Walk through the doors of mActivity and you might ask, “Where’s the gym?”
In the sun-drenched front area of this Valhalla of wellness in the East Rock section of New Haven, you might see people curled up with a book in a leather sofa in its living room-like setting, or seated in a pair of chairs chatting, or hunched over their laptops at a work table. Look to the left and there might be a group in the conference area planning a community event. Feeling peckish? There’s a cafe and a wooden bar area, too – open to the public – that serves wraps, salads and snacks. There might even be musicians performing out front.
Sure, there are rows of treadmills, stair-climbers, ellipticals, rowing machines and cross-trainers, too, way off in the distance. But visitors first walk past the curated art exhibit, a physical therapy area, an office for nutritional coaching, and banquettes designed for tête-à-têtes.
Once in the gym area, open a few doors and find yoga or Zumba classes, Pilates sessions and cycling rooms with screens that offer virtual landscapes. Changing rooms feature both sauna and steam relief.
For nearly three years now, mActivity’s 18,000 square feet of converted light industrial space at 285 Nicoll St. has become a holistic wellness center for mind, body and spirit.
“It’s the whole package,” says member Ian Huelke, a personal trainer from New London who has clients in New Haven. “You have everything you need. But it’s also the atmosphere. It has a kind of charisma.”
Research to Reality
The idea of a different kind of fitness center began six years ago when Burch Valldejuli and Pablo Perez, who both grew up in the area, started talking about combining their skills, experience and vision.
Since 2007, Valldejuli was the director of program development at the Yale School of Public Health, a position she described as highly entrepreneurial and collaborative. It was similar to a role she held previously at Harvard University, where she earned her Ed.M. in counseling and consulting psychology. She left academia in 2014 after her youngest child graduated from college, eager to start a new chapter of her life — and to put her decades’ worth of research into reality.
“I didn’t just want to study public health,” she says. “I wanted to implement it and do what it is was we were studying and espousing for so long. Everything we do here is evidence-based and from peer review journals.”
Perez followed an All-American rugby career and a degree in business at the University of Connecticut with a career in the fitness service industry, creating Core Fitness in North Haven, where Valldejuli was a client. It was there that they began planning their synchronistic dream project.
It was rooted in creating a more expansive culture of health that went beyond weights, reps, spins, and steps, that even went beyond self – to community.
“People are so looking for connections in this Internet age,” says Valldejuli. “Our tagline is that mActivity is in support of your physical, social and emotional well-being, which is actually the mission of the World Health Organization. We have all of those components under one roof.”
Valldejuli and Pascal knew they would be entering a highly competitive arena of fitness and exercise centers.
“They have their own thing and we have ours,” she says.
“We wanted to create our own uniqueness,” says Perez.
But finding the right location was a challenge. At first, they looked around downtown New Haven, not far from the hospitals and medical services. But real estate was at a premium there.
When they looked at the light industrial area in the Goatville section of the East Rock neighborhood, they felt they found the perfect spot. It was accessible to downtown while also tapping into the Yale neighborhood, East Rock Park hiking and running trails, track fields of a nearby school, community tennis courts and Interstate 91.
Space became available in the RSCC Wire & Cable building, which had previously been used to refurbish and resell cable and fiber optic machinery.
After the interior of this section of the property was renovated and designed for the fitness center by architect Fernando Pastor of SEEDnh, following the guidelines set by Valldejuli and Perez, mActivity opened in early 2016.
“It’s all about the customer, and knowing what that person is looking for and understanding how that customer feels walking through the door,” says Valldejuli. “We didn’t want to be gym-intimidating for somebody who may not have a great body image. We wanted something that was welcoming to everyone, that people could imagine themselves being part of, being engaged in.”
They point to a mActivity blog entry by a member who said she first came with her husband, who worked out while she sat in the lounge area and read. Gradually, she became so comfortable being there, she, too, ventured further in and eventually joined her husband in the gym.
“If you hang out in a barbershop long enough,” Valldejuli says, “you’re going to get a haircut.”
Many people, says Perez, exercise to reduce anxiety, for peace of mind – and a calming atmosphere is central to their concept. You won’t find throbbing music and stress-inducing televisions with CNN reports. Instead, there are lots of plants, natural light, and an inviting bar repurposed from Doug Flutie’s old watering hole. (No booze here; just smoothies.)
There are only mirrors where necessary, says Valldejuli, “because research has found that people don’t want to look at themselves as they work out.”
But the social aspect of mActivity is just as important as the zen.
Community is key, even if you just come for coffee or swing by to pick up the weekly drop-off from Connecticut Community Supported Agriculture. Nonprofit groups hold their meetings here for free. On the first Thursday of every month, mActivity hosts a party with food, music and drink where members and guests can connect with each other socially. The music series happened “organically” with the suggestion that the lounge could be an inviting venue for live entertainment, too. The idea for curated art exhibitions also happened that way. The center has also planned a spoken word series. Its first big event was a fashion show by local designer Neville Wisdom. mActivity even hosted a wedding reception.
But do all the extras make a difference for someone who just wants to work out?
“For me, it does,” says Robert Tagliaferi, who lives in the neighborhood and has been a member since it opened. “The social factor is important to me, too. mActivity is involved in a lot of social justice activities and fundraisers. It’s a community here, yet you can also come work out and have total anonymity if that’s what you want, too. It combines the best of both worlds.”
There are members who mix work and workouts, toiling away on their laptops in the workroom or lounge. Author Amy Bloom is a member, and others have written books, essays and school papers there. One grad student thanked mActivity in his dissertation.
“It’s a great place for writers,” says Valldejuli. “If you get stuck, we’ll watch your stuff. You can work out and clear your head, get rid of your writer’s block and then come back to the laptop.”
A Growing Enterprise
The popularity of mActivity has proven to be a draw for other startups in the remaining 180,000-square-foot space available in the factory complex. Just opened are the adjacent salon Rebel and the East Rock Brewing Company, creating a trifecta of health, hair and happiness.
“You feel good, you look good, and then you have a great night,” laughs Meagan Jones, owner of Rebel. And her reason for placing her business here? “I could just see that this was a growing social area and a good spot for me to come in and grow with them.”
There are also plans to duplicate the mActivity template into franchise operations in other cities, through an entity called mActivity Intenational, Perez says.
“We’re now starting to market it and are looking at other locations,” he says.
As for the name mActivity, what does it mean?
“We wanted a brand that was more than New Haven or East Rock or anything with the word ‘fitness,’ which suggests the gym,” says Perez. “We needed to find that one word – even if it was made up name like Uber or Starbucks.”
They liked the dynamic of the word “activity” which could mean physical but also social energy. And having the “m” before “Activity,” they felt, gives it ambiguity that could mean different things to different people.
It could denote “mindful,” “my,” “measured,” “modern” or “motivated.”
For Valldejuli and Perez, perhaps the word is “meaning.”
“There’s not a day after all these years that I don’t walk into this beautiful space and still go, ‘Wow’,” says Valldejuli. “Like Field of Dreams, if you build it, they will come.”
Photography by STAN GODLEWSKI