Sadie Lincoln’s first memories of moving her body involve what she refers to as “boogie parties.”
“It was just all about celebrating our bodies and music together as a group. And it was all freestyle—just fun,” Lincoln said over Zoom as she described how her mother and four “aunties” would dance along to records. “Having all those women around me just totally enjoying their bodies and having fun dancing…It’s no surprise that group exercise feels natural to me.”
A love of movement accompanied Lincoln throughout her adolescence and young adulthood. Her first job was at the gym chain 24 Hour Fitness, where she acted as the project manager to its founder Mark Mastrov. Her now-husband, Chris, also found work there. Their careers allowed them to buy a house in Oakland overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a feat which Lincoln has compared to climbing Mount Everest.
But something did not feel right. Lincoln was exercising intensely every day, but in a way that was “clinical” and measurement-oriented—far different from the freedom she experienced during the boogie parties growing up. Exercise became “a fight with my body,” she said. “It was all a mathematical equation.”
She felt the pressure of the fitness industry to maintain the ideal slim, lean, and fit physique: “Everything in the world was telling me to do fitness, to be something better than I was in that moment,” she recalled.
But when she became pregnant, her exercise routine changed. Instead of pushing herself at the gym each day, she practiced yoga at home, allowing her to reconnect with her body and marvel at what it was capable of: creating another life.
Then Lincoln had a realization. Perhaps she was not failing fitness, she thought, but fitness was failing her.
Lincoln grew up in an unconventional household where she was collectively raised by her birth mother and four “aunties,” each of whom had their own children, all from a different father. She describes her childhood as one where she felt accepted for exactly who she was; no emotion was off-limits. She attended an alternative arts school during her elementary years, and then enrolled at a traditional high school in Eugene, Oregon, where she participated in cheerleading and focused more on having fun than achieving high grades.
Despite never taking the SAT, Lincoln attended Santa Monica City College for a couple years before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles. She eventually went on to earn her Master’s Degree in education from The College of William and Mary.
Her love of learning and endless curiosity would eventually inform much of her future decisions as an entrepreneur in the health and fitness space. After more than a decade at 24 Hour Fitness, both Lincoln and her husband needed a change. The couple felt they lacked meaningful relationships and craved the strong sense of community Lincoln had growing up with her “aunties” and five siblings.
Then one day in the Spring of 2007, Chris came home with a spreadsheet detailing how they could sell their home and most of their possessions to create their dream business. A year later, they packed up their car with their cats and two kids and moved to Portland, Oregon.
They bounced several business ideas around—renting out yoga studios, pizza—before deciding to found their own exercise studio, something that felt natural to Lincoln, a life-long lover of movement. With the sales from their home and a small investment from Mastrov, the couple had about a quarter of a million dollars in seed money. But really, Lincoln just did what felt intuitive.
“I trusted what I needed, and I needed to disrupt my own practice. I needed a new way to relate to my body,” she said. “I scratched my own itch. I believed in my own inner voice as a data point of one that mattered.”
Lincoln had taught exercise classes “on and off” for twenty years and started teaching free classes to get her foot in the door, she said. After these initial “iterations” of what would later become barre3, a national fitness studio combining elements of Pilates, yoga, and ballet, she sent out some emails and invited past clients to attend a workout–this time for money. About 12 people showed up. It was then that she realized this may just work.
Now boasting over 175 studios worldwide, barre3 has become one of many boutique exercise programs to have joined the multi-trillion-dollar wellness industry. But Lincoln did not want to run another studio promising a quick fix and “better” body, which the wellness world was certainly not lacking.
“The messages that were sent my way as a young woman were all about, If you want to be worthy and sexy and belong in this world, you need to look this way”—skinny, toned, long, and lean, she said.
Dr. Tim Caulfield, a health law expert and author of several books criticizing the many harmful aspects of the wellness world, including Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, expressed a similar sentiment.
“There was a very close alignment between aesthetics and wellness,” he said over Zoom. “Being attractive, being thin, being fit was viewed as being inherently good. And that’s part of the marketing, that’s part of the brand.”
Lincoln aimed to disrupt the narrative surrounding which kinds of bodies were deemed “worthy.” She has admitted that early on, barre3 gave in to this more appearance-based approach. But now she claims she is “not at all” tempted by such marketing tactics. Nowhere on the company’s website does it mention physical manifestations of “success”; it does not mention weight loss nor the “achievement” of a certain physique. Instead, it offers a workout designed to “balance your body and empower you from within.”
For a monthly fee of $29, clients can access online workouts ranging from ten to 60 minutes. The company also offers hour-long classes in-studio, which cost about $23 per session.
Barre3 advertises its workouts as a combination of strength-conditioning, cardio, and mindfulness, all of which are meant to help “balance the body” and strengthen areas that tend to be chronically weak, such as the glutes, according to Lincoln.
Clients participate in movements like squats, lunges, and mat-based “core work” with the option of using props, including hand-held weights, sliders, a resistance band, or the company’s signature “core ball,” a soft squishy ball that can be manipulated to compliment certain movements.
But clients attend classes for reasons other than a good workout.
Lauren Holland, who frequents her barre3 studio in Philadelphia, “always hated working out,” she said over Zoom. “I was the person who would show up late on purpose to tennis class so I wouldn’t have to run the warm-up mile.”
After finding barre3, however, she fell in love with the friendly atmosphere.
“I really feel supported by the barre3 community in a way that I didn’t feel at other studios,” she said. “You see men, you see women, you see women of all shapes and sizes, of all different colors…And I think that’s super important.”
Caulfield, who emphasized that the company is still a brand trying to sell its product, was also “impressed with the general takeaway I got from their website, you know, that body positivity,” he said, referring to barre3.com. “It was nice to see that diversity of shapes and sizes.”
The promise of weight loss and toned muscles are excellent for marketing, according to Lisa Schale-Drake, barre3’s Director of Research and Development. But, she says, the company was willing to “take a financial hit” in order to “uphold” their values of body positivity and inclusivity, which meant refraining from appearance-oriented messaging. She admits that some people craving a more traditional barre class may be turned off by barre3.
“We’re scratching against that noise, and we’re one of the only barre companies that doesn’t use that language,” she said. “And that can be to our detriment.”
While Caulfield acknowledges that the wellness industry has improved in some respects, he is still disappointed by much of its messaging.
“I do think there’s this pressure, particularly on women but increasingly on men, that you’re constantly supposed to be improving. And if you’re not improving, then you’re doing something wrong,” Caulfield said.
Schale-Drake is also acutely aware of this common narrative.
“Wellness is booming because of this,” she said, adding that the industry deems “you as a problem to fix…‘You’re not good enough right now. You need to get better.’ And that sells.”
The language employed by the wellness industry can often be misleading, contributing to a “convoluted” conversation around what a healthy lifestyle actually entails, according to Caulfield, who blames such “science-ploitation” for much of the confusion in what he considers to be a market that is not evidence-based.
Margaret McCartney, a Scotland-based general practitioner who writes about evidence-based research, agrees that health has been rendered “unnecessarily complex” by companies touting their specific approach to wellness.
“There is a huge amount of profiteering with companies also using ‘sciencey’ sounding words and phrases, which in reality don’t mean much,” she wrote in an email. “All this can make people feel that getting and keeping fit, and eating well is a complicated process which needs expert (expensive) help to do properly.”
Schale-Drake, who is “constantly reading” published studies and regularly collaborates with strength coaches, gyms, and professionals like sports chiropractors and physical therapists, says she tries not to get too clinical with clients since doing so can make exercise feel “like a chore,” adding that barre3 focuses more on “organic and free” movement rather than a “results-driven” program promising a more “sculpted” appearance.
For Lincoln, helping her clients connect with their own bodies and do what feels right rather than adhere to a strict formula is one of her top priorities, even if that means doing something completely different from everyone else: “Moving is a gift to your own body; it’s an act of self-love versus a punishment,” she said. “And usually it feels like a punishment if you’re just copying an instructor.”
Caulfield, too, believes one should partake in “whatever works for you, you enjoy, and is sustainable,” adding, “I think we need to kind of relax a little bit in our hyper scrutiny of the various interventions that are used—if they’re healthy.”
Although McCartney agrees that exercise is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle, she, like Caulfield, worries about all the “noise” generated by the wellness industry.
And such noise motivated Lincoln to start a “disruptive” company that instead urged clients to listen to their own bodies, something Holland finds particularly refreshing.
“I think the difference is that this is not about, ‘You need to be in shape,’” Holland said of her barre3 practice. “This is, ‘You want to care about yourself, and you want to do it in a community? We’re doing that too. Do you want to join us?’”
Schale-Drake explained barre3’s approach to modifications–adjusting movements to account for joint pain, energy levels, or injuries, for instance–as a way to help clients do just that. Like a chef, she says, who constantly alters a recipe, there should be no shame in altering a movement to meet one’s body where it is.
“They make you feel good about choosing to do something different,” Holland said. “All of it is welcome; all of it is beautiful. And that’s the first time I felt that.”
Lincoln had just finished an at-home barre3 workout, her eucalyptus-colored barre3 core ball visible on the floor in the background.
In between sips of water from a reusable bottle, she admitted that loving her body is still “a practice every day,” although she is now more concerned with raising her two teenagers—a boy and a girl.
Nonetheless, fitness means something entirely different to her today than it did decades ago. What she used to consider a “bad word,” one associated with the societal expectation to punish one’s body into looking a certain way, has now morphed into a source of empowerment.
“Fitness is about change. It is about learning body wisdom. Fitness is about growing and being resilient…Fitness is not about a fight with your body,” she said. “So yeah, we’ve taken the word back.”