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Bringing Science to Fitness: A Conversation with Orangetheory's Dave Long at HLTH

Dave Long is the co-founder and CEO of Orangetheory Fitness which focusses on high-intensity sensor-supported workouts.

Before Orangetheory, Dave helped grow Massage Envy from 25 to 800 locations. He founded Orangetheory in 2010 with two cofounders. He's since lead Orangetheory's growth from 1 single chapter to more than 750 locations in more than a dozen countries. I spoke to him at the HLTH conference in May to hear more about his work and direction within healthcare...

What was the motive for you founding Orangetheory?

Well, the motivation was even with more and more fitness options, people weren’t getting results. So the goal was to find the product that can be broad in appeal and get people efficient results.

It’s taking people’s time into consideration, most people aren’t going to work out 7-10 hours a week, and this is the workout people can do 3 hours a week, so it’s truly a life changer for people. It’s steeped in science with the way the intervals are designed as well as the heart rate proportion of it, and the added benefit of that is there’s safety. You can go at your pace, and someone else can go at their pace. If you want to be competitive, you can be competitive, but everybody is making improvements for themselves.

And what does the workout look like today?

Right — it’s all group based, so the classes average about 20-or-so people. We spend a lot of time hand-selecting the coaches, so they come with a lot of experience in personal training and exercise physiology. We put them through the wringer as far as how to coach this class and how to have people safely do everything. They understand how to push people just the right amount; it’s definitely not a boot camp.

Within the facility the workout changes every day: there’s a cardiovascular, a core and a strength component so you’re getting all of it. The cardiovascular might be on treadmill intervals; then we use a custom water row that we developed. Rowing is good for everyone because most people are on their computers texting, forward posture, so all of that extension that happens on the rower and the power development is game-changing.

We also do a bunch of the core and strength things that people use in their everyday life, so using TRX bands or dumbbells. And what’s fun about the workout is that there’s an underlying mechanic that the member doesn’t see that provides what they need even though the workout is different every day. We have a video exercise library we’ve built that has over 2000 exercises, so you might not do the same exercise in the course of the year.

And you’re being tracked the whole time?

Yes, so obviously gamification is a big part of it. Most people, whether they admit or not, want to hit that number. It’s a really simple premise that during one hour you want to have 12 minutes in the higher intensity zone called the ‘Orange’ and ‘Red’ zone.

—hence the name.

Yeah, and that’s when you burn more calories for up to 36 hours after. With a heart rate monitor, you can track that closely. So, the first time someone comes in we’re not trying to do that, we’re just getting them used to the workout, but that’s their goal over time.

What’s unique about it is, say you work out Monday Wednesday Friday, your metabolism is elevated pretty much the entire week. So you get a lot more benefit out of the hour than really any other style of training.

Are there other ways that data fits back into the program?

So real-time you’re getting your heart rate calorie data, you’re getting the instant feedback of whether you hit your goal or not at the end of the class. That goes to our app, and you can get it there or in your email. People also share those, about 40% of people share their emails after the class. And what we’re doing now is building a second-generation app that allows people to track more of their data over time so they can see their data from the rowers and the treadmills and eventually the strength equipment. This way you can see your improvement in how many miles you’re running or jogging. The data’s great but really what we’re trying to do is figure out how to serve that up in a way that’s meaningful for you.

The goal is that we’re a very open platform so when you first engage in you’ll set your preferences and if you want to engage in the content you can and if you want to see metrics more than the snapshot that everyone gets then you can drill down. We want to be able to serve everyone with the app, and we’re doing well without it so we know when we launch, it’s going to be a game-changer for us.

You talked a bit about goal-setting, is that something that’s important for the user?

It is, so as part of our onboarding we’re finding out, really in an authentic way, what’s the goal for the person. We can then help them decide things like how many times a week they’re coming, and that might change over time.

"We're trying to show groups like payers the life-altering data we have. The results are dramatic; we’re just figuring out the way to present them."

Even though the classes are homogeneous, the programming is still customized: we might tell one person they need to come three times a week, but if someone’s already running twice a week and wants to keep doing that we might tell them to come less frequently. You see a range of people in our studios going from once a week to five or six times.

And people pay per class?

Yep, but more than half of our members are on an unlimited membership so they can come as many times as they want and use any facility worldwide, which is a huge benefit, given we’re in 19 countries.

What’s the latest?

We just added in Germany as well as Shanghai and Hong Kong. We’ll also be in New Zealand and Dubai towards the end of the year.

Orangetheory is a fitness company, but you want to play more into the health care space. What’re you doing on that side now?

We’re running a bunch of simultaneous initiatives to integrate with everyone in health care and wellness. The first thing we’re trying to do is get our dataset strong, one for the consumer but also for the ability to show groups like payers the life-altering data we have, as well as what that means in terms of dollars and cents and preventing disease. The results are dramatic, we’re just figuring out the way to present them.

The other part is becoming a central content engine because we know that nutrition is just as critical. We want to get more involved there, but we’re looking for the right partner to help people with things like food tracking and glucose control all the way to online coaching. Same with sleep, mobility, and mindfulness: all of those things.

"We partnered with Nike last year to allow their employees to try Orangetheory. We’re conducting a study with them from the employer side to better understand the outcomes"

We have a member base that’s listening and hungry for input so the goal is how to serve up content that they’re interested in and will change the game for them. For us it’s not about monetizing it because we know the more great content we give them to improve what they do outside our two or three hours a week it’ll help them generally. It’s the culmination of this stuff that’ll deliver the most benefit so if we can help them with different life changes they’re going to get more out of the workout too.

You talked a bit about this new app, what’s the vision for that application?

OT Fitness App

Well we already have great engagement with our users with email but we wanted to move to something a bit more engaging. You’ll be able to meet and invite friends and see the feed of your local Orangetheory store. We really emphasize this community where you can go to a happy hour, take part in the local 5k, and do so much more in addition to working out.

What have you learned about fitness since starting Orangetheory?

Well, we’ve seen that people really want to do it, but 90-95% of them just need help with accountability. We’ve found we just really need to help them decide when they’ll be coming, in order to help them stick to their goals

You mentioned working with insurance plans, what’s the ultimate goal there? Do you want to have Orangetheory classes reimbursed?

We want to expand accessibility and so being able to have plans reimburse classes is an aim. It also just makes sense for insurance companies dollar for dollar. We partnered with Nike last year to allow their employees to try Orangetheory. We’re conducting a study with them from the employer side to better understand the outcomes for those on their teams that are taking are classes compared to not. We’re also publishing a few other studies in the next year including one with a provider system.

Can you talk at all about the initial results of these studies on health results?

We’ve already seen great improvements for our users when it comes to body fat change. We see large declines of body fat that are maintained, but also increase in lean muscle which is especially important. Also another big thing is VO2 max. We’ve seen drastic improvements of VO2 up to 30% (and an athlete’s 1% improvement in VO2 max can win a race). This is an indicator for function at rest and can have health implications for decades.

So how has it been for you building up this company from the ground up? Where did you start and what was that like?

It's been a wild ride. We started in Ft. Lauderdale Florida with just one location. At first we mostly just wanted to know if people would like our program, and when they did if they would come back. And we found that we had amazing retention.

People have things come up but over the long term, they absolutely come back. So we’ve decided we really need to just maintain those high expectations and keep the experience solid.

Given that journey, do you have any advice for people getting into starting businesses or about health care specifically?

I think you just really need to have a foundational understanding of the sector and the levers that drive it. You should inspect it up front because many people get into things and don’t really know how it works.

You know when we hire people we ask them to do one of our classes and the President or I often interview them. We really want them to ask about our class because we want them to care and be engaged, and we’ve had some hard questions and that what we love to see. Some parts of every job are going to be mundane, and it’s that motivation and interest that’s going to keep them in it.

Thanks Dave, it’s been great to talk to you!


A conversation with George Eleftheriou, running the team at Feel to improve emotional tracking for mental health services.

Note: This conversation was taken from a conversation at the HLTH conference in May with slight semantic changes for readability.