Let's talk about the F word—fitness. Today, fitness club owners and operators are focused on meeting people where they are most comfortable exercising, whether in gyms, backyards, or living rooms. And while there are several big-box gyms and yoga studios in and around New York, there still seems to be a gap in the industry regarding inclusion.
But one individual is changing the game. Brooklyn’s historic Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood—once hailed as a “fitness desert”—is turning into a boutique fitness haven thanks to Ife Obi, founder and chief marketing officer of The Fit In, a fitness studio business on a mission to create health equity for communities of color.
With over 20 years of in-house experience working with significant entertainment, consumer products, and service brands, the Nigerian-American started her career as a marketing professional. But after falling in love with fitness, the ambitious creative decided to combine her passion for health and marketing into one. Today Ife Obi’s bold energy is transforming every block in the neighborhood into a place of union she calls The Fit In.
For years Obi had to travel to the city to get the quality strength & pilates training that she enjoyed, but felt it lacked communities that kept her committed to her health. This is because “There is a different relationship to wellness in neighborhoods that were never provided options. The fitness experience can be uncomfortable and triggering for many, whether it brings up shame, guilt, or other feelings of unworthiness,” explains Obi.
In 2018, the certified personal trainer and pilates instructor created a boutique chain of fitness studios in Brooklyn, NY. Now Obi has opened one of the most famous studios for women of color in her neighborhood. The functional training experience can also be located on Halsey Street, Marcus Garvey Boulevard, and Malcolm X Boulevard.
Here Ife Obi aims to make training accessible – where the diverse community can receive training from knowledgeable, supportive instructors that look like them. “I believe it’s my duty to make sure all women—particularly BIPOC women—know they are worthy just as they are right now,” says Obi.
Read below to discover how this rebellious whirlwind of wellness is giving back to the community the right way:
What was the turning point in your life that sparked the concept for your business, The Fit In?
(IO): It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I got into this understanding of wellness. I injured my back doing a workout, and for years, when I was younger, I was overweight. I was living in East New York, which was the most dangerous area. You didn't ride your bike because a shootout could happen at any point. It was not a place where you could be a kid and get into physical activities. We also didn't have the knowledge and education on healthy eating and healthy foods. Nor did we have access.
So it wasn't something that I grew up on. Eventually, I had a part-time job working at a sporting goods store, in the fitness section. I saw all these fancy clothes and fashion and soon realized that I’d have to do something in them if I wore these clothes. I got advice from my colleagues, mainly white people who advised me to go to local city-owned recreation centers because these gyms are $75 a year. I tried that out, and that’s where I started to learn about movement.
Eventually, when I started working in the corporate world, I needed a stress reliever. I got into a high-intensity workout and herniated a disc that took me out for six months. I couldn't do anything and soon realized that the instructors were not even certified. I decided to learn about my movements, which escalated questions. How can I share this? How can I make sure my family and people that look like me also have access to it? How can I gift this knowledge and love for fitness to others?
How are you leading the pack towards a healthier, secure environment in the wellness industry?
(IO): Bedford Stuyvesant is the largest neighborhood in Brooklyn. Historically, black communities, predominantly black and brown, are still today, so I wanted to make sure that we had a space here that focused on healthy movement. And so, our community consists of those that surround us. We are a destination for those who live in the neighborhood and those who see themselves in the people in this neighborhood. They come to us because they want to be around people that look like them.
We have historically not been represented in wellness spaces, especially when it comes to boutique fitness spaces like ours, so we focus on small group classes. Everybody's in it together, especially when it comes to women. They're being nurtured because they can show up and feel like part of a community. And they're being taught what to do.
There weren't any boutique fitness studios in this area, especially ones that focus on strength exercises, which a lot of our community needs. We have higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of heart disease, high rates of cancer, obesity, and the least amount of supermarkets where people can get healthy foods. Anybody who wanted to get some type of healthy movement had to travel outside of the community to get it. And so I wanted to bring something so that people had access from a physical location and be fair financially.
If someone had never heard of The Fit In before, what important things would you want them to know?
(IO): We're just looking to ensure our community gets healthy and gets access. I am always asked how we can create this wildly inclusive, diverse community, and it's like, “Well, are you willing to open a space in our neighborhood as opposed to looking at Chelsea and SOHO, where those neighborhoods have higher rents and need to have all these extra amenities?”
We want to make sure that people have that access and feel safe and secure first—we're not looking to make money off those who need the ticket. We are here for the community to ensure that we are serving the right way. When people walk out of these doors, they meet new people and bond through fitness and wellness. Our community lasts beyond these doors. Even though we are a wellness brand, we are generally a community-focused business that helps foster them and keep them healthy for the long term.
What are you excited about for the future?
(IO): Our goal is to tackle not just the fitness space, but all the underrepresented areas of wellness. And so, we've launched into the supplement space right now—we're just getting our toes wet. Here we dived into producing a digestive supplement. We're also going into a collagen supplement that works with building bone density and reduces cortisol because black women especially deal with higher rates, which can impact so many other things. Hence, you want to find a bit of a balance there. But our other goal is to look into opening additional spaces, even throughout the city and then hopefully nationwide.