T he basement of 285 Nicoll Street is crammed with a hodgepodge of industrial machinery. High above is a harsh canopy of wires, girders and pipes. Large fish-eyed lights hang overhead, barely brightening the spaces beneath them. “This is what it [all] used to look like,” Pablo Perez says.
That was before Perez and Burch Valldejuli cleaned up their corner of the former wire-making factory and turned it into mActivity, a young, gleaming fitness center. Opened in February, the transformation is like night and day, filled with freshly painted exercise equipment free of industrial or, so far, human gunk. Sunlight cuts down into the space through a saw-toothed roof, aided by large windows. Here and there an extant pulley still hangs from the ceiling, but otherwise only the skeleton remains, now filled with a healthful, airy soul.
The “m” in mActivity stands for “mindfulness,” Perez says. Once a rugby player, Perez spent most of his exercise efforts reaching for muscle gains, often risking pain or injury to do it. Now he sings a very different tune. “Soreness is good. Pain is not.” In contrast with consumer gyms he’s used, which have more or less perpetuated a familiar fitness mantra—no pain, no gain—mActivity, he says, offers a gentler touch.
He partnered with Valldejuli, a retired director of program development at the Yale School of Public Health, to create a place of wellness inspired by the concept of preventative medicine. The pair’s brainchild, mActivity, strives to create a culture of health at the gym where good habits seep in by osmosis. “If you hang out in a barbershop long enough,” Valldejuli says, quoting her father, “you’re going to get a haircut.” Of course, mActivity sheds your pounds, not your hair.
It also aims to shed your stress. In addition to a sauna and steam room, mActivity’s “recovery” area has three massage tables with foam rollers and vibrating massage sticks, where you can also do isolated stretching guided by an instructor. In addition, mActivity has devoted real estate to two boutique wellness businesses: gym space for Pilates Haven and a satellite massage room for Elm City Wellness. Recently, mActivity started offering its own physical therapy sessions.
Besides mindfulness, the “m” in mActivity could also stand for “modern.” Along with digital, web-connected monitors on many of the standing cardio machines, the gym has two tech-enhanced exercise rooms. In the larger one, some 25 classes take place throughout the week—everything from Zumba to yoga to mat-based Pilates. And when a flesh-and-blood instructor isn’t standing at the front of the room, exercisers can boot up the digital trainer waiting in the corner.
That trainer’s animus is Wellbeats, a system linked to an overhead projector that gives members the option of trying a variety of different follow-the-leader video classes. Everything from kickboxing to kettle ball to EXOS, an athlete training program, is on the menu. Routines for pregnant women, people working their way back from injury or the elderly are also available.
The second technology-enhanced space is the cycling room, where stationary bikes are arranged in a semi-circle around a forward-facing lead bike for instructors. When that lead bike is vacant, another Wellbeats monitor can drop down a screen, fire up a projector and give you the option of biking the cinematic landscapes of New Zealand, the highways leading to Argentina’s Patagonia mountains or the beaches, jungles and colonial forts of Panama.
Exercising with the digital programs looks an awful lot like playing a video game and, according to Perez, clients love it. “It’s like adult recess,” he says, and if your idea of recess involves traditional workout tools like free weights, you can find those at mActivity, too.
Both mind and matter matter at mActivity—though, like a Pilates enthusiast, yoga junkie or devoted techno-trainer, the balance you strike is yours to choose.
Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.