company reached its pre-pandemic membership peak for the first time since March 2020.

“People are sick of their Pelotons. They’re sick of home workout equipment. They’re lonely, and they’re ready to be back,” says new fitness entrepreneur Katherine Olson, who speaks from personal experience. She was a member of Physical Culture in Edina, and when she found out the club was closing last spring, she says she felt “a sense of devastation”—so much that she decided to take over Physical Culture’s space in a strip mall off Valley View Road and reopen it as SWEAT, where every day is devoted to a different theme.

“Right now, most of the options for boutique fitness are very specific,” Olson says. “Over time, that gets boring. I’m looking for functional fitness with variety. People want instructors who will work with them, not at them.”

online workout
The Move For Good says demand remains strong for its online workouts.

“What’s next now is really simple: It’s back to the basics.”  

—Aaron Leventhal, owner, FIT Studio

Hybrid future

Anytime Fitness, which built its success on simply providing a space and equipment for people to work out on their own schedule, had been moving toward group classes prior to 2020, but the pandemic forced the franchise company to shift quickly into virtual classes, training, and building an online community to stay connected with clients when brick-and-mortar fitness centers were shut down. Now, even as members return to the gym, Anytime Fitness plans to continue strengthening its omnichannel programs. The company also purchased Stronger U, a nutritional coaching brand. 

“Hybrid fitness is now the expectation,” says Anytime Fitness president Stacy Anderson. “We’re making investments in data, predictive analytics, and machine learning.”

Life Time is also investing in holistic wellness, from virtual fitness classes to healthy restaurants to its ultimate vision of live-work-play communities where residents are immersed in the company’s “healthy way of life” mentality. Says Life Time vice president of club operations Steve Larson, “We want to become an omnichannel lifestyle brand.”

Despite Peloton’s well-documented fall from its pandemic peak, with a 42% drop in bike sales in the first quarter of 2022 over last year, industry consensus is that the market for digital fitness is here to stay. Local instructor Katie Hagerty built her whole business on that premise; she launched the virtual group fitness platform The Move For Good in 2020 and says she’s been able to grow faster and reach more people around the country than she ever would have with a physical space. 

Data from wellness software MindBody Business shows that 43% of consumers expect to go back to their previous routines but still continue with online options such as prerecorded videos and livestreaming. 

“We’re trying to use technology in a way to deepen relationships,” says Anytime’s Anderson. 

Likewise, Leventhal isn’t thinking about winning clients away from Peloton; rather, he’s thinking about how he can add value. “The market is saturated with all of these ways to move, but the consumer still wants to know why, how,” he says. “People need help putting the pieces together—how many times they should be on the Peloton, how often at the gym. Maybe they’re coming in less frequently, but I can help manage all these different things (including wearable devices) from afar and stay connected online. I become the curator of your experience. This is the future.”

Heather Corndorf (left) teaches cardio strength at FIT Studio in St. Louis Park Photographs by Ashley Sullivan