How Gyms Endured Through the Pandemic

By Jemima McEvoy Sunday, December 27, 2020

The past year has been extremely tough for gym owners and gym lovers alike. For the majority of the coronavirus pandemic, various state-by-state restrictions have meant that workout spaces were forced to keep their doors closed. As those restrictions lift and gym rats tentatively flood back, here’s an analysis of how the industry has persisted through these unprecedented circumstances—and how it’s getting back on its feet.

Many Months of Stagnation

The health and fitness industry, which was worth $94 billion in 2018, has been one of the hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, studies show.

“The importance and benefit of living a healthy lifestyle has not stopped with the spread of [COVID-19], but has instead changed dramatically,” explained an In Market Insights report on the virus’s impact on gym and fitness. “Americans seeking to reduce stress and stay fit looked for creative new ways to exercise and stay active at home.”

The overall industry damage is difficult to quantify. Several trends show just how dire the past months have been for health and fitness companies/locations, which have had to predominantly rely on government aid in the form of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, which have already dried up. For example, both 24-Hour Fitness and Gold’s Gym filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May and June, with Gold’s Gyms announcing the closure of 50% of its locations.

Additionally, a recent survey of 5,000 gym users found that only 31% have returned to their reopened clubs, showing that customer safety concern is persisting and may cause even further damage to a hemorrhaging industry. Of those surveyed, nearly one in five said they canceled their membership during lockdown, while 40% said they’d given such an action very serious thought. Big chains like Planet Fitness, Gold’s, 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness, and YMCA — in states that have reopened — are still seeing membership lags.

“Membership holders are likely to fall into a more moderate income bracket, so during a period of record unemployment, people may be budgeting by canceling or pausing gym memberships,” found one study.

Post-Pandemic Problems

One concerning indicator for brick-and-mortar businesses is the fact that many customers have seamlessly transitioned into remote fitness. Purchases of fitness and sports equipment rose nearly 23% since the start of the pandemic as people began transforming their homes into gyms—companies like Peloton and Mirror saw major sales boosts. A lot of fitness studios have themselves set up online classes, getting their instructors to teach over the internet. While this has helped keep businesses afloat through months of forced separation, there are some concerns that it may lead to a long-time shift in consumer habits away from in-person instruction/gym use.

However, the In Market Insights report insists this isn’t very likely: “A home or virtual workout is just not the same experience: the limited social interaction, absence of a coach or trainer, and the scarcity of professional equipment dramatically impacts the overall experience.”

People love going to the gym so much that NPR reported on a pandemic-era trend of speakeasy gyms—workout studios which worked covertly, drawing in a small number of “refugees from big chain gyms like the YMCA and Planet Fitness, which had followed state orders and closed.” As states have begun to relax their COVID-19 restrictions, despite many still seeing rising cases and record hospitalizations, these underground gyms are no longer necessary. However, there is the question of how fitness studios are adapting to a new era of heightened safety concerns and paranoia.

The Reality of Reopening

“Whether or not the recovery in health and fitness clubs is V shaped or U shaped will likely depend partly on how effectively studios execute their reopening strategies,” concluded Eisner Amper. “Clients will need to feel assured that all measures available are being taken to keep them safe. Online options will be an important back-up plan, and consumers will also likely look for flexible membership terms.”

Though different gyms are following their own different strategies, most reopening plans look somewhat similar, focused on comforting clients on the safety of coming back. A key measure is capacity limits, which some states, like New York and California, have required, while other gyms choose to self-enforce. Then, there is the mandating (or strong encouragement) of personal protective equipment—masks, gloves, etc.—among staff and members. Members are expected to take this equipment off when working out, but should keep it on at all times before and after. Hand-washing is also extremely important.

In addition to setting new gym rules like those mentioned above, many places have restructured the interiors to cut down person-to-person contact. For example, decreasing the number of machines and putting larger spaces between them so that people aren’t on top of each other. Furthermore, placing hand sanitizer stations around the location is absolutely vital, and a core pillar of most gyms’ reopening plans. Most gyms are putting more emphasis than ever before on the importance of wiping down equipment and checking the temperature of members before they enter.

Then there are the strict precautions among employees that most gyms are imposing. New York Sports Club, for example, makes “every employee and member complete a mandatory Daily Health Screening before each club visit to make sure they are symptom-free,” according to the NYSC website, adding: “All staff and members will get temperature checks upon entering the club before they begin their workout.”

Boutique fitness brands like Orangetheory and Pure Barre, which are heavily “class” focused, have had less of a problem drawing back interest because of their unique ability to control class sizes and enrollment, and have meticulous cleaning procedures. Bigger chains, on the other hand, have faced larger losses. As a result, in addition to reopening with the precautions mentioned above, some chains have opted for more creative solutions.

For example, Equinox opened a fully functional outdoor gym in the heart of Manhattan in early October for those who still don’t feel comfortable working out indoors. The gym, “Equinox+ In The Wild,” is available to full members, and includes tile, rolled rubber flooring, and surround-sound speaker systems to mimic how the club looks indoors, as well as special treats including a Broken Coconut food truck, a personal training area, and a tufted playground.

About the Author


Headshot for author Jemima McEvoy

Jemima is a journalist who enjoys reporting on business, particularly small business and entrepreneurship.

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