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5 Questions with Orangetheory CEO Dave Long

The Orangetheory Fitness website boasts a bold promise—workouts designed to give you more energy, strength, results and changes at a cellular level. It’s a big claim, but devotees are committed to the company’s signature, high-intensity sessions, fueled by accountability, tracking and positive energy.

When CEO Dave Long founded the company with his partners in 2010, he saw that fitness was everywhere and seemingly everything had been done. How could they do something different for the consumer?

Despite the overall increase of spending in the wellness category, many people can’t afford weekly personal training sessions and often end up doing ineffective workouts or plateauing with a routine—or worse, they give up. That’s where Dave saw an opportunity to create a more effective workout and a roadmap for the busy but committed fitness consumer.

The interval training at Orangetheory is designed to help people who only have a few hours a week to work out well. Beyond just curating fitness, Orangetheory also offers coaching through its sessions, metrics tracking, and a proven formula for increasing fat burning outside of the gym.

According to Dave, the brand builds fiercely loyal members because people feel the effects of their efforts quickly. And unlike an intense bootcamp which may leave many feeling behind, the coaches help each member set personal goals as success is different for everybody. Dave and I met at the inaugural HLTH Conference in Las Vegas to discuss the Orangetheory brand and building out an ecosystem.

The Orangetheory name and signature workout are based on the ideal heart rate for fat burning. How much education do you find people need to understand the concept, and what’s the intimidation factor?

We’re careful to slowly ease people into the program. The first time you take a class, it’s just about getting comfortable with the environment. And then we build up the intensity over time. Your coach is really adept at knowing when it’s time to push it. We look at the heart rate across five zones, and your goal is to spend 12 minutes of your workout in the orange and red zones, which will ramp up heart rate to provide the best results, with continued burn after the class concludes.

The workouts will differ from day to day but the underlying architecture gives you the opportunity to get your heart rate in that zone during your 60-minute session. It doesn’t matter when it occurs as long as you get at least 12 minutes. People quickly understand that getting those 12 minutes in means more time in the fat-burning zone. This is when real change happens. The higher intensity revs your metabolism, so you will burn extra calories tomorrow from the workout today.

Education is an ongoing challenge—that and onboarding are so critical for what we do. When we open a new studio, we spend 3-4 months, demoing the Orangetheory workout and philosophy for people so that by the time we open our doors, we have a group of members who want to try it right away and already have a good understanding of what’s it’s going to be like. We also find there’s a good amount of word of mouth—people see changes in themselves, share that with their friends, and then bring them along to experience it themselves.

Your members are tracking heart rate and following metric goals—does this open the door to gamification?  

We’ve been thinking about gamification for a long time. Obviously, we started with all goals leading to accomplishing this 12-minute block of exertion. But we’re planning on rolling out tracking on a much more comprehensive level. We’re sprinkling different challenges and events throughout each month where people can push themselves further and track their results in more detail. It’s so motivating to see where you are, how far you’ve come and what the impact is.

We’ve built a platform to track treadmill and rower data, and, eventually, we’ll get the floor exercises, too, so you’re not just getting calories burned and your 12-minute target, you’re now getting all these other metrics that are showing these vast improvements that you’re making and what it means.

Eventually, we’d like to branch out to nutrition, sleep and more, but first we want to capture all the data within the studio, as well as fitness outside of the studio. So if you’re a runner three times per week, you can get a full picture of your exercise and not just what happens at Orangetheory.

What are your consumer engagement strategies outside of the gym? How does Orangetheory stay top of mind with consumers?

Building the brand around a community has really helped to shape our ecosystem. Our members and staff engage in a lot of local events—including 5Ks and charity programs—that make sense because of a shared passion for Orangetheory. There are all these micro-communities within the studio walls. So that’s one piece of it. The second piece will be how we leverage our app 2.0 that’s coming out and provide meaningful, beneficial content.

We already know what you’re doing during your workouts. Now, how do we give you other pieces of information and allow you to customize your offering? If you want more information about sleep, and you want to learn about how much that’s going to improve your workout or your body fat loss, we want to be a central hub for that. Lastly, we have to carefully find partners we believe will drive value to our members.

You’ve had great success with other wellness brands such as Massage Envy and European Wax Center. What learnings did you bring from these companies to Orangetheory?

Prior to those roles, I was in the health club industry space, so I had a foundation for fitness. Massage Envy is a really interesting product because, prior to its existence, people didn’t really have an avenue for convenient, reasonably-priced massage services. This brand changed the whole industry. The learnings were, one, if there’s a problem, figure out how to solve it, and, two, maintain quality and customer experience as you scale through a franchise model. European Wax Center is an even more niche market, and business is booming.

If there’s one lesson that I took away from those brands it’s do one thing really well. That’s so hard, especially if you’re going to scale to thousands of units. Massage Envy went 10 years before they added facials and European Wax Center focuses solely on body waxing. For Orangetheory Fitness, we’ve got to have this relentless focus on always making the product better and maintaining the customer experience at a high level.

Your panel at HLTH was titled “Contrarian Views to Achieving Health.” What’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there when it comes to health?

I think people are still really off about what they think of as “healthy” from a nutrition standpoint. The consumer continues to identify products that are really high in sugar, like juice, to be health products. One of the things we’re thinking about when we consider partners is, how can we educate our members, who typically are a little ahead of the curve, about how they can reduce sugar and have more balanced glucose?

Nutrino and Day 2 (fellow HLTH panelists) focus on this with their offerings, but it’s applicable to all consumers. The general public isn’t going to wear a continuous glucose monitor and track their food every single day, but we still need to work on the education piece around nutrition.

Most fitness programs, designed to impact your health, are conservative to avoid injury. However, if you don’t have enough intensity, you won’t move the needle in making major biomarker changes. Some consumers might be tentative about Orangetheory Fitness because of the intensity, but that’s what generates change. If you only have 2-3 hours to work out a week, you need it to be effective. If you’re only going to give it a couple hours, let’s make it be really impactful—and then you’re going to feel so much better and create a positive cycle.


Director of Marketing, InterbrandHealth