This Gym Chain NEEDS To Address This Important Issue

Photo: Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness.
At the end of my first and only session at Orangetheory Fitness, I stood sweating amid a group of 20-odd students while our trainer, Lal, pointed at my name on the screen.

"You only had seven minutes in the Orange Zone." He had that I'm-not-mad-I'm-disappointed kind of tone. "You need to push yourself — get uncomfortable."

He had a point. From the start of the class, I could tell it wasn't exactly my jam, what with the club-ish orange lighting and frenetic music banging out of speakers at a brain-rattling volume. They had earplugs at the front desk. I should have grabbed some.

But Orangetheory is clearly somebody's jam. Founded by fitness pro Ellen Latham in 2009, the chain of fitness centers has expanded from a single studio in Fort Lauderdale to more than 200 locations today, with 350 more projected by the end of 2016. Like SoulCycle and CrossFit before it, Orangetheory has drawn hordes of devoted clients who call the high-intensity interval training classes "addictive" and "life-changing." It's fair to say that Orangetheory is on the cusp of major fitness fad-dom.

Full disclosure: I went into Orangetheory's Brentwood location with my usual skepticism of any flashy new workout trend. Yet, over the course of writing this column, I've had my fitness preconceptions proven wrong enough times to know that I should be open to pleasant surprises. And so I gave it a try. The classes are structured into three phases: treadmill, rowing, and weight training. The primary goal is to spend at least 12-20 minutes of the hour-long class working at 84% or higher of your maximum heart rate, or in the Orange or Red Zone, in Orangetheory parlance. Individual clients strap on chest monitors, which somehow broadcast your heart rate and calories burned onto the giant screens mounted throughout the studio.

Filling out the pre-workout paperwork, I noted a lingering knee problem of mine that often acts up during certain exercises. After a brief warm-up, my group was sent to the weight-training floor for a timed interval of bench step movements and squats. Lal shouted instructions and then pointed to a screen with written steps as well as an animated little person demo-ing the moves. That's when I first felt my knee begin to twang and paused to consider a modification. By now, Lal was on the other side of the studio, shouting instructions to the treadmill group, so I turned to the virtual trainer, who told me in no uncertain terms to just keep going.

Thankfully, my knee pain eased up when I got to the rowing and treadmill portion of the class, but even though I pushed myself hard enough to thoroughly drench my T-shirt, I wasn't as concerned with hitting the anaerobic Orange Zone as I was with getting through the workout without hurting myself. So, when Lal pointed at the screen, gently scolding me for staying mostly in the aerobic Green Zone, I wasn't all that bothered.

"Yeah, I'm fine with that."

No big deal. I tried Orangetheory, and it wasn't for me. Not everything is for everyone. But the more I learned about Orangetheory, the more I came to believe that I — and my twangy knees — wasn't the real problem.
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Photo: Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness.
Two weeks later, I spoke on the phone with Orangetheory founder Ellen Latham in her Fort Lauderdale office, where she explained the reason for the company's huge success. "If I walk into any gym right now, everyone's in the Green Zone," she says. "And that's all fine. You have to do a long period of time [at an aerobic heart-rate level] to really burn any substantial level of calories, and most people don't want to do that. But if you're going to do a shorter bout of cardio and you want to burn a boatload of calories, we need to get that heart rate anaerobic."

That's why the Orange Zone is the place to be, in Latham's worldview. "[Other] gyms don't really work," she says. Because, in this context, "working" equals fast, dramatic, constant weight loss.

I think it's fair to say the fitness world has generally trended away from overtly promoting this before-and-after weight-loss model, a tacit acknowledgement that people exercise for many reasons: muscular development, pain management, health and longevity, even — gasp — enjoyment. But at Orangetheory, there's little talk of the long-term. Consistency takes a backseat to instantaneous results; Latham credits the brand's success to the fact that, with this method, "the body never plateaus." The assumption is that you are there for Biggest Loser-level weight loss, as Latham says, "in the shortest period of time."

And just like the reality show, Orangetheory rewards its own biggest losers with cash prizes.

Consistency takes a backseat to instantaneous results.

Orangetheory's Ultimate Weight Loss Challenge invites members to compete to lose the highest percentage of body weight in a six-week period. "Past participants have lost as much as 60 pounds in six weeks!" the website boasts. And just look what they gain: The member to lose the most at an individual studio wins $2,500, and the one who loses the most out of all the studios gets $10,000.

Last year, that winner was 26-year-old Micki Benson of Minnesota. A marathon runner who was already in great shape when she entered, Benson began the contest at 5'9" and 153 pounds. "Everyone looked at me like, ‘Why are you doing this?'" she told me over the phone earlier this month. "I'm like, ‘You know, I need the money, and I am competitive, and I have enough [weight] to go for it.'" In the first week, she lost 15 pounds, and by the end, she'd shed over 25% of her body weight, finishing the contest at 114.

During the contest, Benson kept up her marathon training, waking at 3 or 4 a.m. for a running or biking workout before her 5:15 a.m. Orangetheory class (contestants must attend three or more classes per week). She was supervised by Orangetheory trainer Kristi Gess and nutrition coach Dan Krueger (Krueger is not a staffer himself; Benson met him through his wife, who works for Orangetheory).

"He knew how quickly I needed to lose it," said Benson, who ate approximately 1,400 calories per day, rigorously monitoring her intake of protein, fat, and carbs to keep up the steady weight loss. She got some concerned comments at the gym in regards to her demanding routine, but Benson wasn't bothered. "I didn't have any negative issues," she told me.

For losing 38.5 pounds in six weeks, Benson collected a $10,000 prize and quickly gained back 20 pounds. Weight fluctuation is a normal bodily function, but I had to ask if she or her coaches were at all concerned about the potential health risks of such a rapid flux. "There was nothing unhealthy about it," Benson insisted; she's fielded these questions before. "People will have their own assumptions" she added, recalling the gossip and comments she faced after winning the Ultimate Weight-Loss Challenge. "It is what it is. It's a competition."

True, Benson's personal goals and fitness level may be exceptional, but the extreme-exercise mentality permeates Orangetheory's gym culture. It's a one-size-fits-all class, with every studio in the country offering the same routine every day, regardless of its members' skill levels or group size. Though there are basic options for certain parts of the class (jogging vs. running on the treadmill portion, for instance), not everyone knows how to do, say, a modified burpee without guidance. And in the loud, fast-paced, and often crowded Orangetheory environment, it's not always easy to get that assistance. Given my own experience, I had to wonder what this might be like for less-experienced gym-goers.
Photo: Courtesy of Orangetheory Fitness.
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Jen Levin started out as one such client. She'd never maintained a regular fitness routine until discovering Orangetheory last year, when the company offered a free preview workout for Los Angeles bloggers. She loved it. Then, last August, she wrote a post about the moment she tore a calf muscle during the treadmill portion of the workout: "I felt a pop in my muscle, and my vision went white." She alerted the instructor, who noticed the bruise forming on her leg and told her not to push it for the rest of the class. By the end of the workout, the bruise had extended all the way down to her foot. Despite the injury, Levin was back at Orangetheory two days later, bandage and all.

"I don't want you to think that they were pushing me to work out when I was injured," Levin told me. Throughout our conversation, she insisted that she's the one who pushes too hard, and that Orangetheory supports her doing the workout with modifications. Levin takes full responsibility for the injury, and when I expressed surprise that her instructor didn't tell her to stop or seek medical attention at the sight of her leg, she replied, "I'm sure on my blog I make it seem like they're less caring of my injury than they really are." She adds, "You have to be your own advocate [in class] sometimes. But I think that's true for everything."

Of course, she's right. Orangetheory isn't responsible for the health of its clientele and, as with all fitness studios, members sign a waiver before class. Levin may simply be another fitness overachiever, though I'm still suspicious of a gym that welcomes a client with a two-day-old calf tear back into a High Intensity Interval Training class. Though her calf is not yet healed, Levin now goes four days a week, as recommended by her studio.

I could feasibly explain away all the other things that bother me about Orangetheory. Levin's injury, Benson's extreme weight fluctuation, and my own unpleasant class experience could all be anomalies. But there are certain other red flags and outright contradictions that indicate, at least to me, that Orangetheory isn't practicing what it preaches.

I felt as if I'd discovered something hidden (albeit sloppily).

When asked, Latham, the CEO, recommends no more than two to three classes per week, which concurs with the American College of Sports Medicine's stance on HIIT classes. However, Levin's studio recommends four, and the company's website says three to five. During Hell Week (another Orangetheory challenge) participants must attend five to six. When pressed, Latham cedes, "Well, two to three is kind of to get in the best shape and so on." But, yes, when clients are trying to lose weight — and particularly if they're joining a weight-loss challenge — more classes are suggested. In addition, Latham says, "we're really concentrating on their food."

Not five minutes later, Latham tells me that Orangetheory never gets involved in diet. "My theory has always been just stay with what you're great at, and let the other people who do other things great do their thing," she says. "We're very, very vocal about saying it's great to work with a dietitian… We're not here to say we're the expert at that." That's why Orangetheory studios don't even have juice or snack bars. "I'm not a big one for saying, ‘this is what you should follow,'" she adds.

So, what's up with this Orangetheory 30-Day Meal Plan I find on Google? Oddly, you can't navigate to the meal plan from Orangetheory's own website. Given the party line against nutrition counseling, I felt as if I'd discovered something hidden (albeit sloppily). Latham makes no mention of the meal plan, and when I broach the topic, she brushes it off as mere "generalized tools" offered in response to client demand. Really? Because, to me, this 28-page document looks more like a detailed, day-by-day meal plan — with calorie intakes as low as 733 calories in a day.

Yes, I'm bothered by the fact that Orangetheory is a gym employing the Biggest Loser model of fitness. I'm bothered by any trend that seems to champion instant, extreme weight loss above sustainable fitness. But what I find insulting about Orangetheory is this convenient doublespeak: We don't do food (here's a meal plan). Lose weight healthfully (as fast as you can). Don't overdo it (okay, overdo it a little bit. And a little more, if you can).

I'm alarmed that, of all fitness trends, this one appears to be growing so fast. But I'll admit that Orangetheory is popular for a reason: Many clients gush with real sincerity about how it has changed their lives. In fitness, I've learned that the only thing that matters is finding something that works for you, and if somebody raises an eyebrow, who cares? But I've also learned there's nothing wrong with being the one who raises an eyebrow.


The Anti-Diet Project
is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at
@mskelseymiller or #antidietproject (hashtag your own Ant-Diet moments, too!). Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Got your own story to tell? Send me a pitch at kelsey.miller@refinery29.com. If you just want to say hi, that's cool, too.
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