Fit for Life at La Palestra

Courtesy of La Palestra

Membership at the exclusive New York gym says you’re commited.

Though its name, from Greek and Roman times, means a public place for training and exercise, La Palestra, the Frank Gehry–designed fitness facility hidden beneath Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel (1 W. 58th St.; 212-204-2500; lapalestra.com) is anything but public. Its exclusive membership (capped at 175) includes luxuriously outfitted personal changing suites with private showers instead of wide-open locker rooms, and promises one-on-one training sessions with no more than three members on the floor at a time.

“People prefer to work out unobserved, and not be judged,” says Pat Manocchia, founder, owner and president. “They require a sense of safety and privacy to work out to their fullest capacity.” Members also have access to a full complement of health practitioners—internists, orthopedists, chiropractors, nutritionists, physical therapists and psychologists. The crux of Manocchia’s vision is to close the gap between the medical and fitness industries.

“Doctors need to understand exercise, its capacity and what it does,” he says. “They need to prescribe it instead of medicine. For example, exercise to lower your blood pressure instead of taking a pill. But exercising is labor-intensive and will lower the pressure in about eight weeks, whereas just taking that drug will lower it by the following week.”

Manocchia created La Palestra Center for Preventative Medicine in 1993, opening his first facility in the Hotel Des Artistes building at 11 West 67th Street. “It’s taken so long to expand because Pat wants to keep the product pure,” explains Ciarán Friel, the center’s medical director. “We change the overall ethos of coming to the gym—the things that affect the rest of our lives.”

It’s a mission that Manocchia has been pioneering for more than 20 years, and yet it can still be considered the wave of the future. “It’s radical,” he explains. “We’re way, way outside the box. What we’re really doing is a hybrid between the two—personalized health care with exercise geared toward making your life better. Our mission is to provide not necessarily a fitter but a better quality of life.”

And how does it compare with other gym memberships? I enrolled for three months to test it out (annual memberships, from $8,850). In the beginning, the process was tedious and daunting, just filling out the 17-page lifestyle questionnaire alone, and I frustratingly didn’t break a sweat in the first few weeks while learning the “proper, controlled manner to really feel the workout and gain strength.” But as the weeks went on and I drank more of the Kool-Aid, I realized the approach is very scientific. My trainer constantly checked my pulse and blood pressure throughout intervals to monitor cardio activity, because, as I learned, it’s not about working out your hardest till you’re ready to collapse, it’s about feeling your body change, the way your muscles react to each stretch. As Manocchia says, “It’s a commitment.”