Taking Night-Life Cue, Gyms Lower the Lights

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One of Vanessa Ramcharan’s favorite things about her workout at Liftonic, a strength-training fitness boutique in the meatpacking district, is that it takes place in near darkness.

“The dark signifies that you are doing something special,” said Ms. Ramcharan, 43, a lawyer from Manhattan, who added that the studio’s dim and red-colored lighting flatters how her body looks in the mirrors. “It’s motivating when you look good. It makes you want to go back.”

Dim lighting has long been a hallmark of upscale fitness studios like Barry’s Bootcamp, Orangetheory Fitness and SoulCycle. But plenty of new studios and gyms, such as Liftonic, the boxing-inspired gym Rumble and the recently opened New York Sports Club Elite membership flagship gym at Astor Place, are also turning to darker lighting.

Some are introducing sophisticated lighting systems that do more than dim; they can bathe a room in mood-changing colors, simulate the outdoors or create a nightclublike atmosphere. Several business owners say that this strategic use of lighting can enhance workout performance and heighten the overall exercise experience. “It creates a new emotional intensity,” said Michelle Ryan, the chief marketing officer of Town Sports, which owns New York Sports Club.

Darker lighting may also help with focus, according to some fitness professionals. “You stop looking across the room to see what someone else is doing,” said Natalie Sessions, the founder of SwitchFit, a new fitness bookings app in New York and Los Angeles.

Other exercisers just want to avoid the spotlight. Take Andrew Coonin, a regular at Mile High Run Club in NoHo and NoMad. “I’m not the fastest person, and I’m a pretty big guy,” said Mr. Coonin, 30, a director of accounts management at a tech company in Manhattan. The dark lighting helps Mr. Coonin feel more comfortable in the class, he said, and an elaborate lighting system at the studio, which simulates sunrise and sunset, has helped him power through challenging intervals.

Debora Warner, the founder and chief executive of Mile High, said, “It’s a visual cue when the colors change that it’s time to push or recover.”

An atmosphere of “intensity” is what Alonzo Wilson, the founder of the fitness studio Tone House, wanted when he decided to hold his workouts in a dimly lit studio under red lights. The walls are painted black and the flooring is black turf, to enhance what Mr. Wilson referred to as a “Batman-chic” aesthetic. “I think of football, when the games are usually played at night,” he said. “It brings out the beast in you — it allows you to unleash your inner athlete.”

Except there is little evidence to support the idea that working out in the dark enhances athletic performance. Dawn Lorring, the clinical rehabilitation manager for Rehabilitation and Sports Therapy at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health, cited a 2012 study of the impact of bright light versus dim light on physical performance. In that study, male exercisers exposed to bright light before and during their workouts performed at higher levels.

“Dim light seems to negatively impact the level at which people push themselves,” Ms. Lorring said. “Darker lighting also decreases a person’s sense of balance and body awareness, which, along with the vestibular system and other sensory inputs, is how we determine where, for example, to place a foot during an exercise movement. I’m not sure the positives outweigh the negatives.”

Still, Jenny Lieberman, 46, said the “pleasant” lighting at Orangetheory, a studio that offers high intensity interval training classes in a studio with orange-hued lights, was one of the reasons she had kept up with her workouts. Ms. Lieberman, an occupational therapist who lives in the East Village, said the fluorescent lights at the gym she previously belonged to were too bright and irritating. “I’m sensitive to them,” she said. “They give me migraines.”

David Barton, whose new gym, TMPL in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, is tricked out with Ketra LED light bulbs, said: “In the right space, people spend more time. If someone likes how they feel, they come more and work out longer.” The pool, for example, seems to reflect moonlight, while the lighting in the strength-training areas changes subtly from day to night. “People always tell me how good they look when they take a selfie in the mirror, which they do all the time,” he said.

And when those gymgoers post those selfies on Instagram? That’s certainly not bad for club business, either.