Grassroots fitness movements take root in New York—and beyond

Forget fancy locker rooms and online booking. A new DIY group fitness style takes hold, where fitness is free, there are no instructors, and lots of high fives.
(Photo: The Rise NYC)
(Photo: The Rise NYC)


On a recent 20-degree Monday morning, the sun wasn’t fully up and a fresh inch of snow had yet to be cleared off the benches and sidewalks in Washington Square Park. But next to the fountain, a group of about 20 tightly-bundled 20- and 30-somethings stood in a circle doing burpees, mountain climbers, and sit-ups in the powder.

The gathering was orchestrated by The Rise, a grassroots fitness movement that’s been hosting high-energy workouts three times a week at 6:30 a.m., outdoors, for the past year and a half. Workouts take place rain or shine, hot or cold—and they haven’t canceled one yet. Not even during the Polar Vortex.

“I keep waiting for that day no one else shows up,” says co-founder Dave Johnson, a 32-year-old PhD student at NYU. “But people just keep showing up.”

That’s a pretty big deal, given how hard overworked, over happy-hour-ed New Yorkers find fitting in their workouts. But the grassroots model—where fitness is totally free (yes, free) and trainers are absent (you heard us)—is gaining momentum.

Similar group The November Project launched in Boston in January 2011 and now regularly draws more than 250 people to its Wednesday morning Harvard Stadium runs. It has also expanded across the country and is launching in five new cities this week, including New York, to bring its total to 15 chapters. “We’re a force to be reckoned with,” says co-founder Brogan Graham.

(Photo: The Rise NYC)
Needing ski gloves for push-ups on the cold Washington Square Park ground is no deterrence to attendance. (Photo: The Rise NYC)


What are the fitness experiences like? Kind of like a pickup soccer game. At The Rise workouts, Johnson and his co-leaders, Anthony Burdi and Joseph Mullins, lead the group through the moves, but they don’t act like the instructors you’re used to, at, say, Barry’s Bootcamp. They simply guide, and everyone encourages each other, with an abundance of high fives and hugs between intervals.

The November Project relies heavily on hugs, too. “The people who want to be really serious, those people won’t make it with us. But the people that are having fun with us are having the time of their lives,” Graham says.

The fun factor’s important, but there are additional reasons so many people are willing to roll out of bed before first light to jump squat. First of all, it’s a chance to tap the motivating energy of a group workout setting for free, which is a pretty good price considering the ever skyrocketing prices of boutique fitness classes.

The November Project members running the big seats in Harvard Stadium. (Photo: November Project)
The November Project members running the big seats in Harvard Stadium. (Photo: November Project)


And it also feels like a place for those who don’t love the scene-y feel of the fitness world, where logos on your leggings are your calling card, and where your workout is often weighted as your political party affiliation.

“For us it has less to do with the working out—and don’t get me wrong, we’re about exercising together—but that’s secondary in my mind to the community that gets formed,” says Johnson, who met Burdi, his current roommate and best friend, through The Rise. Graham shares a similar sentiment. “The best gym in town is one that has tons of members but none of them come,” he says. “We do more work and better work and have more fun when more people come. It’s exactly the opposite.” —Lisa Elaine Held

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