Exercising on sand is making waves in Sherman Oaks

On a recent Friday morning, half a dozen women worked out to a playlist of energetic pop music in a Sherman Oaks gym as their toned, model-pretty instructor shouted words of encouragement. But there was one thing distinctly different about this picture: The clients were working out in sand — a 650-square-foot sandbox, to be precise.

Sandbox Fitness, which opened this past summer, is the brainchild of David Herskowitz, 32, and his wife, Minna, 27, the teacher for that Friday morning class. David is a Los Angeles native, and Minna is a Maryland import. The two met in L.A. in 2009 when Minna was visiting her best friend, who was dating David’s best friend. For a couple of years they dated long distance, while Minna finished her bachelor’s degree at Queens College in New York. Eventually, though, Minna moved west, and a few months later, the two were married. The Modern Orthodox couple, congregants at Shaarey Zedek, now reside in Valley Village.

Both David and Minna had several years in the health and fitness industry under their belts before opening Los Angeles’ first sand-floor gym. David taught women’s self-defense classes and worked for a nutrition company. Minna got certified to be a personal trainer at 18 and started working in the field right away. At one point, she tried a “normal job” — but hated it.

So how did they get from there to a gym filled with sand? Despite being models of fitness, both have longstanding injuries — that they did not get at Sandbox, they are quick to point out. David has a torn labrum (shoulder cartilage) and Minna a torn ACL. So they began working out at the beach, where their workouts were easier on their bodies.

In 2010, when Minna’s relatives came to visit, they asked the two to run them through a workout. “We said we would do it on the beach,” David recalled. “In 10 minutes, they were dead.”

It became apparent to the couple that the beach held a sort of magic: Not only did it greatly diminish the chance of injury, it also amped up the workout. The Herskowitzes flirted with specializing in personal training at the beach, but they felt this would be limiting, and that only beach-area residents would be interested. They wanted something they could offer everyone. So the question became, “How can we bring [the beach] to them?” David said. And then it hit them: a gym with sand. But the idea seemed far-fetched and plagued with obstacles, such as how to keep the sand clean.

“We shot it down ourselves because we were, like, how is that going to work?” Minna said. “We put it on the back burner.”

But when the couple learned about indoor sand volleyball facilities across the country, their vision seemed like it just might be possible.

“We did a ton of research,” Minna said. “We called every sand company.” They called some of those indoor volleyball spots, too, and went through their list of questions: How do you air [the sand] out? What do you put underneath?

After all, Minna explained, “You have to keep the sand moist so it’s not dusty.”

What they discovered was that every facility used more or less the same approach: watering and raking the sand daily to keep it clean, and installing waterproof plastic under the sand to prevent water from seeping into the floor and walls. They knew they wanted to be on a busy street where they could capture the attention of curious passers-by, so they rented a former yoga studio on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. They painted the walls sky blue and brought in 45,000 pounds of special sand that is silica-free (to avoid health risks associated with inhaling silica) as well as bacteria resistant.

During construction, the couple learned of two other sand-floor gyms: one in San Diego and one in Kansas. Both are quite new. But the Herskowitzes only learned of these when they were well into the process. Said Minna: “We really had to figure it out on our own. There wasn’t a model for it.”

Currently, Sandbox Fitness offers about 30 classes a week for adults (plus a handful of classes for kids). These include several types of classes. The most popular are the Surfset classes, which use surfboards mounted on air-filled pillows; when you’re exercising on the board, you need to work harder than usual to maintain balance. For newbies, working out on an unsteady surface can take some getting used to, but Minna said it takes just a few minutes to adjust. And there are real benefits beyond improved balance. “It works very small muscles you would never work otherwise,” David said.

“Your core is totally engaged the whole time,” Minna added.

The two other main types of classes are Sandworks, a bootcamp-style workout, and TRX, a popular exercise system that uses straps attached overhead for strength training and stretching. Clients can pay for individual classes, packages of multiple classes at a discount or a monthly membership.

When they initially opened Sandbox, the Herskowitzes offered a women-only class. They wanted to make this available to the Orthodox community, but soon learned there was not enough interest to maintain these classes. However, they do accomodate requests for both individual and group classes — in fact, Minna recently taught a class for a group of moms from a nearby Jewish day school.

Although Sandbox Fitness is just a few months old, the Herskowitzes are already talking about opening a second location over the hill. They also have fielded calls and emails from around the country from people who want a Sandbox Fitness in their neighborhood. Clearly, the concept resonates with people who, Minna said, are always looking for a new way to exercise.

“One of our clients summed it up perfectly,” David said. “She said, ‘I feel like I’m not coming in to work out. I feel like I’m coming in to play.’ ”