Those classic activities also tend to be cheaper. A spot at many of the miniature gyms of the moment, such as the P.Volve or SoulCycle’s tiny new Annex, can cost close to $40. Even ClassPass, the supposed bargain warehouse of group fitness, no longer offers New Yorkers an unlimited plan.
In these hyper-wired times with Twitter feeds and cable news bubbling over with outrage and anger, the impulse to engage in an activity that feels plucked from an analog era makes sense. Many of the gyms that cater to fashion models and investment bankers can feel like bastions of blowouts and entitlement, while public parks and recreation centers still welcome urban dwellers across every imaginable spectrum. The sense of democracy — and sweating with strangers from different backgrounds rather than folks we know from college or the school run — is a considerable draw at a time of heightened income disparity.
On a Sunday afternoon not long ago, a dozen young women filtered into a gym in a public school close to the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They’d shown up for one of the most rigorous workouts going, a weekly pickup game called Downtown Girls Basketball. After a lightning round of running drills, the assembled artists, designers and students got down to 55 minutes of uninterrupted, cheeks-ablaze cardio.
As the group skipped, zigzagged and squeaked around the court, Aria McManus held back on the sidelines. Ms. McManus, 28, an art director and artist who organizes the group, was keeping the participants’ morale aloft (as well as documenting the moment for Instagram). “Hustle it!” she said. “All the way, all the way! So close!”
She has a mailing list of more than 300. “Childlike fun is so rare these days,” Ms. McManus said. “If you take winning out of the equation, it becomes so silly. If you stop and think about sports and ask, ‘What are we doing?,’ it’s like, ‘O.K., I’m running and I’m tripping and I’m really trying to make a basket.’ It’s very strange, which I love. And we get sweaty, a bonus.”
Farther west, fashion world denizens flock every other Thursday night to a fifth-floor, loft-like Chambers Street dance studio for Moves, a free-spirited dance class. It is run by Marisa Competello, whose floral design studio Meta Flora fills the designer Rachel Comey’s shop with off-kilter flower arrangements, and Lauren Gerrie, Marc Jacobs’s personal chef and a founder of the BigLittle Get Together catering company.
The main qualification is that they’ve both enjoyed dancing since childhood. “It’s funny, I just tried one of those boxing classes and realized there’s a real recipe to boutique fitness,” Ms. Competello said. “They’re dark and the music is superloud and someone is yelling at you over a microphone.”
Tapping into childhood joy is also a prime motivator for Dani Seitz, 27, a Canadian model who runs Lady Ballerz, a skills-oriented spinoff of Downtown Girls Basketball. Ms. Seitz’s mother was a basketball coach and she played the sport all the way through high school, until she began modeling and agents warned her not to keep playing because she might bruise. (Her current agency, Muse Models, does not share this view.)
She organizes monthly basketball conventions in a SoHo gym where female attendees practice the fundamentals of the game under the tutelage of a coach from the Parks Department.
In October, Ms. Seitz started a YouTube channel, with videos showing her practicing basics on outdoor basketball courts, dressed in what she calls “old-school phys ed fashion”— white socks hiked high, short shorts hiked even higher. The retro visuals call to mind 1980s French movies about teenagers, with a soupçon of vintage Jane Fonda.
“My videographer and I were inspired by the Wes Anderson vibe,” Ms. Seitz said. “We love his quirkiness. I’m all about that.”
Let us not forget the original gangster of unfussy fitness: the Y.M.C.A. The actor Ethan Hawke is a regular at the Y on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn; so strong is his passion for it that he has lent his star power to an Instagram campaign, #SelfieWithSomebodyNew, to promote the athletic center.
“It’s really important for young people and for older people to cross-pollinate,” Mr. Hawke recently told People Magazine. We are living in a world, he said, where “there’s just so much division everywhere that one of the things the Y can do right now is raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, everybody’s welcome here.’”
Laurie Buck, a 50-something television producer and former habitué of “cliquey” yoga studios, now routinely treks from her home in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn to the Chinatown Y.M.C.A. Ms. Buck encounters exercisers of nearly every ethnicity and age group, she said, along with a smattering of “man buns and hipster freelance girls.”
After her swims, Ms. Buck likes to sit in the sauna with a crew of women several decades older than her who offer her lessons in Cantonese. “I learned how to say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘my back hurts’ and ‘my knee is swollen,’” she said with a laugh. “They make me excited to get older.”
Then there is the slightly tonier network of old-school university and racket clubs in Midtown Manhattan. Dave Barry, a 37-year-old director of capital advisory at a financial firm, calls the prices of the boutique classes several female acquaintances have dragged him to “laughable.” Yet he ponies up over $3,000 annually for a membership to the New York Athletic Club, where he and a group of friends regularly meet to play squash.
“The club tries to support Olympians from some of the fringier sports, like fencing and judo, and you get a ton of N.B.A. players training there,” Mr. Barry said. “You can be lifting weights between a 75-year-old and an Olympic medalist in fencing, and Carmelo Anthony will on the basketball court shooting hoops. It’s very old school, and that’s cool.”
Ms. Seitz finds old school so cool that she hopes eventually to open a rec center of her own. “They’ll wear pennies and play tag and dodge ball and race across the monkey bars,” she said of her fantasy patrons. “They’ll feel happy, and walk away smiling.”