Originally Published: on Feb. 23, 2021 | WSJ Magazine | By Lauren Mechling
Coming on the one-year anniversary of life inside a bell jar, I squinted into my laptop and watched a woman undulate and flick her hair to the dancehall-inflected sounds of Doja Cat. “One, two, three, four; one, two, three, four! Body rooolllll, and booty, booty!” Dressed in chalk-blue pajama shorts and a long-sleeved black bodysuit, my virtual trainer Emily Diers fell somewhere on the spectrum between Doris Day and Jane Fonda. My 43-year-old body, a decade older than hers, was clad in nothing but a T-shirt and cotton underpants. I couldn’t help but take a video of the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me choreography to send to my best friend. “I’m doing these moves, in my own tragic way,” I wrote in a state of energized disbelief. I pressed send, and then I got back to it.
In a world that seems to be spiraling out of control, the only recourse may be to get in fighting form and let loose. For the women who find themselves drowning in work and dirty dishes and family members who are never not at close range, at-home exercise has become the new primal scream.
We’re all in the throes of overwhelming changes. A friend of mine who is homeschooling her 7-year-old son has entered a relationship that I can only describe as pathologically romantic with an air fryer. Her friend recently decided it was time to move from Los Angeles to Bath, England, and become a ceramicist. And I have taken to twerking to Megan Thee Stallion and Trey Songz and whoever else the Brooklyn-based Diers puts on her playlist. Her toning and dance-workout program, Bodycraft (video access to the program, which draws heavily from Diers’s other life as a modern dancer, costs up to $28 a month, and live Zoom classes are an additional $5), has amassed a cult following of other bodies of a certain age.
“You can see the results that you want, and it doesn’t have to be torture,” said Diers, who is 33. “Women in their 40s aren’t interested in doing something hard for the sake of being hard. They want to be powerful and feminine. They want to feel like they’re out at the club before it’s time to make breakfast for their kids.” Diers’s mother, a Chicago-area aerobics instructor in her 60s, attended the most recent group class I teleported into, a 35-minute “quickie” that was heavy on the fancy footwork and self-caressing.
“Women in their 40s aren’t interested in doing something hard for the sake of being hard.— Emily Diers
The term age-appropriate workout used to connote Zumba and barre classes and desultory “power walks.” But even for those who’ve outgrown the “bubble butt” videos that abound on TikTok, there is a surfeit of rigorous, vigorous, age-agnostic options. They appeal to women who might feel arthritic but are still athletic. According to a 2017 poll conducted by U.K. marketing consultancy SuperHuman, 96 percent of 1,000 U.K. women over the age of 40 polled don’t feel middle-aged, and more than two-thirds of them consider themselves in the prime of their life. Women, especially those who have been pounding away at the gym for years, are looking for something new, a realm that’s more balm than bikini boot camp. They want to work out hard—but also intentionally, intelligently and a little wildly.
“It’s a different kind of release,” says Lia Bartha, a Pilates-style workout instructor who films videos for subscribers ($18 a month) of her B The Method program out of a home studio she set up in what was previously her daughters’ room in her Brooklyn home (glow-in-the-dark star stickers still adhere to the ceiling). “It’s less about burning calories than ‘I need to get into the zone,’ ” the 37-year-old mother of two said. “We don’t have time to be burned out.” A recent Instagram Live session that she led was a zippy class of reaching and rounding, airplane arms and pliés. Bartha was dressed in a shiny black catsuit and fielding comments from her devotees. Hello from Toronto!… Writing from Serbia… 72 yo here in Boston…
It doesn’t get more rigorous than The Class, the downtown New York studio once frequented by Tribeca power moms that has pivoted to pandemic streaming, with up to 10 live classes a day ($40 a month for all-you-can-bear live-streaming). Founder and CEO Taryn Toomey is a mother in her 40s who, with her dusty-hued outfits and crossbow-ready physique, calls to mind Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting. While most of the classes on the platform are filmed in empty studios, Toomey occasionally invites subscribers into her tastefully appointed home, where she leads devotees by the thousands through leg lifts and primal howls, all backdropped by mid-century furniture and wall hangings, also in dusty hues. The range of ages tuning in for her workouts is even wider than that of Diers’s clientele. “People are DMing me and saying, ‘My grandmotheris taking your class,’ ” says Toomey, whose approach has evolved from the beyond-the-brink classes she was once known for. “As we gain more wisdom and awareness, the obsession with the physical shape almost starts to become boring,” she says. The fact that her regulars end up developing stronger abs and walnut glutes, she said, is merely a symptom of diving into her spiritual-first practice.
In a world starved of fun, texts about streaming platforms are the closest thing to connection that many of us have. One back-and-forth with a friend, New Yorker staff writer Naomi Fry, is how I learned about The Class’s Sophia Manassei, a British mother of three in her early 40s who teaches the Saturday-morning classes that I now never miss. Sometimes I find myself logging on early, in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Sophia setting up her mat before the warm-up squats and musically driven body-weight-bearing exercises begin.
“She’s one of the harder instructors but she seems to have lived a full life,” Fry said. “When she talks about having had a hard time, it’s a message that seems hard-won rather than just theoretical.” Manassei is more interested in offering modifications than prescriptions. More often than not, she models the lower-impact moves available to bodies that might not be up for the exercises at their “full-expression” (exercise talk for most excruciating and awful). “Ultimately movement is key,” said Manassei. “We all know that when those endorphins get going, we have this euphoric moment as we move, and the music allows us to escape into that space, and there’s no wrong way to get there.”
What’s certainly wrong about how we’re moving these days is the amount we’re actually getting off the couch or our office chairs. “The old routine of hustling up and down the stairs to the subway or grabbing lunch isn’t part of our lives anymore,” laments Michelle Rodriquez, a physical therapist and the owner of Manhattan Physio Group/MPG One Wellness. “Daily life used to give us 5,000 steps,” she says of her city-dwelling clients. The tense shoulders and compressed spines she is seeing are testament to stress and the hours upon hours of sitting in place. What’s more, Rodriguez says, switching from total stillness to a session of lunges and burpees can cause a shock to the system. What’s the fix? “If the situation allows for it, what if you got outside and literally got some fresh air and sunshine, the way you would have walked to your Pilates class back in the day?” suggests Rodriguez. Spin-class lovers, especially, might want to reconsider their routines. “If you’re sitting all day long, I think sitting more on a bike is not the dream combination.”
While not low impact, per se, the best of the any-age-goes workouts are lower stakes, with a choose-your-own-adventure approach, and less attention to clocking cardio than building muscle, which atrophies with age. Trainers who understand the needs of their more mature fans are seeing their numbers tick up. A prime hire on Apple’s new Fitness+ service ($10 a month) was 60-something Molly Fox, a grandmother who started out as an original Jane Fonda workout instructor. One of the most popular instructors on the Alo Moves streaming platform ($20 a month) is Briohny Smyth, who is 38.
Angela Manuel-Davis, a former member of the U.S.A. track-and-field team and a SoulCycle instructor with fans such as Beyoncé and Oprah, has co-founded AARMY, an app ($35 a month) that showcases her mixture of motivational speaking and physical coaching. (“They say my classes are a cross between church and the club,” is how she put it.) Inner and outer strength are inextricable in Davis’s classes—which some people tune in for sans bike, simply to allow her her words to lift them up. “How about we just get strong enough in our body so that we can do our life?” the 40-something mother of two said from her Los Angeles home. “I speak on a deeper level to make people feel strong inside and out.”
“Before the madness, I was at Equinox every day,” said Tara Summers, a 41-year-old actor who was working on Broadway until the pandemic shut it down. “I took every class imaginable, and I did weights and the treadmill. I was really hustling.” Now that the New York theaters have gone dark, she’s recently been staying in Los Angeles with her mother and has switched to a regimen of hikes and video classes with Rachel Grant Jackson, a yoga teacher in her early 40s who is popular with actors (her “Yoga for the Ageless” video series is $25 for its five sessions). “Normally I would fast-forward through the part where she talks to the class,” says Summers, “but now that’s what I need the most—a moment of calm.”
For an age-appropriate workout that’s slightly more dignified than most, one might try a class ($18 a pop) with Suzette Smith, the founder of Shelter Island Pilates & Barre. Smith, 63, is a former jazz dancer who dabbled on the Norwegian cabaret circuit. She regularly reminds her disciples, mid-workout, that “graceful aging is strong and supple” and “we’re as young as our spine.” Smith has the brisk, intelligent mien of a New England headmistress—lots of “We’re not done yet” and “A-plus!” As I attempted to keep up with her class, I had the nagging suspicion I was on the verge of getting into trouble, but afterward I felt strong as a sailor’s knot.The following day, I sprang for a private session with Diers ($160). I was craving more of her juicy hip swivels and shampoo-commercial head rolls, and I wanted her all to myself. “Turn your fists out!” she said when I tried a Christina Aguilera “Genie in a Bottle”–inspired routine for the umpteenth time. “There’s something special hidden in your hands. Let the world know!” Afterward I felt stretched—in ways both physical and metaphysical. My core was fired up, my energy far less sluggish than the pandemic usual. Bundled up in my shapeless parka and double masks, I burned with the knowledge that I had just learned to strut on the balls of my feet and spin imaginary hula-hoops to Beyoncé’s “All Night.” Nobody had seen me do it, just like nobody was going to see the results, such as they were, but that was entirely beside the point.