I’ve owned my fair share of gym memberships. Each one was purchased with an “I’m going to get RIPPED!” optimism that I swore was long-lasting and life-altering. That enthusiasm held for a couple of weeks, until I found myself jogging on a treadmill for the 8th or 10th or 15th time, plodding at a sloth’s pace and trying to focus on the episode of “Snapped” playing on the TV in front of me but instead thinking over and over, “I’m tired, I need to slow down/lower the incline/find a quiet place to nap,” until I inevitably slow to stop, 17 minutes into what was supposed to be a 40-minute run. And then I leave, refusing to even make eye contact with the weights, because I’m ashamed and I just want to get home to where the tortilla chips are.

Maybe you can relate.

Some of us stink at self-motivation in the gym. Some of us could use a little help from an encouraging instructor and a wall-mounted heart rate display that knows when we’re working hard and when we’re absolutely not. For folks like that, the new Orangetheory Fitness in Portland might be an option.

The front desk at Orangetheory’s new location in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo

Orangetheory is a fitness franchise that began in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, several years ago and has since spread to locations around the country. The Portland location – set in the newly built plaza sandwiched between Marginal Way and Kennebec Street, where Chipotle lives – opened in December.

Much of the company’s promotion focuses on a 36-hour post-workout calorie burn that Orangetheory workouts are designed to achieve. I can’t speak to those claims, and frankly, promos like that tend to turn me off. But after the Portland location first opened, a few friends of mine started going and they had really positive things to say about it. Also, the first class is free, which means cynics can give it a try and see what they think. So I did.

A chest strap heart rate monitor. Orange Theory has their own monitors (so you can’t bring one you already own). There are chest strap and wrist monitors. The space is compact, but includes a row of treadmills, a row of rowing machines and strength stations. Shannon Bryan photos

At Orangetheory, it’s all about the heart rate. That number will be your guide during the hour-long group workout, letting you know when you’re right on target and when you need to amp things up or take them down. Heart rate zones are color-coded (gray, blue, green, orange, and red). You’ll be led through all of them, but during the workout you’ll focus mostly on green (your heart rate is elevated, but you still feel comfortable), orange (84-91 percent of your maximum heart-rate, you’re feeling less comfortable and more challenged), and red (high intensity, shorter bursts, this is when you go all out).

The wall-mounted display shows everyone’s heart rates in real time. This shot was taken at the end of class, showing everyone’s stats for the hour. Shannon Bryan photo

Your heart rate is tracked via a heart monitor – either a chest strap or bracelet. You can borrow one your first class, then rent or buy one if you become a member. (Orangetheory has its own monitors, so you won’t be able to use one you already have. The bracelet costs $99 and the chest strap is $69 to buy. Rentals are $5 per class.) During the workout, your heart rate is displayed on a large monitor in the gym for all eyes to see – a reality I wasn’t sure I was going to like.

(Truth: I like how I can pretend to increase the tension on my bike during a cycling class when the teacher tells us to “add another half-turn!” but my quads are dying already and I don’t want to add any more turns. Did I want everyone in the room to know whether I was giving Orangetheory 100 percent? That’s MY BUSINESS! Then again, considering my personal lack of fitness accountability, maybe some oversight isn’t such a bad idea.)

Heart rates on display over the treadmills at Portland’s Orangetheory location. Shannon Bryan photo

Each workout includes equal parts cardio and strength. There’s a line of treadmills on one wall and a line of rowing machines along the other (there’s an indoor bike and an elliptical, too, for folks whose bodies don’t do well on the other machines). In the back, there are numbered stations, each featuring a range of hand weights, TRX trainers, and other implements of exercise. And it’s all lit by orange-tinted overhead lights, which give the space a “Total Recall” vibe.

Left: mats, medicine balls, and step platforms. Right: strength stations with hand weights and TRX trainers. Shannon Bryan photos

The 9:15 a.m. Friday class I took in mid-January was completely full (class is limited to 24 people) and we self divided into two groups. Half of us started on the treadmills, the other half alternated between the rowing machines and the strength stations. As you might guess, we switch midway through the class.

On the rowing machines, which are pretty cool and use water resistance. Shannon Bryan photo

And here’s what I found: That wall-mounted heart rate display really did make me work harder. I kept referring to it, making sure I was working in the proper zone. It felt like a game. And when we were told to push ourselves into the red, go all-out, I did…except my heart rate told me that what I thought was “all out” wasn’t really all out. I was still hovering in the orange zone. My heart rate said I could do MORE. So I did more.


Turns out, that big screen is quite the motivator. (Also, I quickly realized that I had zero desire to look at anyone else’s heart rate, so I suspect no one else had any desire to see mine.)

Runners on treadmills, paying attention to their heart rates on the screen overhead. Shannon Bryan photo

The workouts change regularly (which is a perk for those of us who tend to do the same workout over and over) and the instructor walks you through all of it – and offers addition guidance and encouragement throughout. While the treadmills are fairly self-explanatory (once you figure out where the elusive “On” button is), it helped to see the instructor demonstrate the strength exercises.

Also neat: There’s a screen in the strength area that displays each exercise and the number of reps you should be doing, just in case you need a reminder.

Exercise demonstrations! Shannon Bryan photo

I was definitely panting and sweating throughout – my face red with effort. There’s no denying that I felt like I got one hell of a workout. Apparently my heart rate agrees!

Workin’ that core at Orangetheory Fitness in Portland. Shannon Bryan photo

If you enjoy going to a traditional gym – running on the treadmill, spending some time doing lunges and arm curls – but you struggle to really push yourself when left to your own devices, Orangetheory would be a solid option for you. You’ll have a heart rate monitor keeping you honest about your effort, as well as an instructor there to motivate you (and make sure your form is a-okay). I found folks to be pretty darn welcoming when I first arrived (the staff knew everyone by name as they walked in and the other people in class were friendly, too). Also, the instructor does a brief pep-talk before class begins and everyone walks into the workout room together, high-fiving the instructor on the way in. I thought it was an energizing way to start class.

End-of-class stretching. Shannon Bryan

I also find signing up for a class that takes place on a specific day and time works better for me than looser plans to just show up. Because then I never show up. Maybe you’re the same way.

Of course, if you like to just show up when it suits you, like you might do at your local gym, you can’t do that here. There’s a schedule of classes you’ll need to fit into (there are early morning and evening classes, as well as classes on weekends, so there’s likely something that fits your schedule, but it’s a point to consider). I suspect some classes fill up fast, so planning ahead is important. And Orangetheory is a franchise, which doesn’t really matter, but it does mean there’s a certain level of protocol and “Corporate” gets mentioned a bit.

But like all things, what matters is what works for you, and I can see why the heart-rate-on-the-big-screen works for people. I liked being held accountable, and I liked having a whole workout planned for me – things I’m not so great at on my own. And look how even-redder-than-usual my face is! That’s somethin’!

After-class camaraderie. If my red race is any indication, it was one hell of a workout! Shannon Bryan

Orangetheory Fitness

195 Kennebec St, Portland

Rates: Depending on the membership you choose, classes range from $7-$20. Drop-in rate is $28. First class is always free for local residents (call to register).

Heart rate monitor is free to borrow your first class, then you can rent for $5 a class or buy a bracelet monitor ($99) or chest strap monitor ($69).

Schedule: Classes seven days a week, including 5:15 a.m., 6:30 a.m., 9:15 a.m. 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. M-F, as well as classes at noon M, W, F, 5:45 p.m. M, W, F, 6 p.m. T, TH, and on weekends 7 a.m., 8:15 a.m., and 9:30 a.m. both Saturday and Sundays. – This schedule may change, so best to check with the folks at Orangetheory.

Note: The story was first published on January 31, 2017