Austin Gyms Where Fitness and Friendships Create Community
Five neighborhood workout groups offer more than just a good sweat
Photographs by Matt Rainwaters
Of the Lion Fitness
Owner and coach David De Leon founded his strength and conditioning facility, Of The Lion Fitness, by embracing the power of strong family values. Hence the name. (David’s surname directly translates to “of lion.”)
“Our name for me is so impactful,” De Leon says as he admires the gym’s sign bearing a lion with a golden mane. “Family has always been the most important, and that’s what’s most important about this place as well.”
De Leon and his wife, Courtney, the director of OTL’s boot camp program, were high school sweethearts and have been working as a team ever since. With David’s outgoing personality and leadership skills and Courtney’s knack for being detail-oriented, this husband-and-wife duo created a place where members can work toward their fitness goals in a space that feels like a second home.
“We’re all going through something,” David says. “We understand that everyone at the gym has a completely different background. Maybe they are going through divorce or a job change. But we want to create an environment where for one hour, they come in, they get after it and work super hard. It’s very challenging, but they can forget all about that other stuff.”
De Leon believes fitness is “a vehicle to create community and camaraderie,” and so OTL emphasizes the importance of positivity and quality.
Located in an upscale warehouse on North Lamar, the fitness center is complete with four certified coaches, high-end equipment, nutrition programs, indoor classes, boot camps and De Leon’s motto engraved on a white wall in front of the gym: “Effort over everything.”
Every indoor class revolves around an eight- to 10-week cycle built on three parts: warmup, strength and work. Whether it’s strength endurance or a volume cycle, the De Leons believe that group fitness is more than just nailing that last round of a workout. It’s about finding support — and accountability — in being part of a team.
David says members can expect to be challenged physically and mentally during every workout. But the overall goal is to take these skills and apply them not only at the gym but in their everyday lives.
OTL member Jenne Fanning started taking her twin boys to the fitness facility and was surprised to watch her boys grow a great deal in maturity and mindfulness after becoming part of the OTL community.
“Being around adults making smart choices enables them to make smart choices,” Fanning says. “I didn’t know this when they started going, but in addition to physical strength, there’s also a mental strength they have gained in training with OTL.” – Vanessa Blankenship
Comedor Run Club
The first rule of Comedor Run Club: You talk about Comedor Run Club. Austin’s food and beverage professionals are publicly — and proactively — fighting the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse, notorious issues within the industry given the punishing hours and permissive atmosphere.
Comedor co-owner and pastry chef Philip Speer has faced his own battle with addiction, some of it public knowledge due to his four DWIs. Following a 10-day jail sentence in 2015, he went to rehab, started running and found a new lease on life in the process. Today, he’s in good health, motivated, notably slimmer and on top of his professional game.
Speer credits much of his personal growth, professional redemption and the club’s success to living in a supportive community. “Austin is very progressive with regard to health and wellness in general,” he says. “It just kind of bled into the food and beverage industry, and now there are businesses and organizations that help employees who are struggling.”
When Speer and fellow chefs Gabe Erales and Alan Delgado started doing daily runs last April, it was a means of escaping the kitchen. They documented their activity on Instagram, initially as a joke, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. “People wanted to know how they could join us,” says Speer.
The club isn’t limited to the sober or sober-curious, experienced runners or even those in the industry. “We get people who walk or bring their dogs or strollers,” says Speer. “This is accessible to everyone, and we make a point of starting together and finishing together, no matter how long it takes. It’s important that we end every run with a group high-five. It’s about building community and creating a new space in our industry for camaraderie and health.”
Comedor Run Club meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 a.m. Speer estimates between 10 and 30 participants show up at any given time, and discounts are also offered to members at select running shops. They follow the same 5K (3.1-mile) loop over Lady Bird Lake and back, sometimes ending at Fixe, where executive chef/ club member James Roberts refuels his colleagues with biscuits.
The club’s roster reads like a guide to the Austin area’s best restaurants, bars, farmers, ranchers and purveyors; even visiting industry professionals join when they’re in town, and chefs in other cities have reached out, asking how they can start running clubs. Speer, for his part, couldn’t be happier. “In this business, we all talk about being better, but this is about putting it into action. It’s changing the culture.” – Laurel Miller
With more than 12 years’ experience in the fitness industry, personal trainer Robin Atwood strives to create communal workout spaces where families can exercise without leaving the comforts of home. And with multiple professional certifications, including from the NASM, the NSCA and the AFAA, Atwood proves she has what it takes to guide people on their health and fitness journeys.
Utilizing the household by transforming the garage, library or even a spare bedroom into a home gym is easier than one might think, and Atwood argues it even pushes homeowners to hold themselves to a higher accountability and commit to a workout schedule.
“Not everyone needs a giant gym to get a great workout,” Atwood says.
Atwood likes to take a holistic approach to wellness by combining nutrition, mind-body conditioning and one-on-one personal training sessions to help her clients focus on feeling better as much as looking better.
Clients begin with Atwood’s version of a detox, a six-week period when they focus on flexibility, stabilization, balance and strengthening the core, as well as healing practices like yoga and Pilates. Simple drills, like reteaching clients how to stand correctly, are a priority for Atwood during this period.
This method has been life-changing for the Anderson family.
Training with Atwood has allowed the Andersons to improve their physical fitness and heal injuries, some of which have been present for years.
Atwood’s fitness journey with the family started two years ago when she began training Dick Anderson. The family patriarch had played college football and was recovering from severe knee pain after undergoing five surgeries. Doctors told him he should never attempt to squat again, but Atwood kept him moving through water aerobics. The natural buoyancy of water helped him focus on flexibility, joint mobility and balance.
These water exercises are also helping him recover from a recent rotator cuff surgery.
“His shoulder is doing great,” Atwood says. “He’s going to see the best results from this surgery alone because we didn’t stop moving the entire time.”
Training with Atwood eventually became a family affair.
Twenty-year-old Charlie Anderson was experiencing shin splints and knee and ankle problems, on top of struggling to gain muscle mass. After training with Atwood consistently five days a week and implementing her meal plans into his diet, he now has a successful career playing basketball at Rhodes College, in Tennessee.
“We’ve all been super athletic, but we have the tendency to get injured and not recover well,” says Lindsey Alfano, the oldest sibling in the Anderson family. “But Robin has completely changed that.”
The 26-year-old broke her tailbone last year while giving birth to her daughter. The new mother was struggling with alignment issues, but after starting trigger point therapy with Atwood, she made a full recovery. Since then, she trains with Atwood alongside her family twice a week.
Referred to as “the commune,” the Andersons’ home is where the family of five feels not only stronger but more connected when working on their health and fitness together.
“My parents’ house has always been the gathering place,” Alfano says. “It’s the place where we feel the most at home, and we all get to be together. It just always made sense to have that be where we work out as a family.” – Vanessa Blankenship
The Little Yoga House
For the past eight years, Abby Nagler has created a community for families to practice mindfulness at The Little Yoga House. There are few opportunities where parents can learn a new skill alongside their children. But at this wellness center, teaching families to incorporate lighthearted and playful yoga techniques is giving the whole family a chance to connect mind, body and soul — together.
Whether it’s “baby and me” yoga, family yoga, toddler classes or aerial yoga for older kids and adults, co-owners Nagler and An Dang offer yoga practices that give families a noncompetitive bonding experience in a peaceful environment.
“Some parents won’t ever miss a Saturday morning family class because that’s their time to connect with their kids,” Nagler says.
Since the summer of 2018, Louise Ewing and her husband, Austin, have been taking their 3-year-old daughter, Ellie, to the “toddler and me” class every Saturday morning.
From practicing breathwork to instilling yoga principles driven by nursery rhymes, the Ewings believe the classes benefit parents who want to learn more about self-care, meditation and calming techniques that will help their little ones navigate life’s future challenges.
“It’s important for us to be connected, and it really helps us do that,” Louise says. “My husband and I work full time, so this is a really nice thing for us to do as a family on a Saturday morning, to bring us all out of our heads and into our bodies.”
Nagler and Dang have been building a family-friendly yoga community since they opened their first yoga house in Clarksville back in 2012. The two yogis during that time were teaching yoga classes only for kids. Since then, they’ve expanded their teachings to focus on family connection by opening a yoga studio in 2016 and a mindfulness-based preschool in the fall of 2018 called the Yoga Peace School. Nagler operates the studio while Dang teaches at the school by using the peaceful approach to learning method.
“There is a peaceful way to resolve any sort of problem there is, and so that’s going to be our initial approach to any situation,” Dang says.
The studio also offers classes on aerial yoga, movements and poses that are practiced on silk hammocks that hang from the ceiling. For Nagler, the aerial sessions are magical because she gets to witness kids transform and grow after trying something new.
“It helps kids become just a little bit more in tune with their body, a little bit more aware of their interactions with other people and their surroundings,” Nagler says. “We’re giving them all the tools they need to sort of strive and live a happy, healthy life.” – Vanessa Blankenship
University of Texas senior Archer Hadley never thought he would be able to participate in high-intensity workouts. But now, he starts every weekday at Titan Evolution.
In a warehouse tucked away across some railroad tracks in downtown Austin, the glow of daybreak pours through the gym and onto the gray tumbling mats as Hadley wheels himself inside with his electric wheelchair.
Despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, Hadley has been determined to improve his range of motion and strengthen his core with help from trainer and gym owner Kevin Edwards.
After being turned down by multiple trainers in the past, Hadley says “this is literally the only place in Austin where I can work out.” That’s because Edwards, who opened Titan Evolution in 2013, is ready to do whatever it takes to help Hadley accomplish his goals.
“We’re going to start working and doing things he thought he could never do and things he wants to do,” Edwards says. When asked what makes Titan Evolution extraordinary compared with other gyms, Hadley’s answer is simple and sweet: Kevin.
“He just treats me like everyone else, and that’s what makes it so unique and so productive for me because there is no barrier of fear,” Hadley says. “He’s going to make me work as hard as everyone else does, if not harder.”
Before his workouts, Hadley greets the “morning crew,” a handful of Titan Evolution regulars who train every morning at 7 a.m., and the K-9 companions found running through the gym alongside his service dog, a 5-year-old black lab named Pepe, who’s off-duty and often playing fetch with a ball while Hadley works out.
Meanwhile, “Louis da bulldog” — Titan Evolution’s honorary mascot — frolics with Pepe and enjoys napping on gym mats or howling at passing trains when he’s not building up his following on Instagram.
Hadley’s training sessions usually consist of four to five exercises ranging from cardio on a rowing machine to pulling battle ropes to lifting kettlebells.
Edwards is constantly brainstorming new ways to test Hadley’s motor skills, and the rowing machine is one example of how he will tweak an exercise to meet the college student’s capabilities. Says Edwards: “What can we do with this kid that’s different but will help him?”
By elevating the front of the rower against the gym’s front desk, Hadley can complete an upper-body workout, often reaching over a thousand meters on the machine.
For Hadley and his mother, Barbara, coming to Titan Evolution has been life-changing, not only because Hadley’s physical strength is improving immensely, but because of the relationships they are forming with the other gym-goers, who sweat alongside Hadley as they complete the workout Edwards writes on a board at the front of the gym every morning. Each week of the month has a different theme: strength, speed and strength, work capacity and barbell complex.
“You have to watch your diet, and you have to be disciplined to exercise. But if you can find joy in it and if you can find a family while doing it — I mean, for us, it makes it so much better,” Barbara says.
The Hadleys’ nonprofit, Archer’s Challenge (archerschallenge.org), was an idea that developed when Archer was a student at Austin High School. After getting stuck outside when his aide wasn’t there to open the door, Hadley decided to raise money to install electric doors in the school. Students and teachers donated to the fundraiser for an opportunity to navigate their school day in a wheelchair.
The Challenge became a huge success and enough money was raised to install five doors as well as a ramp. Since then, Hadley has taken the Challenge to other schools and many local businesses to give others the chance to experience what it’s like to use a wheelchair. For more on Archer’s Challenge including how to participate, go to tribeza.com/archers-challenge. – Vanessa Blankenship