Aspen’s last gym owner Jean Robert Barbette offers tips for 2023 |

Aspen’s last gym owner Jean Robert Barbette offers tips for 2023

Jean Robert Barbette at his gym in downtown Aspen.
Rick Carroll/TheAspen Times

Ah, New Year’s Day — that of headaches, hangovers, and perhaps a pang of guilt over the previous night’s indulgence.

But, if you’re feeling anything like Jean Robert Barbette is feeling today, it’s time to think positive, eat healthy, and break a sweat. JR, as he’s called, has been in the fitness business for 33 years in Aspen. He remembers when Aspen was bulging with seven health clubs.

Now, it’s shrunken to just Jean-Robert’s Gym and the publicly-supported Aspen Recreation Center. He started in 1989 with just 400 square feet of studio space in Aspen. Today, he boasts a facility that occupies nearly 14,000 square feet of space in the Aspen Athletic Club building at 720 E. Hyman Ave., along with two gyms downvalley.

“We run our business very lean, and we are 95% local, and we don’t depend on the tourists,” said Barbette, who came to Aspen from Belgium because he loved the skiing. “And, it is the location, a great location.”

Traditionally geared toward the physically fit-minded, health clubs are seeing increased demand from people working out to improve their mental health, he said. Exercising helps ease anxiety and depression through its release of natural brain chemicals called endorphins; there’s also the atmosphere of camaraderie that comes with social interaction at the gym, Barbette said.

“I never realized how much the need of a fitness center would be, unfortunately, for mental health,” he said last week. “If you had asked me in 2019, ‘How many people come for mental health and how many come for physical health?’ I would say 5% mental and 95% physical.’ Now, I would argue it’s probably 40% of people come here for mental health. They just want to see people; they just want to socialize. Mentally, they need this. In a community like us, which is very athletic, it’s the closest thing to a synagogue: a healthy environment.”

Another post-pandemic change came with more demand from young people and a decline in interest from older patrons, he said.

“This is basically where the shift happened because we lost that older clientele of the market; the 60 years and older, they didn’t come back. And, it brought that younger generation to the gym. It’s a complete shift.”

The younger set, however, are finding a positive outlet through exercise against a backdrop of constant distraction, he said.

“They get bombarded by all of this noise — by the drugs, by the alcohol, by gambling, sugar, and everything is going so fast to them,” he said. “This is like a place — here and in Willits, too — a place where kids come back to. They come here after school. They hang around and stay in a very, very healthy environment. It’s so important for them.”

Resolve not to quit

Results of a study conducted among 180 Australian and UK adults, released in November, showed most people’s resolutions concern exercise and improved diet, and nearly two-thirds of them ditched their resolutions within one month.

“Overall, our results tend to support the view that people are not particularly good at sticking to their New Year resolutions,” the study said. “This is despite participants initially reporting high importance of and commitment to the resolution, and the belief that they would stick to their resolution even in the face of obstacles and difficulties.”

Barbette’s advice to stick to your resolution? For starters, get a personal trainer — whether it’s for routine workouts or for monthly sessions.

“A trainer is very valuable,” he said. “If you can afford once a month, just do once a month.”

It’s also vital to get an A1C test to see your average blood-sugar levels over the last three months.

“You’d be surprised,” he said. “You think you’re doing well, and you thinking doing fine; you’d be surprised how high your blood-sugar is.”

The results of that test provide a number on which to improve, he said. “A normal A1C level is below 5.7%, a level of 5.7% to 6.4% indicates prediabetes, and a level of 6.5% or more indicates diabetes.

Within the 5.7% to 6.4% prediabetes range, the higher your A1C, the greater your risk is for developing type 2 diabetes,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In three months, you see where you are after you’ve exercised, and you can if you can bring that blood-sugar level down,” he said.

Barbette said he avoids sugar and alcohol entirely, though he admitted “sometimes in the season I have a little strawberry.”

Get a body-fat test next, he said, and, within weeks, you’ll notice you have burned that fat into muscle through exercise and working hard.

“Muscle mass has a lot to do with injury prevention,” he said, “and being fit; you go to the gym because you want to be able to do the other things you do. You go ski, you go biking, this is what you do: You train hard, you move your legs because you’re a biker or skier, to make sure you stay injury-free with whatever you do outside.”

Though Aspen has seen a decline in gyms, Barbette has actually expanded his organization’s footprint with a location at the Willits in Basalt and more recently in Glenwood Springs. He said the other locations capture business from commuters who might work out in Aspen on the weekdays but are without a place to exercise on the weekends.