The fitness industry has a new canvas for holistic health, with movement now at the forefront of preventative health and wellness. Fitness Playground founder Justin Ashley talks us through the vision for the new Wellness Playground concept in Sydney’s Marrickville, writes Cameron Pine.

Despite lockdowns, uncertainty and hiccups with a completely new refit, Wellness Playground pushed on and opened by the last quarter of a tumultuous 2021. The facility that conjures up the atmosphere of a health spa and not a gym, offers all the typical high-intensity fitness offerings within an oasis of yoga, dance, pilates, reformer and barre studios and experiences, plus infrared saunas, calming hangout spaces, luxe bathrooms and powder rooms for no more than many traditional gym memberships. It’s safe to say Wellness Playground has changed the game when it comes to fitness.

“Each of the spaces are curated around experience and even a scent that’s specific to the objective of the space. The Yoga studio is dark and oversized, the dwell areas are light and luxurious – conducive to the best practice in the wellness space,” Justin said.

Apart from the cohesive and welcoming minimalist entrance and common hallways, you’d be forgiven for thinking each of the spaces is a completely different venue – the dance studio is deliberately at back with no natural light with a real ‘nightclub at 3am feel’ but it’s the sense of escapism and the experience of the class or zone being intrinsically matched to the architecture that makes this space so unique.

“When designing this gym concept, we looked at other spaces we enjoy being in – how do we create a place where we could spend time, not just wanting to go there but also a place you genuinely look forward to going out to?” Justin said.

The space creates a softness not often achievable in gyms, with curved concrete rendered walls and polished concrete floors. The materials are often not the focus in an exercise driven environment.

“Jumping on the computer, catching up on some work or dwell time. That’s what’s missing in a regular gym. Generally we wanted to design a space that’s beautiful and doesn’t look like a gym, but more like an exclusive spa,” Justin said.

Justin admits many gyms fail with bad Celine Dion playlists, fluorescent lighting and white walls but it really should be a place we go to get away from our drab offices with poor lights and white walls, or our places of work that aren’t conducive to stress relief.

“The future of fitness and wellness is all about going somewhere we enjoy and having the resources to feel well and not just work out,” he said.

For the build, Justin and co-founder Serra Burmin took inspiration from the natural environments where you wouldn’t usually expect a natural aesthetic. Rendered walls with a warming feeling and no harsh corners are more common in relaxed spaces and not a fitness facility – it immediately feels comfortable due to the curvature and flow of the space.

No expense was spared even on the walls. Typically the wall would be rendered then painted but this time it was colour mixed render for depth and quality of finish. It radiates a soft pink and brown depth of undertone, and doesn’t look like just a colour that you get from paint alone. Adding to this vibe, the lighting changes depending on the time of the day.

Transformed from an old tacky two dollar shop and an opening scheduled for July 3 just a week after a three month lockdown began, it was a challenging time and the delay to reveal the space to a somewhat post-lockdown Sydney couldn’t come quick enough.

The playground is smattered with sexy statement pieces from lighting to lush details and it’s the little things that give it warmth and create a sense of escapism. At only 12 metres wide but 40m metres in length, the design was paramount to create a sense of space with limited room to move in some areas.

“We had to waste real estate to enhance experience. We could have added another studio without so much dwell space but we would have compromised the overall aesthetic,” Justin said.

The build didn’t come without challenges, the premises was leaking halfway through the build and the stormwater started to flood – they had to dig up the floor and re-do it. They went over budget to get it right but the experience was something that couldn’t be compromised.

“We had a clear vision of what we were trying to achieve – we had this idea to go or in and then scale back but by the time the design came to life we found it very difficult to eliminate things. We just had to grit our teeth and hope for the best,” Justin said.

Ultimately, the final result was double the expenditure of what was originally proposed but it’s the positive feedback that by far outweighs this concern. Real terrazzo and micro cement floor are all expensive features, even just using tiles instead of micro cement would have saved more than $150K, according to Justin.

With any experiential space it’s also important not to forget the core values of your brand. Wellness Playground is still a gym business, a people business and an experience business and over the last few years has started to morph into an education business.

“We already educated fitness professionals, broached virtual fitness and now we’ve covered wellness,” Justin said.

With a new Zetland gym coming soon and a continued focus on people and experience, wellness will continue to be key to the future of the Fitness Playground fold. It will also become a brand of leading experts supporting this overall cause and concept.

“That sector at the moment is extremely fragmented with the experts – a good physio is not at the same place you work out but we will change this,” Justin said. “We don’t really have the Merivale of physio therapists – we rely on a referral and hope that they’re good.”

Fitness can be so much more than aesthetic and bigger muscles by merging with the right health experts. Ultimately the feeling when entering a gym should be about a journey and not just a process.

Having recently won Young Entrepreneurs of the Year for the National Business News Awards, is testament to this achievement and growth trajectory that’s far from over.

“We primarily have a demographic of between 20 to 40 going to the gym and as we start hitting 50s and 60s, there is a different cause for benefit,” Justin said.

The fitness industry can play a really big role on getting onto things early before we need medication especially after last year’s lockdowns – people didn’t have the opportunity to disconnect from everyday life and mental health becomes an issue.

Having day spa type facilities on a regular basis without the costs, with the option to connect, or relax by doing yoga or going to the sauna, is what we need for optimum mental health and clarity.

“The connection between physical health and mental health is proven, unfortunately, most gym environments fail to address the importance of how people feel in the space. Often going to the gym can be intimidating or uncomfortable, making people feel worse, not better. We repositioned our thinking and wanted to design a gym that prioritises how people feel, not just what they do in the space and how they look,” Justin said.

That’s all in addition to Fitness Playground’s existing Marrickville gym, which is a level upstairs from the new Wellness space. The upstairs high-intensity gym offers high-energy classes, equipment and spaces, including the Battleground group-training studio, an immersive spin studio, cardio area and free weights. In total, there are five studios, 200 classes a week, spanning 2,200sqm of gym, in what is expected to house well over 5,000 members.

In an industry that is being dominated by single-service offerings, creating a Wellness “playground” where all experiences are housed under one roof is going against current trends.

Don’t like going to a gym studio? Welcome to the new world of wellness.