How post-workout smoothies became *so* popular

i amIf you find yourself hungry after a class at the Upper West Side location of boutique fitness giant Barry’s, you’re in luck—at least if you love a post-workout smoothie.

You can go to Juice Press, which is two blocks away from the studio. Or, there’s Joe and the Juice, which is three blocks away, or Juice Generation, which is four blocks away. Or, most conveniently, Barry’s has an in-house Fuel Bar, where you can order a shake before your workout and have it ready for you when you’re done.

The high concentration of smoothie locations on these few Manhattan blocks (including an Orangetheory, a CorePower Yoga and an Equinox, which has its own cafe, with smoothies) might seem unusual. But really, this is just an exaggerated example of the decades-long marriage between the fitness industry and the post-workout smoothie. It’s a connection so lucrative that opening a smoothie spot near the gym has become part of the former’s business model.

So how did smoothies become almost synonymous with fitness culture?

The history of smoothie popularity is tied to the history of fitness. It was back in the mid-’70s when working out was becoming more common, and gyms—once a dark, bare-bones scene usually exclusive to men—began to be marketed to women. As more women began working out, gym owners recognized the potential of their spaces as social settings, says Daniel Friedman, author of Let’s Get Physical: How Women Invented Exercise and Reshaped the World.

As a result, gyms became elaborate, full-service wellness centers, often complete with restaurants, lounges, and juice bars. These spaces have evolved into singles scenes and networking opportunities, Friedman says—he says gym-goers in the ’80s would spend two and a half hours at the gym between socializing, pampering, exercise and eating.

Meanwhile, the smoothie itself was gaining traction: what had once been a niche item consumed by California counterculturalists and bodybuilders was becoming widely available as health and fitness culture became more widespread, with popular chains such as Smoothie King, which in 1973 was opened and followed by Tropical Smoothie Cafe, Planet Smoothie and Jamba Juice in more locations.

Somewhere along the line, smoothies overtook their sister drink, juice, as a common gym offering (although many establishments that still serve one serve the other), and although fitness culture has changed dramatically since the 70s and 80s, the smoothie has survived.

Why gyms and studios stan post-workout smoothies so much

Today the gym’s status as a social space has shaken as the growing culture of efficiency has popularized the “get-in-get-out” workout. And yet this change hasn’t affected the popularity of smoothies as they’re made for grab-and-go, sipping on the way to another destination or on the way back to work.

Joey Gonzalez, CEO of Barry’s who launched Fuel Bar in 2011 (it’s now in 77 of their 82 locations), says the smoothies it serves have become a way for clients to extend the Barry’s experience beyond the studio, wearing their branded Smoothie cups are like a badge of honor on the street, on the subway, or at the office.

In fact, smoothies can be good business for gyms and studios that serve them in-house—at least according to dozens of industry articles encouraging gym and studio owners to explore this revenue stream. Logically, it’s a way to serve a fresh, substantial item without investing in an entire kitchen, says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, associate professor of history at The New School and author of the forthcoming book. Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession. And at a time when there are more at-home exercise options than ever before, it offers gyms and studios amenities that can only be enjoyed in person, Friedman noted.

Just as buying popcorn at the movies is almost mandatory, a post-workout smoothie is part of the personal gym experience for many people. This cultural connection has so far withstood the test of time—and rapidly changing trends in both fitness and nutrition—because smoothies are such a flexible category. They are customizable, and can be packed with supplements and other conventional ingredients. In other words, smoothies are highly capacious, Petrzella says, meaning there’s room to add a lot of things to them.

But are post-workout smoothies the best way to refuel?

Despite their popularity and ubiquity, smoothies generate a conflicted response among sports dietitians as recovery foods because, depending on their ingredients, they often contain too much sugar or fail to pack the combination of protein and carbohydrates needed after a hard workout. Even a smoothie packed with the right nutrients won’t fill you up like a solid meal, says sports dietitian Amy Stephens, who adds that it can lead to overeating later in the day. Smoothies, on the other hand, can be both hydrating and nourishing in addition to being extremely convenient.

Personally, Petrzella says he’s wary of any food that claims optimization as the main benefit, or has the potential to take away from the food’s social function. Emily Contois, professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and its author, says that smoothie ingredients are often marketed as magical ‘superfoods’. Diners, dudes, and diets: How gender and power collide in food media and cultureWhich is a red flag when it comes to getting nutritional advice, especially in the context of fitness.

But with the right ingredients, and in the right context—ie, not a replacement for an actual meal—Stephens says a smoothie can be a perfectly nutritious post-workout snack. The keys to its long-term success may be the same as the keys to seeing long-term gains in fitness: convenience and consistency.

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