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Chill out, work out with a Midtown Athletic Club winter wellness staycation

I have a confession. I love water aerobics.

That’s why, though the grueling grind of a boxing class called to me just before 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I began my weekend of wellness at Midtown Athletic Club by slipping into a glistening pool for 45 minutes of high-intensity splashing.

Midtown’s pool deck is a warm and welcoming space, a mingling of gray concrete, chestnut-brown wood and a wall of faux greenery that makes the room seem light and alive. It’s the exact kind of place you want to be on a frigid January morning.

Fourteen of us took over two lanes, including three men — so get that water aerobics gender bias out of your head — and we thrashed away, moving vigorously through the water for a fantastic, soul-warming full-body workout.

Deciding how to start my day was borderline agony. When checking in the previous evening at The Hotel at Midtown — the 55-room lodging perched above Midtown Athletic Club — the hotel manager made a point of emphasizing what is arguably Midtown’s biggest draw, whether as a club or a hotel.

“We have 206 classes per week,” he said brightly.

Those 206 classes, which take an astonishing number of forms, were what drew me to Midtown for a January weekend of warmth and wellness. If I ever got bored, there were rows and rows of machines. But getting bored wasn’t possible. And that was the idea behind Midtown’s revamp late last year.

Founded nearly 50 years ago at the intersection of Fullerton, Elston and Damen avenues as Midtown Tennis Club, the property has been reinvented for a modern audience. The bottom three floors, which opened Labor Day weekend, make up the 100,000-square-foot Midtown Athletic Club (where 16 of the original indoor tennis courts remain). The top two stories, which debuted in November, house the hotel.

As a health club, it’s impressive. As a hotel, it is without rival. As the architect told me during a tour a few months back, it’s “6 percent hotel, 94 percent amenities” — a ratio you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

As a result, Midtown offers a very different sort of hotel experience. The focus isn’t simply on a stay — it’s on activity. And for the right audience, the concept is both charming and novel. The hardest part of going to the gym is often, in fact, going to the gym. How much easier would it be to just stumble out of bed and into a class? Onto a treadmill? Into the pool? A stay at Midtown allows that.

Our fifth-floor room — overlooking the Kennedy Expressway and rows of billboards and rooftops, followed by that iconic, brooding Chicago skyline — was simple and sleek, comfortable but with few frills. It was long on wood surfaces, and the decorative touches largely amounted to a broad, textured painting hanging above the bed. Four complimentary bottles of Midtown-branded water — refreshed each morning — sat in the mini fridge below the coffee maker.

I awoke that first morning, a Saturday, a little after 7, as a sherbet orange sunrise crept from behind the skyline. An occasional heavy thumping emanated from below. (Weights tossed around in the club? This is why I always travel with a white-noise machine.)

Fueled by half a cup of coffee, an energy bar and one of those Midtown bottles of water, I headed to the pool for my water workout. It wasn’t yet 8, but the weekend workout warriors were already filing in, game faces on. Many were headed for the tennis courts. I slipped into the pool where a petite sparkplug of energy named Ellyse Kummer stood at the edge of the pool in workout clothes.

“Is this anyone’s first time?” she called out.

A handful of hands went up.

“What are you expecting? Are you expecting to sweat?”

Once a premier tennis club, Midtown Athletic Club changes with the times and adds a hotel and modern fitness center. The Hotel at Midtown opens Nov. 10, 2017. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)

Once a premier tennis club, Midtown Athletic Club changes with the times and adds a hotel and modern fitness center. The Hotel at Midtown opens Nov. 10, 2017. (Phil Velasquez / Chicago Tribune)

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Before anyone could answer, she said, “Let’s go!” And we were warming up with arms and legs surging through the water. On we went to resistance and cardio work, then swam out to the 8-foot deep end to attempt the same exercises without the comfort of a floor below. Turns out you work a lot harder trying to stay afloat in 8 feet of water.

When we finished, Ellyse gave us a short pep talk about the benefits of a exercising in water — it’s a complete workout with total body movement, she said. Excellent for the core.

I had 90 minutes until my next class — finally, I’d lace up some gloves — which was just enough time to visit Chromium, Midtown’s restaurant overlooking the club’s snow-covered outdoor pool. The menu skewed more decadent than healthy, which forced me to think strategically about ordering ahead of a boxing class. I went with the sliced avocado, baked with an egg in each half (“Gluten- and grain-free!” the server said). I devoured it as the restaurant slowly filled with people fresh off the tennis courts, treadmills and weight room. In that way, a Midtown stay suddenly felt like an odd hotel experience. I was in rest and relaxation mode; everyone else was just at the gym.

Belly full, but not too full, I headed toward my 11 a.m. boxing class. Midtown Athletic Club had become a hive of activity across its three floors: running, leaping, lunging, lifting, pushing, pulling, crawling, tossing, throwing, grunting and sweating. Even at monthly membership rates of about $200, the club was clearly not hurting for constituents.

Millennials and Gen Xers were in particular abundance: lots of seemingly late 20s-through-late 40s folks peppered through classes with names such as Core Blast, BODYATTACK, SPRING, VOLTAGE and WERQ — nothing says “intense workout” quite like capital letters — plus ample yoga, water-based classes and Mindful Moment, a 15-minute meditation class.

But now, it was time for boxing.

Each of more than two dozen bags was claimed in Midtown’s dim, narrow boxing studio. Our instructor, a wiry retired fighter named Julian Collins, walked up and back, barking out orders. Tattoos lined his arms. He talked to us like actual boxers — what punches to throw and in what sequence. The most experienced among us knew what to do. Those of us new to throwing jabs just did our best as the sweat poured out and our arms turned to concrete. It was a glorious unfurling of energy.

“Punch through your target!” Collins hollered. “Leave it all here!”

It was a timely thought. Leave it all here. A workout in the middle of the city is often about relief and escape — from work, from traffic, from the kids.

We finished just before noon, and I’d felt as if I’d climbed a mountain. Everything was heavy. My chest heaved. I felt alive.

I stepped out of class to find a dozen people on a mock football field, broken into two teams to race to the middle of the turf, grab oversized stuffed objects and bring them back to their sides. This of course resulted in much laughter and good-natured wrestling and clawing as the two teams fought over the objects. It was like summer camp for adults. My water workout instructor from that morning stood in the middle of the field, officiating the scrum.