The crowd at the top-floor studio of the Les Mills gym in downtown Auckland on a Saturday afternoon looked like a flash mob. Jackets and bicycle helmets were piled up at one end; most people did not have yoga mats.
Three instructors took turns leading the class through routines taken from Pilates, tai chi and yoga. One, with the build of a lean rugby player, feigned fatigue during some of the harder Pilates moves. This empathy from the instructors and the seamless flow to catchy music is trademark Les Mills.
When it finished, a couple from mainland China rushed over to Phillip Mills, Les’ son, to ask for a selfie. He is the brand made flesh: for fitness class connoisseurs, meeting Phillip Mills is a bit like a fashion groupie encountering Giorgio Armani or Donna Karan. Phillip – who in 1997 founded Les Mills International, which oversees the licensing of the company’s patented classes to 17,500 gyms globally and the training of 130,000 instructors worldwide – had left his jacket at the side of the room as he joined the BodyBalance class. His wife, Jackie, who had conceived the new routine and led it with the grace of a ballet dancer, was asked for selfies as well. Meanwhile on stage, an international band of instructors – Slovenian, Japanese, Malaysian and others – were starting BodyCombat. Another multicultural medley, this featured routines drawn from Thai kick boxing, judo and boxing against an imaginary opponent.
Les Mills is an international brand, but also the Harvard Business School of gyms. It’s where new theories and ideas are tried, tested and sent out into the world. And it all started here, in Auckland. Les, an Olympic athlete for New Zealand, returned from studying in California in the 1960s convinced that the fitness industry was poised to take off. He opened his first gym in 1968 – but the first classes wouldn’t be introduced for another 12 years. Phillip recalls that one of his early assignments as a young man working in the gym was to ‘give people magazines to read on the bikes. It was a terribly boring place.’
Fast forward to 2016 and one of the most popular classes the company offers is The Trip, an immersive cycling experience in the studio that simulates being outdoors. It was developed by Les Mills Jr, the grandson of the founder, who also introduced GRIT, a 30-minute high-intensity interval training class.
In a neat twist, the US is now Les Mills’ largest market. (Exercising at a gym in the Bay area of California recently that isn’t a Les Mills customer, I was struck by how dated and lifeless its classes seemed by comparison.) ‘People say we’re in the exercise business. I say, “Not really. We’re in the motivation business. We call it exer-tainment”,’ says Phillip. ‘We were lucky. We caught the wave.’
Earlier that afternoon, I visited Les at his home in Point Chevalier, a postcard-perfect neighbourhood in suburban Auckland. His living room has views of kauri trees, so impossibly large and impossibly ancient that they seem transported from the age of dinosaurs. (The antecedents of the tree date back to the Jurassic period.)
Les, 82, credits his time studying at the University of Southern California and training for the 1964 Olympics at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for putting him on his career path. Building gyms seemed a natural extension of his preparations for the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. As a child, Phillip Mills remembers most of his parents’ home serving as a gym for his father and other athletes. His late mother, Colleen, was also a well-known athlete. Les went on to coach the New Zealand Olympic track and field team and had developed a system of exercise and training – but it was Phillip, who had an interest in choreography and music from studying in the US, who took the idea of group exercise classes with music to another level. BodyPump, using barbells, was the first class to be distributed internationally.
Meanwhile, Les was catapulted into city politics. In 1990, he won the race to be mayor of Auckland and did the job for eight years. ‘The city’s finances were in freefall,’ he recalls. With his experience as a developer and gym business owner, he put in place measures that ‘sorted out the muddle’.
Viewed from the perspective of today’s Auckland where every weekend paper brings news of another record in property prices, this seems astonishing. Mills would lose the election in 1998 over controversial plans to develop the Britomart transport hub on the waterfront, but also perhaps because he was away much of the time coaching the New Zealand track and field team in the Commonwealth Games. Today, Britomart is part waterfront café and restaurant district and part retail and office extension with a decidedly exercise-friendly flavour. There is a Les Mills gym in the area. There are pop-up exercise classes in the square in summer for office workers from Ernst & Young and other companies nearby. A giant Nike shop and a flagship of yoga outfitter Lululemon dominate the retail outlets. Outside the Lululemon shop a couple of months ago was an invitation to go running every Thursday with a physiotherapist who would evaluate the gait of runners along the way. It seemed emblematic of a city that, even by the standards of San Francisco and Los Angeles, takes exercise very seriously.
My stay in Auckland coincides with a quarterly filming event that will be sent out in January to Les Mills instructors round the world. On a Tuesday night, the convention centre at the Viaduct complex by the harbour had an incongruously jock look to it. On stage, a high-voltage, high-decibel class of the most difficult form of GRIT was underway. Exercise choreographers typically listen to anything from 200 to 1,000 songs to get the music right for the 12-song workout setlist, but the Scandinavian instructor on stage was momentarily outdoing the music. ‘We are athletes,’ he shouted as he crouched by a participant taking an unscheduled time-out. ‘We want results.’ Miraculously, the weary exercise addict rose and returned to GRIT’s bootcamp rhythms. Everyone was high-fiving as the brutally punishing routine ended.
Group exercise the Les Mills way is part redemption, part reunion. The uplifting group dynamic is what keeps gym members of varying fitness levels coming back for more – and coming back to Auckland.