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Lifer Adds To Fitness Options in West Hartford

Special to the Courant
West Hartford gym encourages active lifestyle in an intimate setting

WEST HARTFORD — Tucked away beside a Home Depot near the Hartford line, Debra Fountain is tapping into a new and fast-growing fitness trend.

A body builder with a finance degree, Fountain is using her two decades as a personal trainer at her new venture, Lifer Fitness Studio. With fitness franchises like SoulCyle, New York Sports Club and Big Sky growing in popularity in Connecticut, Fountain's business plan emphasizes a variety of classes in a more intimate setting.

"My idea was to create an all-in-one space with strength training, flexibility, cardio and mindfulness," said Fountain, a former instructor at Big Sky. She offers three types of class: Barre, which consists of strengthening exercises done at a ballet barre; cycling, on 21 bikes; and yoga.

Instead of promising weight loss as a result of exercise, Fountain promotes the idea of a lifetime habit of fitness, one stretch and one pedal turn at a time. She encourages clients to follow a healthy diet backed up by protein shakes and is available for private consultations.

Large gyms, including the nation-wide SoulCycle (in Westport and Greenwich) Big Sky (four in the Hartford area) or New York Sports Club, in Blue Back Square, West Hartford, also offer cycling and yoga, but the new studios say they are trying to create an atmosphere of collegiality rather than competitiveness. "After big box gyms, I wanted a bit more intimate experience with my clients," Fountain said. The music is hip and so, often are the students. On the flip side, the smaller sites do not have shower rooms, and sometimes changing rooms are crowded.

Fountain points to herself as an example of what determination and perseverance can do. At 37, she found herself with three small children and somewhat restless. She was working as a trainer and teaching in a Gold's Gym. "I wanted to take fitness to another level," she recalled. As a girl, she had run for exercise, had been a pom pom girl and in the marching band, but she didn't consider herself an athlete. She decided to become a body builder, to the consternation of her family and friends.

"We just never thought you would be in that line of work," they said. She began training. Working hard, it took her four months. "I had single digit body fat," she recalled. "I wanted to see what my body could do," and her intense workouts added seven pounds of muscle to her 5 foot 4 inch frame. "You have to eat lots and lots of protein to keep the muscles." She entered two body building contests in 2001, where she was the oldest woman in her weight class and spurred on by the body builder's mantra: "Go crazy, go heavy, or go home."

"I was really cut," she recalled of those body building days.

That was sixteen years ago. In 2003, her husband got a job with ESPN, and the family moved to Connecticut from Washington, D.C. She had a baby, and then began working as a personal trainer and teaching cycling classes at Big Sky, a large gym in Newington.

Now, at 51, she is the owner of Lifer, which she opened alone after plans to open a studio in West Hartford with a partner collapsed. The studio's address is 20 Jefferson Ave.

She eats six small meals a day — all high in protein. Breakfast can be leftover salmon, eggs and spinach. She drinks green smoothies made of protein powder and nuts. She consumes red meat only once a week, and fills up on sweet potatoes, brown rice and organic frozen fruit, washed down by a gallon of water a day.

"Food is fuel," Fountain explains. "I don't celebrate with food."

Fountain's studio is not the only newcomer in town. Late last year, Tribe opened in West Hartford Center on Farmington Avenue at Walden Street. It is open seven days a week and offers 30 cycling classes, including classes at 5:45 am on weekdays.

Meanwhile, in late February, Pure Barre is scheduled to open on Memorial Road opposite Crate & Barrel. Orangetheory Fitness, a rapidly-expanding chain of franchises, is also planning to open a studio in West Hartford's Bishops Corner neighborhood later this year.

Part of a fast-growing franchise, Barre is owned by Stephanie Lin of Wethersfield, who sought exercise at a Barre studio while she was in graduate school in Boston. She soon decided to trade advertising for barre training.

"I instantly fell in love with it," Lin said. "I felt results so fast. I'm stronger and so toned." In addition to yoga clothes, students wear "sticky socks" to keep from slipping while they do their exercises. "It's incredibly hard and it doesn't get easier," Lin said. "But you get better."

At Lifer, Fountain has 12 instructors, and she teaches eight classes a week in barre and cycling. Barre is a relatively new activity, but is the studio's most popular class. Students work and stretch at a ballet barre, which provides resistance and strength training, focusing on the core and lower body. She uses some free weights in her classes — ten pounds and under, because she says heavier weights are too hard on the body. "It's better to have more reps," she said.

Fountain believes yoga is essential to good health, although she does not teach it. "I'm preaching the gospel of yoga," she said, and currently offers several classes at her studio.

Although the studio has been open less than six months, "we are moving toward profitability," Fountain said. "I'm paying off my bills." She invested about $75,000 in her business — spending most of it on the stationary Keiser bicycles, which cost more than $2,000 each. "They are the Cadillac of all bikes," she said.

About 200 men and women take her classes, which cost $15, by signing up on the web; she does not allow walk-ins. Classes start as early as 6 a.m. and run into the evening.

Last summer, Fountain brought her spinning bikes outside, for a class at Blue Back Square in West Hartford.

One enthusiastic client is Rebecca London of West Hartford, who has lost 15 pounds since she joined last summer. She first met Fountain at Big Sky nine years ago when they worked out together. After waiting for Fountain to open her own studio, she now attends three to four classes in barre and cycling a week.

"She's really fabulous," said London. "She has that perfect combination of being knowledgeable and skillful and fabulously encouraging."

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