Would you raise a glass to a good workout? Some gyms think so.

  • Mar. 31, 2017 12:30 a.m.

An advertisement during this year’s Super Bowl showcased the latest trends of fitness: Exercisers engaged in a high-intensity interval workout. Cyclists spinning in tandem. Runners pushing to finish a race. With the theme song to the TV show “Cheers” in the background, finishers commiserate about their successes … over a Michelob Ultra.

The spot, which features real members of gyms and CrossFit boxes, is part of Michelob’s effort to position itself as the beer for those engaged in an active lifestyle, spokeswoman Azania Andrews said.

“A big part of why people are working out and being a part of those activities is a sense of camaraderie that comes from shared effort,” Andrews said. “We were looking to capture that sense of shared effort and … that sense of celebration that they naturally have together afterwards.”

Fitness brands have the same idea.

Late last year, Life Time Fitness’s new location in Gaithersburg, Maryland became the 13th Life Time facility to serve beer and wine. And a growing number of races, such as the Chardonnay Run and the Craft Brew Races, as well as the Virginia Wine Country Half Marathon and the first IPA 10K, coming up in April in Northern California, highlight wineries and breweries as the focal point of the event.

As the lines between working out and drinking while socializing blur, businesses on both sides of the spectrum are looking to capitalize.

Social psychologists speak of a “third place” as a location besides home and work where individuals feel a welcoming sense of comfort and community. Religious places often fit that category, as do pubs, coffeehouses and barbershops. And fitness facilities, with visions of becoming a lucrative third place, are recognizing that alcohol is a strong adhesive for social bonding.

Jeff Shapiro, owner of Spindle Fitness in Chicago, said via email that he views alcohol as a business-retention mechanism.

“If a Spindler (our name for our members) knows the other people in the facility, they become comfortable here and show up more. The deeper these relationships grow, the more their basic psychological need for belonging is met and the more motivated they become. For us, alcohol accelerates the process of creating and deepening these relationships. Also, we are normal humans who like to have fun, so a party here or there makes us all happy.”

That intimacy works well in smaller gyms, but some larger facilities want to offer that same experience. Amy Williams, a Life Time Fitness spokeswoman, said much of the gym’s intention in offering beer and wine options is to create a space for members inclined to what she called “happy-hour fitness.”

“They do a hard Warrior Sculpt class and they find people in that class who want to go out and have a glass of wine or a beer afterwards,” Williams said. “So, they were doing it all along, and bringing it into our place just allows them to do it without having to get into their car and drive somewhere else.”

Regardless of where it’s done, drinking as a form of reward is nothing new, says Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Whitbourne said she has seen this activity in millennials – and especially millennial women – who are more likely to exercise so they feel more freedom to drink with their friends later on.

Like being at a pub, the point of drinking after exercising is not to be really drunk but to enjoy the social experience, she said.

“Really, the balance comes out in favor of your health,” Whitbourne said. “Even if you have a glass of beer or wine afterwards, it’s not like you’ve completely undone all the good you just did.”

This jibes with what Matt Dockstader, founder of Destination Races, based in Sonoma, California, has seen in the proliferation of events similar to his, where beer and wine are a big draw.

“When we first started [Destination Races], we noticed it was more of a baby-boomer thing,” Dockstader said. “It skewed higher on the age demographic… . But as time has gone on, the age has actually dropped. So I think people have discovered the social element to these races.

“And for some races, they go as much for the post-race party as they do the race now.”

This evolution provides a new audience for alcohol providers as well. For example, Indiana-based Upland Brewing Co. fields a competitive cycling team and hosts Tour de Upland, a weekend biking and camping excursion in southern Indiana. Major brewmakers sponsor races, such as Yuengling’s Oktoberfest 5K in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach. Michelob Ultra offers workout videos and spots about healthy eating on its YouTube channel as part of its partnerships with Men’s Health and Runner’s World, and it also hosts a fitness app on Amazon Alexa.

As with any new field for partnerships and opportunities, there are potential obstacles. When gyms sell alcohol like they sell smoothies and water, Whitbourne said, there’s the danger that members will see it as healthful. Life Fitness recommends members limit themselves to two drinks, but enforcement can be difficult. And although drinking in moderation after exercise is generally accepted, it’s not for everyone (and it might not be possible for those who struggle with alcohol abuse).

Plus, there’s the concern of social ostracizing: What if the “tribe” doesn’t approve of someone not going out to drink with them after the workout?

“It’s fine to work out and it’s fine to have a drink or two afterwards, if you’re inclined. But if that feeling you have of not fitting in keeps you from exercising completely, that would be a very sad effect, I think,” Whitbourne said.

Even with these reservations, both sides of the spectrum recognize the potential this new intersection of cultures provides. They are priming to give people what they want: a place to exercise an active and social life.

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