One day in January, a regular customer stopped by Fuel Training Studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts, to take a “shredding” lesson. She hadn’t set foot in a gym since before the pandemic.
A client told owners Julie Bucat and Jane Carter that she used to work out at home alone in her basement, but she slowly became less enthusiastic and would sometimes work out in her pajamas without breaking a sweat.
Bukat quotes her as saying, “I was bored with what I was doing, and here I am.” I’ve heard similar comments from clients who returned after more than two years working in a converted basement or home office.
During the “dark days” of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Buccatt and Carter moved equipment outdoors to hold classes in the parking lots and a greenhouse they built for the winter. They also held classes online, but attendance was down 70%. They weren’t sure it would continue to work.
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They were not alone. Gyms and fitness studios have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic, with closures and then restrictions on the number of people who can be allowed into classes and workouts. Unlike bars, restaurants, and live venues, there has been no industry-specific federal aid given to health clubs. Twenty-five percent of American health clubs and studios have closed permanently since the pandemic began, according to the National Health and Fitness Alliance, an industry group.
For gyms that have weathered the worst, signs of stabilizing are afoot. Foot traffic to fitness studios was up about 32% in the first two weeks of January 2023, compared to 2022, according to the latest data from Placer.ai, which tracks retail foot traffic.
At Fuel Training, the greenhouse is gone, as are the spin classes in the parking lot. Attendance is still down 35% from 2019, but Bukat and Carter say more people are coming every day. Gym-goers say they miss the sense of community a gym can provide.
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“I feel very positively about this guy,” Bucat said, “If we keep our community through these darkest days, he can climb from there, and he really has.”
Many gyms and fitness studios have had to quickly diversify their offerings in order to attract customers during the pandemic — and some say the changes have worked so well, they’re permanent.
Jay Codio, who owns the New York City personal training club, has gone from nine to four trainers during the pandemic and has had to switch to online training sessions. In 2021 he moved to a different location with a lower rent and began renting space to others in the health and wellness industry including physical therapists and massage therapists.
“Everyone was worried during COVID, so we just need to lower the rating a little bit,” he said. “We had to change the paradigm to succeed—almost taking a step back, taking another step forward.”
Now, he’s back to six coaches, but he plans to keep the new business model by renting out space to hedge his bets in case of another downturn.
In its new space, Codio is limiting people on the floor to 10 or 12 people so customers can feel more comfortable with COVID. But he says most of the clients he sees are “beyond COVID,” and aren’t as concerned about the disease as they once were.
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“If someone is concerned there are measures we’re taking, we have masks on or we have them on during different hours when there are fewer people,” he said.
For Jessica Benheim of Lumos Yoga & Barre in Philadelphia, some pandemic changes have led to a business boom. Not only has it returned to pre-pandemic levels of attendance, it recently opened a second location.
Demand returned to normal in the summer of 2022, Benheim said. She raised the class price from $5 to $25 to offset higher costs for staff wages and cleaning supplies, but she says that hasn’t deterred clients.
Benheim credits two pandemic changes with helping demand recover: outdoor classes and limited class size. She started outdoor classes from April to October during the pandemic at a nearby community garden out of necessity, but now has no plans to stop them.
“People love being outside, especially when it’s really nice in the spring, even in the summer when it’s hot,” she said.
The class limit remains 12, down from 18 pre-pandemic. She is making up for the shortfall by offering more classes in her studios.
“I think it gives everyone a little bit more room, you know, just having a few extra inches between the mats, and people really appreciate that.”
When the pandemic first hit, Vincent Miceli, owner of Body Blueprint Gym in Pelham, New York, predicted that 30% of his clients wouldn’t come back. He underestimated.
Miceli believes about 30% of its members have left Pelham, a bedroom community near New York City, and moved elsewhere. 30% changed their habits and completely stopped exercising.
Now, he’s seeing slow growth, similar to pre-pandemic levels, of about 5% per month as at-home exercise loses its luster. It’s still about 35% down in terms of customers where it was in February 2020. He said most of the new customers are people who haven’t worked before.
“This gives us a whole new kind of lifeline for the company,” he said. Personal training is booming at 60%. He focuses on fewer classes tailored more to his current clients, such as a strength and conditioning class called “Strength in Numbers” for women 40 and up.
He says people’s concern for health outweighs their fear of getting sick at the gym.
“I think the severity that unhealthy people have had over the past few years makes people who haven’t done any fitness care more about it,” he said.
Miceli’s business has recovered to the point that he’s ready to start opening other locations.
“I think personal fitness will never go away,” he said.