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Alaska’s Increasing Fitness Options

New ideas and new facilities available statewide


According to President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition data (which operates under the US Department of Health & Human Services), more than 80 percent of adults do not currently meet recommended guidelines for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities. Less than 5 percent of adults participate in 30 minutes of activity every day and only one in three adults meet weekly physical activity guidelines.

In better news, Alaska is one of three states (the other two are Vermont and Hawaii) in which adults are most likely to report exercising three or more days a week for at least 30 minutes; in Alaska about 60 percent of adults report this level of activity, according to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.

Alaska is bursting at the seams with opportunities for outdoor recreation, and the options for indoor exercise and activities are steadily increasing. With this incredible range of options, Alaskans of every fitness level can find multiple activities suited to their personal preferences.


Our Many Fitness Options

Orangetheory Fitness, a personal training, interval fitness franchise, opened its first branch in Alaska in March of this year. According to the company, “Orangetheory Fitness is a 60-minute workout broken into intervals of cardiovascular and strength training… The physiology behind the Orangetheory Fitness workout involves heart rate monitored training designed to keep the heart rate in a target zone that stimulates metabolism and increases energy.”

Planet Fitness opened its first branch in Alaska in 2007 in Anchorage and has since expanded greatly. The fitness center offers a variety of equipment, but much of their focus is on ensuring a productive, welcoming exercise and fitness culture. “Everyone should feel at ease in our gyms, no matter what his or her workout goals are. And everyone should have access to lots of nice new equipment and feel comfortable asking for help,” the company says.

Another growing trend in the state is trampoline parks. Alaska has seen the introduction of trampoline parks in the last few years that include Get Air and Shockwave, both of which are national franchises. In addition to trampolines, both parks sport dodgeball, foam pits, and ninja courses. Get Air also features a slack line and slam ball, and Shockwave has a climbing wall and 3D laser maze.

Three other locations in Alaska host ninja training equipment (as made popular by the show American Ninja Warrior), including scaling walls, cargo nets, salmon ladders, ropes, rings, tires, warped walls, spider climbs, and more. Ninja training courses can be found at Crossfit Alaska & Revolution Sports Training in Anchorage, Kronos Titan Ninja Training in Sitka, and Pacific Rim Athletics in Eagle River.

In addition, there are numerous yoga studios; rock gyms; centers for self-defense and martial arts training such as Krav Maga and Jiu-Jitsu.


Established Gym, New Facility

August 2017 marks the one-year anniversary of Alaska Rock Gym’s new facility, which the company (operating in Alaska for twenty-two years) built from the ground up to suit their needs. Alaska Rock Gym Operations Manager Eric Wickenheiser says the new building, located at 665 East 33rd Avenue in Anchorage, was designed by the ownership team, which is primarily comprised of local Alaskan rock climbing enthusiasts. “They toured other facilities in the Lower 48 to get some ideas and learn from other people’s mistakes and to make sure they did it right,” Wickenheiser says. Criterion General, Inc. was the general contractor for the 24,000-square-foot facility, which Wickenheiser says boasts nearly 19,000 square feet of climbing surface.

In addition to gaining much needed space, the new facility also features an enclosed yoga studio and weight/exercise room. Wickenheiser says local response to the gym has been phenomenal and that industry-wide rock gyms are finding success. “The sport’s had an increase in popularity, and people are realizing how fun, holistic, and positive it is. The business model is not just about being a climbing gym anymore. It used to be very much for climbers and now it's yoga, fitness, the whole package, he says.

Alaska Rock Gym’s walls stretch 43 feet into the air and feature a variety of climbing routes with a range of difficulty. Wickenheiser says the gym uses the Yosemite Decimal System, which is a three-part system used for rating the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs. It is primarily used by climbers in the US and Canada. In that system, a 5 indicates a technical climb, meaning it requires a rope. “Within that there’s 5.1, which is kind of a gray area on the lower end of the spectrum: I've been on 5.0 or 5.1 that you can literally walk up. On the other end, the hardest climb in the world right now is 5.15C.”

Alaska Rock Gym’s easiest route is a 5.6 and their most difficult is 5.13, “which is pretty hard. I don't climb 5.13—it's a lifetime achievement if someone is a 5.13 climber,” Wickenheiser explains.

There are three factors in rock climbing that determine difficulty: the angle of the wall, the shape of the holds, and the physical difficulty of the move (the space between holds, which muscle groups are being engaged, etc.).

What’s exciting for Alaska Rock Gym climbers is that the routes are not set; holds of different shapes and sizes can be placed in holes that span the climbing walls, allowing the gym to create endless route variations, determined by route setters.

“They're the people whose sole responsibility is to create the experience. They're kind of like the cook in the kitchen: they're behind the scenes but ultimately the quality of the meal is up to them,” Wickenheiser says. Routes are marked by color, but that’s simply to aid the climbers in following the route and is not related to difficulty. “Routes have anywhere from a one-month to six-week turnover time,” Wickenheiser says. “So the gym is constantly being evolved.”

Building these walls is actually how Wickenheiser found his way to Alaska and the Alaska Rock Gym: “I worked for the company Entre Prises [which designs and installs climbing walls], traveling around building climbing gyms. I came up and did this job and in the process applied for the operations manager position. The build was March 1 through May into early June, and by July 1, I was an Alaska Rock Gym employee and had moved to Alaska.”

The check-in desk, exercise room, and yoga studio are all located on the gym’s first floor; the second floor is open on two sides, allowing those at the gym to view people climbing on the rock walls from a higher vantage point, and features the Alaska’s Rock Gym’s bouldering area. Bouldering involves climbing shorter surfaces (the tallest at the Alaska Rock Gym tops out at twelve feet) without ropes. “Bouldering is becoming more popular of a discipline right now in climbing,” Wickenheiser says. “It's more social, it's more instant gratification—it's kind of the sprinting versus the marathon. Routes tend to be harder and more complex because you have to hold on for a shorter period of time and climbers can push themselves.” Because there are no ropes, all of the bouldering walls are grounded by 1.5-foot thick mats, which can help prevent harm in the case of a fall but are not a total guarantee of safety.

Alaska Rock Gym is well aware of the risks of climbing and takes steps to mitigate those risks as much as possible. All new members are given an orientation of the gym and can receive instruction on climbing, appropriate climbing techniques and behavior, and even methods of falling that will reduce the likelihood of injury.

The gym rents out all the equipment necessary for beginners to get hands and feet on the wall, and Wickenheiser says the gym welcomes climbers of all ages and ability. “This is a lifetime sport and we have climbers from four- to eighty-five-years-old in here. It's more akin to yoga or almost dance in the sense that it's a mind-body experience.”

He continues, “The beauty of climbing is you're always really only competing against yourself. Whatever grade or difficulty level you're working at and butting up against, the best climber in the world is having that exact same experience somewhere else on the spectrum. It's a great equalizer; everyone understands that no matter where you are on that scale, you're all getting your butt kicked somehow.”

Renovation and Reinvention

In March the Alaska Club held a grand opening of its reinvented Studio at the Alaska Club, located at 3841 West Dimond Boulevard in Anchorage. Studio was previously referred to as the Jewel Lake branch and featured various aerobic and strength-building equipment, as well as free weights and tanning facilities. With the $650,000 redesign, the entire space was reimagined and additional space was added.

Alaska Club President and CEO Robert Brewster says, “We're in a constant state of remodeling facilities on a rotating basis and we had been looking at this facility, but we also saw that the industry has changed somewhat and we need to address new forms of exercise that are coming on the market and ways in which people want to access their exercise.”

Aside from refreshing floors, walls, and other aesthetics of the interior, Studio now offers a functional training area, new free-weight equipment, an upgraded full-body strength training circuit, new cardiovascular equipment, and a brand new, 1,600-sqare-foot hot yoga studio.

Brewster explains, “We found that boutique use has become more prevalent in the health and fitness space. So what we've done here is create a hybrid where our members can continue to use the fitness facility (which is important as a satellite from our larger facilities) but also separately access a boutique experience.”

Alaska Club guests can continue to utilize the space as they have for years if they’d like, but now they can also conveniently investigate other fitness options, such as functional fitness. Carmen Jacobson, associate network personal training manager for the Alaska Club, explains: “Functional fitness just means movements that you would do in your everyday life. They're going to help you with taking the groceries into the house, putting things up on the shelves, squatting down and getting up—just very basic movements that people have to do throughout their lives every day.”

Functional fitness uses equipment such as kettle bells, stability balls, medicine balls, sand bags, boxes, and other common items. “It's very easy for anyone to transition into,” says Jacobson. “It's movements that people are used to doing every day: hinging motions with the waist and the knees, pressing, pulling.” Functional training can be a particularly good fit for those with injuries because all of the movements and motions can be modified, she says.

Through a new locker area and up a new set of stairs, fitness enthusiasts can find the brand new hot yoga studio. The Alaska Club worked with the building owner to take over this additional space that can fit up to sixty or seventy students.

Hot yoga is exactly what it sounds like: yoga performed in a heated room, at temperatures ranging anywhere from 90 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Janet Warner, Alaska Club executive director of group fitness, says the hour-long sessions offered at the hot yoga studio are designed to accommodate participants of all skill levels, including a foundations class specifically geared to those who have never participated in a yoga experience before.

Heating the room has many benefits, Warner says. “At that temperature, your muscles are much more warm and therefore pliable, so you can move more easily and the joints move more easily as well, so that you find that you'll get deeper into the poses.” The Alaska Club also built humidity controls into the studio: “We're going to be able to go from 10 percent humidity to 40 percent humidity, and along with that heat, it's going to feel really good on your skin and muscles and everything.”

Warner says that it may take some hot yoga participants a bit of time to acclimate to the hot and humid studio, “but I think for the majority of people it’s going to be such a neat experience, and that that hour is going to move really quickly.” She continues, “One of our goals is that [attendees] focus on how the yoga feels for them—not how they think it should look, not how their neighbor is looking—but how is it feeling for me and am I getting it the way it's being described.”

The Alaska Club is constantly upgrading and revisiting their facilities to ensure their members have access to the equipment, classes, and training they want, says Brewster.

“What we're really looking to offer here [at Studio] is a unique yoga experience that provides people with a boutique feel within the context of a normal health and fitness club. We're hoping this will be a vehicle for people to both take advantage of hot yoga and of the wonderful community that comes with being part of the boutique, while at the same time using and having access to other modalities of exercise that they wouldn't normally have access to in a boutique setting.”

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