Christa Doran at Altira Fitness

Working Through

The “pandemic 15” is real. An American Psychological Association survey in February found that 42% of adults in the US reported “undesired weight gain” over the course of the pandemic, with an average gain of 29 pounds (median 15 pounds). An additional 18% reported “undesired weight loss” to the tune of 26 pounds on average. Either way you cut it, the past year’s challenges have affected Americans’ waistlines.

But Christa Doran doesn’t want people to think in terms of body weight. The co-owner of Altira Fitness in Hamden wants them to think about getting strong instead—both physically and mentally.

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On a sunny May afternoon, the doors at Altira are open, and a spring breeze is blowing in from the parking lot, which lies in the shadow of the Route 15 overpass. Inside, the rubberized floor is taped into a grid of individual workout stations, each with its own bench. Students arriving for the four o’clock class collect their equipment, following posted instructions. At Altira, everyone works out side by side—as of today no longer masked but still distanced—with modifications depending on their skill level. Six to seven classes per day, starting at 5 a.m. and running to 6:30 p.m., are each one hour long, and many members come several times each week. “That collective, shared struggle is really powerful,” Doran says. People see one another and tell themselves, “If she can do it, if he can do it, I can do it.”

Most of the participants in this afternoon’s class are women, as are about 90% of members. The gym’s coaching staff is all female, too, except for Christa’s husband and business partner, Mike Doran. That’s because Altira spent its first 12 years as Tuff Girl, a gym geared toward women, whose needs are at Christa’s “heart center. It lights me up helping women change the way they think about fitness and food and their bodies and their abilities,” she says.

Tuff Girl began as a fitness class for friends in East Rock Park when Christa was the new mother of a three-month-old daughter. She had a degree in occupational therapy, and she’d taught classes at a gym, but she really just needed to get out and move with some friends. The idea took off. By the time she was expecting her second child, she’d opened Tuff Girl, and gym membership was doubling every month. Mike, who was trained in exercise physiology and had run a tae kwon do studio, left his job in sales and joined her in the business.

Today everyone is welcome, regardless of gender identity. Including men has changed the way she sees them in the gym, Christa says. As a high school and college athlete, she spent a lot of time in weight rooms and later worked at several fitness centers. She was done with men intimidating and patronizing her during workouts. Altira’s culture is different, she says. “The men we have are really amazing… They’re cheerleaders, champions, feminists. They’re okay with a woman outlifting them, which happens a lot.”

COVID was part of the impetus for Tuff Girl to evolve. Due to the pandemic, the Dorans were forced to close a second gym, Perpetual Strength, last August. Government support helped keep Tuff Girl afloat as the couple purchased video equipment—lights, a camera, microphones, editing software—to migrate classes online as well as lots of new strength-training equipment because it could no longer be shared. A fresh coat of paint and some structural upgrades made the space more inviting, Christa says. Its most prominent feature is a long, pink wall with giant white lettering: “Sweat. Rinse. Repeat.” The name of the gym’s online platform, Altira, became the name of a new business with a broader vision, one that encompasses Tuff Girl. Online classes (single sessions $5.99; monthly unlimited $39) will remain in place. Gym classes (8 for $149/month; 12 for $199/month; unlimited for $249/month) accommodate, at least for now, a maximum of 18 people.

While you won’t find treadmills, stationary bikes or weight machines at Altira, workouts aren’t all about dumbbells and kettlebells, covering movement, mobility, core, strength training, cardiovascular work and conditioning. “The machine is your body, and strength training is the foundation for everything,” Christa says. “Stronger bodies are healthier, they have less injuries, they sustain the test of time. If you’re strong, you can do anything.”

She means this not just in a physical sense. The resilience people build by working hard in the gym translates into resilience in life. The pandemic underscored the point. “You saw people just couldn’t do hard things,” Christa says. “It was bad. It was really hard watching some people through this.” She, herself, had already done harder things. By far the worst was losing the middle of her three daughters, six-year-old Leah, to a rare, inoperable brain tumor three years ago. “I think after Leah died and I had to get up off the floor and figure out how to live, I realized what we do here is powerful,” she says.

Christa is also the survivor of an eating disorder and body dysmorphia that plagued her for more than a decade. Finding her own power in the gym helped her move through that personal crisis. It has also influenced the way she parents her daughters. “I wanted them to see a strong mother who didn’t weigh themselves, who didn’t talk about diets, who didn’t talk negatively about their body ever,” she says.

Figuring out how to keep their business afloat in these times has just been another challenge to overcome. The Dorans have been “grinding” for 14 months now, and their membership has dropped from roughly 500 to 200 people. But the combination of government funding, a loyal customer base and inner strength are getting them through. “We got devastated, but not destroyed,” Christa says. “We’re still here.”

Altira Fitness
60 Connolly Pkwy, Bldg 6A, Hamden (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image features Christa Doran.

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